Corn, the puppies’ friend

Roading Sept 2009 001

“THE corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” or so goes the wonderful old Rodgers and Hammerstein song. The Bluegrass isn’t Oklahoma, where maybe it really does grow that tall (or else the elephants are smaller), but after a wet summer it’s looking good in the fields we see on our way to and from the barn.

When I think of corn, I tend to think in terms of how much feeding the horses is going to cost this winter, but Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason sees something else, too, when she gazes across a field of Zea mays. She also sees a training tool for the puppies in their first year with the pack. Lilla mentioned to me the other day that she always likes a nice cornfield during the early autumn cubhunting season, the weeks of informal hunting that precede the season’s formal start in November. Why corn?

Corn fields are inviting because they are more spacious and easier for hounds to get into and move around in than overgrown, brambly, thickety coverts. Corn offers a good opportunity for the puppies to get used to diving into coverts without encountering thorns or tough going their first few times. This year, the coverts are looking thicker than ever, thanks again to the abundant rain central Kentucky had through most of the summer months.

“I think I have a better chance of getting puppies into coverts if I can get to corn early on to teach them to go in. It’s easier than if the first thing they encounter is thick, briery undergrowth with stickers,” Lilla explained. “You can easily put the hounds in a big corn field and surround it with the field members.”

Which raises another question. How does a huntsman, especially when sitting on horseback, convince young, inexperienced hounds to run into a covert if they have doubts about it?

“Remember the exercise where we hold the hounds up at the pond?” Lilla said. “It might look like a parlor trick, but we do it for a reason, too. During cubhunting season, we’ll ride to a covert, then hold the hounds up and release them into the covert, just as we do at the pond in the summer. The older hounds will run in because they know coverts are interesting, but the puppies don’t know that yet. They run in because they were trained to run in after we hold them up. That’s what they were trained to do at that cue. So that’s one way we teach them to go in.

“But sometimes, even with that training, a puppy might not understand why it should stick its nose into a thick covert that’s got stickers. So during cubhunting we try to go to little coverts or cornfields, where you know you can get the older hounds in and you hope those older hounds will speak. Sometimes, it takes that to get puppies in if they don’t understand where they’re going. In a cornfield, often the older hounds will go in so fast the puppies get swept along before they can process what they’re doing, and once they get inside they might then come right back out again, looking for guidance. But if the older hounds speak, that really gets the puppies’ attention.”

Those who were out last cubhunting season might remember a good example of this with young littermates Starter and Stanway, who wouldn’t go into a corn field at first.

“They wanted to, but they weren’t sure about it,” Lilla recalled. “They looked at the covert, they could hear the other hounds inside it, but Starter and Stanway still couldn’t quite convince themselves. But when the older hounds started to speak, they shot into the corn, then popped right back out again. The older hounds kept speaking, and Starter and Stanway just couldn’t stand it. So they both dove in, popped back out to listen, and then went back in again.

“They did this a few times, and it was like they were sticking their toes in the water, just testing it. It was funny, but that’s how they learn. Once they figure out that when other hounds speak, they want to hark to it, then it drives them crazy not to, and they’ll jump right in. It’s fun to watch.”

Kind of gives “children of the corn” a whole new (and much nicer) twist. Needless to say, I’ll be keeping my eye toward the corn this cubhunting season to see how the Iroquois puppies respond.

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