YOU can hear the hounds coming well before you see them. They sound like a ghost pack, their howling and baying rises over the hill to where we stand waiting. Conversation stops. And here they come around the bend of the hill, not on foot, but singing from the back of a white customized double-decker hound trailer pulled by a pick-up truck.
It’s not your traditional Currier-and-Ives foxhunting scene. There’s no red coat for the Master: he’s wearing a T-shirt and khaki trousers that are damp with dew and stained by pawprints from cuff to beltloops. Those of us who have volunteered to help as whippers-in on this muggy midsummer morning are equally casual: baseball caps instead of hunt caps, bermuda shorts and faded jeans instead of breeches.
Foxhunting is a winter sport, but the pack’s school days are in the heat of the summer when many of the hunt’s riders and horses are on vacation. Hound walks sound like a jaunt around the neighborhood, and it’s true that the basic exercise is important, just as it is for any house dog. But there are also two critical tasks on the hunt staff’s agenda when they open the back of the hound trailer and let the hounds rush out into the long summer grass this morning: to reinforce the steadiness of the older hounds and to integrate the first-season puppies, who will make their hunting debuts in September, into the pack.
The two puppies in today’s group are easy to spot. They are predominantly black and tan rather than the white and buff more usual in the Iroquois pack. And they are more easily distracted than their older packmates, who long ago wised up to the importance of keeping an eye on Jerry Miller, the Master who will be walking them today. Miller was the longtime amateur huntsman as well as Master at Iroquois, but he turned his hunting horn over to Lilla Mason, one of his whippers-in, almost a decade ago, though he is still crucial in their training. He is walking the hounds today while she is out of town. It’s a good opportunity to get his views on the pack he has bred and on hounds in general.
The puppies lollop around, sniffing cow pats and nosing up to the whippers-in standing quietly in a loose circle around the pack, but the older hounds don’t roam too far. They’re waiting for Miller to put on The Biscuit Bag.
The Biscuit Bag has intense appeal, because it is made up of pockets several inches deep, filled with colored dogs biscuits the hunt buys in bulk. Whoever slips it over his shoulders becomes a sort of Pied Piper.
But it’s not an absolute authority. If the pack comes across a night line–the scent line of a coyote that crossed the field overnight–they’ll choose a good run over biscuits any day. The only things that might stop them at that point will be the huntsman’s authority over them and quick thinking by us, the day’s volunteer whippers-in.
The whips act as the long arm of the law, heading off wayward or breaking hounds and pushing them back toward the huntsman–Miller, in today’s case. They’re forbidden, incidentally, to crack their whips except in cases of dire necessity, and are never to strike a hound. The whips can growl, extend their arms in front of a hound, unfurl the thong of their whips so that it hangs down, and waggle their whips in a warning, and generally that is all that is needed in any case to turn a hound–especially an older one that knows better–back to his huntsman.
The idea on hound walk is not to coerce, but to convince, not to intimidate, but to encourage. In short, to make it easy for the hounds to make the right decision: to stay with the pack and to listen attentively to the huntsman’s commands.
That takes a relaxed, happy hound, Miller says. To keep the hounds relaxed, he doesn’t harp at them to stay in a close bunch around him. He lets them range away from him, but still within the circle of the whips, calling to them when he spots one whose attention is wandering or whose nose is taking him a little too far afield.
The main points of interest for the hounds are two areas near a creek that borders the large cattle field. The creek is swollen and brown with eddies swirling on its surface today after a stormy night. Miller points to a place where it bends around a tree, forming a corner that’s filled with brush.
“Something lives down in there,” he says, then swivels right and points to another spot farther upstream. “And that’s a troublesome spot, too.”
Rather than risk the hounds breaking off on a run near the fast-flowing creek, he opts to keep them higher up the sloping field. Many of the 22 hounds in this group, roughly a third of the Iroquois hunting pack, are older, steady hounds. Some are graying around their muzzles and eyes, but they are still keen hunters.
“Some of these don’t look like they could do much anymore, but if they hit a line, they’ll be on it,” Miller warns.
“Take Stammer here,” he says, reaching down to scratch the ears of a heavy-boned older hound with a black and tan face and black ticking over most of his body. The hound was so sedate he had hardly left Miller’s side since we’d started the walk, usually padding along at a flat walk or, at most, a slow jog. “He looks so laid back and calm all the time. But he’d be right out in front if they hit a line, and he’d keep going.”
Miller stops at a gate and the pack moves behind him to wait for it to be opened. He laughs and flicks the lash of his whip gently at a hound sneaking too far forward on his left, attempting to get ahead when the gate opens. “Some of them might not look like much,” he says, “but they can still run like smoke.”
The two puppies in this in this group are Paper and Gaudy. The hunt has four puppies that will join the hunting pack this fall, and, to prevent chaos during their initial integration, the hunt staff has split them into two pairs. Paper and Gaudy walk with the first set of hounds at 8 a.m., and the second pair, Gaelic and Hailstone, go out with the rest of the pack at 10 a.m. In each case, the older, more knowledgeable hounds help keep the puppies in line and teach them the mores of pack life.
But puppies are like little embers in a pack, and each time they run, wrestle, or stray from the main body of the pack, it’s like a little brush fire flaring up. If the older hounds ignore the unruly behavior, it generally will burn out quickly on its own as the puppies get bored with it. But if an older hound joins in, or objects and gets aggressive with a puppy that won’t give up his game, it can disrupt the whole group.
As the pack crosses the next field, Paper catches the whiff of a black cow and her calf up ahead–a new sight for him. He trots forward to investigate. A few of the older hounds follow, spotting an excuse for some fun. They know better.
“Hey!” Miller yells. “HEY!”
Paper slows and looks over his shoulder at Miller.
The whips step in closer to Paper, their arms extended.
Miller, meanwhile, has gone silent and halted the rest of the pack well behind Paper and his new pals, and it’s clear Paper is beginning to feel insecure out on his own. With a final, sly glance at the cow as she trots away with her calf, Paper turns back toward the pack.
“When one does that, instead of screaming at him and all that, we just give it the opportunity to come back and get with the pack,” Miller explained. “That’s what we’re doing out here, is getting them to where they know they’re supposed to be with the pack. “
Miller tosses out biscuits as a reward both for the hounds that didn’t follow and for Paper and his friends, who heeded the order to come back.
“If we took out a bigger group, like 20 or 22 couple of hounds, you’d always have some hounds that didn’t get the attention they need,” Miller says. “What you’d find is that there would be five or ten hounds that were troublemakers. You’d end up giving them all the attention and saying their names all the time, while the good hounds wouldn’t get any attention from you. This way, with 11 or 12 couple, we can pamper the good hounds and give everybody the individual attention they need.”
That communication reinforces the bond between huntsman and hounds, spinning what huntsmen call “the golden thread,” a huntsman’s holy grail.
“Lilla and I try to say everybody’s name,” Miller says, reaching out to touch individual hounds as we walk or toss them a biscuit as he speaks their names: Finesse, Griffin, Stately, Alice, Parody. A well-known huntsman once advised against ever speaking a hound’s name when it is out with its pack, but Miller strongly disagrees.
“You’re not only reinforcing their names, but the connection between you and them,” he says. “If you’re out there and can’t call an individual hound and have it come, then you have a problem. If he’s the hound that is about to do something wrong, if you can’t influence him, you can’t influence the pack.
“And, remember, when you’re hunting out there on horseback, you don’t have this kind of help close around you,” he adds, indicating the whips striding along on the sides of the pack.
Miller moves on and has the whips spread out again to give the hounds more room to wander a bit on their walk.
“See those hounds over there?” he asks, pointing toward a group of five, noses down, sniffing and pawing at something in the grass about 25 feet away. “Some people would look at them and think they were out of control, off on their own like that. But say any hound’s name, and he’ll come back when I call it.”
“Try Harlequin,” I suggest. No sooner had I said the hound’s name than a brown and white hound in the group raised his head and looked inquiringly at Miller, then trotted obediently toward us.
“I promise you, they hear everything you say,” Miller says. “They’re listening and paying attention.”
The last stop before heading back to the hound truck: a shallow pond. It’s a chance for the hounds to cool themselves in the rising heat, but also another opportunity to reinforce pack discipline. Miller stops about five yards short of the shore and turns to face the pack.
“Get behind,” Miller says to the few hounds that try to bypass him and plunge into the water. The rest of the pack waits, facing Miller and the pond, like schoolkids before recess. A few stand up and bark at him, then fall silent, understanding that this will only prolong the lesson. Most sit still and wait, including Paper and Gaudy.
“They’re figuring it out,” Miller says of the puppies. “They’ve learned they’re supposed to sit down here and wait. They don’t know why yet, but they’re figuring things out.
“Now, those are some good dogs,” he says to the pack. Here and there tails thump in response. Then, almost under his breath, Miller says, “Whooooosh, whoooosh in there,” and on that quiet signal the pack surges forward into the water, baying and splashing joyously as Miller hurls biscuits into the water for them. Hounds leap to catch them in mid-air.
Sitting on the shore and watching are two older bitches, both white with the longer wiry hair that marks them as what the hunt staff call “woollies.” They are sisters, Finite and Finesse, and Miller and Mason refer to them as “two bodies, one mind.”
They are a testament to this hunt staff’s patience. They showed little real interest in hunting early on in their careers and usually could be found loping along together as if in their own world. But one day, something clicked.
“Lilla spotted them on a run out hunting one day near Blue Fox Farm,” Miller recalls. “She said over the radio, ‘It’s Finesse!’ I said, ‘No, you’ve got that wrong,’ and she came back on the radio and said, ‘And Finite!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
But there they were, the two sisters leading the whole pack.
“They lost 10 or 15 pounds that season because they finally started hunting,” Miller said. “Before then it seemed like they could just live on air. We used to feed them about this much”–cupping his hand–“and they still stayed fat because they expended so little energy on the hunt field.”
Such turnarounds can be difficult to predict, and time in the pack is often as good a teacher as any. But the hound walks lay a crucial foundation in the hounds’ early education, and continue to reinforce those important lessons as a hound matures.
“Out here, you’re teaching all the time,” Miller says. “If half of them are learning, you’re very fortunate, because you don’t have a lesson plan where everybody is definitely going to do this. You can say, ‘Everybody’s going to practice at the pond,’ and you can plan to practice having them stay behind you. And if you don’t have any other variables, it works. But if somebody takes off, you have to deal with that. That’s hounds, that’s just what they do. You have to realize what authority you have and what authority you don’t have. I think the only magic to doing this is just to do it every day until they get it right.”
Many thanks to Peggy Maness of Maness Photography for the photos accompanying this piece!