TODAY was my first chance to step inside the National Sporting Library. Remember your first day at school? The bag full of notecards and paper, the yellow pencils, books everywhere? But imagine a school where you can read what you want to read, where you can while away six or seven hours a day poring over books and unique original documents about your favorite subjects. That’s what the National Sporting Library is like if you are passionate about horses, hounds, hunting, angling, sporting art, polo, and countless other delights. And it is open to the public, so pay them a visit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
Guided around by the library’s Liz Tobey and Lisa Campbell–both hound followers and researchers–I quickly found that the NSL has a lot more to offer than its treasure-trove of rare sporting books and personal papers. It has a first-rate art collection, including pieces by Munnings, Franklin Voss, Michael Lyne, and Lionel Edwards, among countless others. It has sculpture, including a small Herbert Haseltine bronze depicting his idea of the perfect Thoroughbred. It houses the late Paul Mellon’s collection of weathervanes, which range from the beautiful to the whimsical. It houses a complete collection of The Chronicle of the Horse, whose office is right next door, numerous bound volumes of the old sporting magazines that proliferated in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and shelves, almost as far as the eye can see, occupied by years’ worth of the red-bound annual Baily’s hunting directory. And there are audio and video materials, including videotapes and DVDs of foxhunting in England, Ireland, and the U.S.
Want video of the Scarteen in full cry across Ireland? They’ve got it. Need some insight into the development of bits and stirrups? It’s there. Photos of Walker or July hounds in the late 1800s? Check. Looking for biographical details of the four people who compiled the records that became the American Stud Book for the Thoroughbred? Right there on the bookshelf. Joseph B. Thomas’s hunt diaries? In the archive boxes downstairs.
You get the idea. (And, by the way, there’s a print of Iroquois just off the entrance foyer!)
In addition, the library hosts seminars, lectures, readings, art exhibitions, and film screenings.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my two-week stint here will only allow me a glimpse of the works worth studying in depth, so I think another trip will be required!
From the stacks
My task is to find interesting history about hounds and how huntsmen through the ages have bred and trained them, developing a mutual language between huntsman and hound that allows them to work together in the hunt field. As I come across interesting pieces over the next two weeks, I’ll excerpt them here on the hound blog.
Today, I spent a lot of time poring over two old texts. The first is George Tubervile’s The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting, published in 1611. I’ve only just waded into his advice to huntsmen, but already I’m struck by what hasn’t changed in hound training over the centuries:
“A Good keeper of hounds should be gracious, curteous, and gentle, loving his dogs of a naturell dispostion, and hee ought to bee both well footed and well winded, as well to fill his horne as his bottell: the first thing which he ought to do when he riseth, is to go see his hounds, to make their lodging cleane, and to dresse them as the care shall require.
“… The keeper must fill two great bagges or pockets with small bones, and other good morsels, as … horse feet fryed, fatte roast meats, and such like, that he shall breake all into small gobbets into his bagges, and hang one bagge about his own necke, and give another unto one of his companions. …
“Afterwards every man shall take a fayre wand in his hand, and let one go before to call the hounds unto him, another shall come behind which shall jerk them forwards, and if there be two others, they shall go on ech side, and so all foure together shall go lead the hounds through the greene Corne fields and through the meadows, as well to feed them as for to teach them to know their voice, making them to passe through the heards of sheep and other such like beasts to accustom them, and to make them know them.”
Turbervile describes an early exercise to teach the hounds to hark to a huntsman’s holloa: the huntsman walks some way away (Turbervile suggests “a crossbow shot’s length”) while his whippers-in hold the young hounds. Then the huntsman should turn, blow his horn, and call to his hounds. The whippers-in should let them go then, and when the hounds rush to their huntsman, he will give them their reward:
” … When they are come to hallow, the huntsman must take his bagge of victuales and cast unto them all the delicates, crying and comforting them as the Art requireth: then when hee shall see that they have almost done eating of their reward, hee shall give sign or token to his companions that they beginne to hallow, the which (having not stirred from the place where they uncoupled their dogs and having another budget or pocket of delicates and dogs dainties) shall begin to hallow on their side, and to blow their hornes to make the dogs come unto them.”
It’s interesting that, in this early style of hunting in England (presumably based on the French style, because hunting with hounds was imported from France by the Normans) the huntsman isn’t the only one carrying a horn and holloa-ing to the hounds. That eventually changed in England, but I’ll have to find out more about how they still do things stag-hunting in France. Still multiple horns? If so, how are they used now?
From another ancient source, a vivid description of the fox. The book is a heavy tome called The History of Four-Footed Beasts, by Edward Topsell, published in 1607. Now, far be it from me to be skeptical of descriptions painstakingly collected by the “chaplaine in the Church of Saint Buttolphe Aldergate,” but, well, I do have my doubts about some of his animals! The gorgon that graces an early page, for example, is shaped like a horse, has scales like a lizard, has the coiled tail of a snake, cloven hooves like a cow, and a mane like a lion. Just saying.
Of foxes, Topsell had this scary observation:
“If the urine of a Foxe fall upon the grasse or other Herbs it drieth and killeth them, and the earth remaineth barren ever afterward.”
But some of his descriptions are more reliable: “He stinketh from Nose and taile.” I’ll buy that.
And Topsell gave plenty of time to dogges, especially houndes, in his book. Intriguingly, he described night-hunting hounds whose activities sound very like the kind of hunting still done from Texas to Ohio, where hunters let their hounds out at sunset and sit around the campfire while the animals hunt until dawn. The point in their case is to hear the hounds’ voices carrying through the woods or up and down the valleys. But in Topsell’s account, the hounds called night curs or Canis furax ran silent while hunting “conies,” small hares, by scent:
“… At the mandate and bidding of his master fleereth and leereth abroad in the night, hunting Conies by the aire. … During all which space of his hunting, he will not barke, lest he should be prejudicial to his own advantage. And thus watcheth and snatcheth up as many Conies as his master will suffer him, and beareth them to his masters standing.”
The History of Four-Footed Beasts was probably my favorite read of the day both for the fantastical nature of its information and for its terrific drawings.
From more recent texts, we have two great American presidents, both avid foxhunters. George Washington appears, from the sporting notes he made in his diaries before the Revolutionary War, to have hunted every chance he could get. And we know that some of his hounds were French, because on Aug. 24, 1785, he noted a gift he received from a Revolutionary ally: “Received Seven hounds sent me from France by the Marquis de la Fayette, by way of New York, viz. 3 dogs and 4 Bitches,” Washington wrote.
Washington had about 12,600 acres to hunt over during this period. He kept his own kennels, and there are hints of the frustrations many Masters and huntsmen have experienced through the ages. There are worries over rabies–at one time Washington feared his entire pack had become subject to “madness,” and he was obliged to shoot a seemingly rabid dog that happened into some of his hunting hounds one afternoon. The breeding program at Washington’s kennels also was at times haphazard, resulting in some head-exploding (and sad) moments for the Master:
June 22, 1768: Musick was also in heat and served promiscuously by all the Dogs, intending to drown her Puppys.
March 24, 1769: Returned home from my journey to Frederick, etca., and found that the Hound Bitch Maiden had taken Dog promiscuously; That the Bitch Lady was in Heat and had also been promiscuously lind, and therefore I did not shut her up; That Dutchess was shut up, and had been lind twice by Drunkard, but was out one Night in her heat, and supposd to be lind by other Dogs; That Truelove was also in the House, as was Mopsy likewise (who had been seen lind to Pilot before she was shut up).
March 26, 1770: Countess a hound Bitch after being confined sometime got loose and was lind before it was discovered by my Water dog once, and a small foist looking yellow cur twice.
On the other hand, a remarkable day’s hunting could set everything right again.
Jan. 23, 1770: Went a hunting after breakfast and found a Fox at Muddy hole and killed her (it being a Bitch) after a chace of better than two hours, and after treeing her twice the last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree after being therein several minutes apparently well.”
His hounds, presumably, thought this was manna from heaven.
Theodore Roosevelt, writing in 1886, called Yankee foxhunting “certainly the most exciting and perhaps also the manliest kind of amusement to be found east of the Mississippi River.” He broke his arm while out on a blistering run with the Meadowbrook Hunt. By Roosevelt’s estimate, the field that day covered 10 miles, jumped “somewhat more than 60 fences” (the highest in the country being five feet and a half inch), and had only two checks.
The physical challenge of such rigorous riding in the hunt field had practical effects, Roosevelt argued. “If in 1860 riding to hounds had been at the North, as it was at the South, a national pastime, it would not have taken us until well on towards the middle of the war before we were able to develop a cavalry capable of withstanding the shock of the Southern horsemen,” he opined.
The proliferation of drag-hunting in the Eastern U.S. at that time perplexed the English, who saw no point in it. But Roosevelt, perhaps with a touch of defensiveness, explained it as an unsurprising, even necessary product of the new robber-barons and entrepreneurial class:
“Once or twice a week they can get off for an afternoon’s ride across country, and they then wish to be absolutely certain of having their run, and of having it at the appointed time; and the only way to ensure this is to have a drag hunt. It is not a lack of foxes that has made the sport on this side of the water take the form of drag-hunting so much as the fact that the majority of those who keep it up are hard-working business men who wish to make the most out of every moment of the little time they can spare from their regular occupations.”
Time on the hunt field, drag or otherwise, is always welcome. But I confess I found Roosevelt’s explanation disheartening, revealing a sort of industrialization of even the great natural art of hounds and hunt: hunting like clockwork, on a fixed and speedy schedule. But isn’t part of the joy of watching hounds work found in leaving the workday’s assembly-line pressures behind, of getting back to the fields and woods and streams, enjoying the hounds as they perform the way that we know, from Turbervile and Topsell, they have performed for centuries, on their own instinct and training and without an artificial schedule pressed on them?
More from the National Sporting Library stacks as research continues!
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