Bedtime Stories: R. S. Surtees

An occasional series in which we wish our readers a happy good night, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

FOX-HUNTING SWAINS

WHILE nibbling our pen, we have been casting about to see if we could recollect any instance, among our numerous acquaintance, of a bad fox-hunter husband, and we are happy to say we have drawn the covert blank. We have, to be sure, fallen in with fellows in red coats who have been anything but what they ought, but can conscientiously say we have never know any man worthy of the name of a sportsman who was not a good fellow. Indeed, were we a young lady, we would pick a fox-hunter for preference. Their coats may not be quite so glittering as the laced jacket of a soldier, nor may they be quite such good hands at dancing the polka, but, for the real steady comfort and enjoyment of life they beat them by chalks. Besides, war’s alarms are trying, soldiers are very apt to shut up shop when they get married; and, if they don’t, why even a child tires of looking at the same dressed doll. .. Even in sweeethearting a fox-hunter is worth a dozen such fellows as Fribbleton Brown–fellows who hang about a drawing-room all the morning, fumbling in women’s handbags, stealing their thimbles, and stopping their worsted work. Women like to have men ‘in tow,’ no doubt, but they don’t like to have fellows lying ‘at them’ all day, like terriers at foxearths. The fox-hunter goes out to ‘fresh fields and pastures new,’ hears all the news, the fun, the nonsense, the gossip of the world. His mind’s enlarged, his spirits raised, his body refreshed, and he comes back full of life and animation. If he has had a good run and been carried to his liking, his harvest-moon heart loves all the world.”

— from The Hunting Field by R. S. Surtees (1846)

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Goodbye, Stalker

Stalker was a lion-hearted leader of the Iroquois pack until he retired in the care of the Hound Welfare Fund. He remained noble, friendly, and much-loved until his death on Monday, Jan. 25.

THERE is no sadder task than parting with a good friend, but there are times when it is right to do so. That was the case Monday, when kennel manager Michael Edwards realized that it was Stalker’s time.

Stalker’s time was something that we were all dreading, but come it did, and Michael shouldered the heavy burden of making the last drive to the Richmond Road Vet Clinic so that Stalker, his favorite hound, could be put to sleep. And so one of the Hound Welfare Fund‘s great favorites, and one of the Iroquois Hunt’s bravest hearts, died peacefully in Michael’s arms.

Stalker was 11. He was entered in 2001 and hunted right up until 2008. The circumstances of his retirement tell you a lot about Stalker, and also help explain why Michael, in particular, was so close to him. The following description of Stalker’s last hunt day is from the Hound Welfare Fund website’s “Meet the Hounds” page:

It was a windy day in 2008, making scenting conditions challenging. A cold front was blowing through. Hunt staff knew coyotes would be tucked in coverts out of the wind; on a still day, they’re more likely to be found out in the open.

The hounds moved off and explored one covert after another: the Railroad Track, Norton’s Clover, then Betsy and Knox’s Coverts, moving east to west, but found nothing. They moved on to the Swamp Covert but moved past it quickly, as if they knew it was empty and were anxious to try somewhere else. It began to seem hopeless that the hunt would find any game. But then they reached Possum Hollow and swarmed in. After a few minutes, Stalker’s unmistakable voice rose out of the underbrush. The other hounds harked to him and began speaking, too. They went around and around, speaking, then going quiet. Whatever game was in there didn’t seem to want to come out. The hounds knew they had found something, but where exactly was it?

Most of the pack finally came out of the covert but looked back into it, frustrated but listening. Stalker, one of our English hounds, stayed behind, thrashing around in the brush. Soon he spoke again, and out popped a coyote. Tally ho! The chase was on. It was a thrilling but brief run, as the coyote soon ran across a road too dangerous for hounds to cross.

The hounds stopped, and the hunt staff gathered them together, but one hound was missing. It was Stalker, who had stayed at Possum Hollow, happy to have found the coyote, but clearly out of breath and unable to keep up with the pack. We later discovered that he had developed a heart ailment and would never hunt again. But Stalker found that “invisible” coyote and mustered the energy and desire to get him up and running for the rest of the pack. …

When he came back from the vet hospital where they discovered his ailing heart, Stalker slept at the foot of kennelman Michael Edwards’s bed—on the mattress, of course!

“That’s the only hound that’s ever slept on my bed,” Michael said.

Stalker’s last public appearance was at the kennel open house earlier this month, when he waggily greeted visitors and enjoyed pats and scratches from children and adults alike. You can spot him in the video below, the giant woolly with the big smile that made him look absolutely delighted to see you:

Stalker was the son of two Iroquois greats: Grundy, probably the most famous hunting and stallion hound Iroquois has had to date, and Stamina, the grand dame who served as Miller Trust Farm’s unofficial mascot after her own retirement to the HWF.

Stalker, immediately to the left of huntsman Lilla Mason, was among the retired hounds she chose to attend the 2010 Blessing of the Hounds.

“I remember when he was a puppy, we’d turn him out with the other puppies in the back paddock and play with them,” Michael recalled. “He would just run and run and get so fired up he’d be going about 90 miles an hour, making these grunts and growls as he went around. He was always very boisterous, and he had an opinion about everything.”

Another favorite game of Stalker’s in his puppy days was to find Michael when he hid in the thickets of the turnout paddock. “We’d see how long it would take them to find us,” Michael said of the ST litter that included Stalker. “It didn’t usually take them very long. They could smell pretty well.”

In addition to his good nose, Stalker also had good sense. He once got his hind toes caught in a wire at the top of a fence he’d tried to jump out hunting. Rather than thrash and do more damage to himself, he waited patiently, certain that he’d be found and rescued. Which he was.

“He was just so smart,” Michael said, “and he had such heart. I can always remember him and his brother Standout, who was big like him. They both had a lot of heart, and if we ever had to stop them from chasing a coyote across the road, they’d both get so mad at us.

“Stalker was big and tough. He probably was one of the most powerful hounds I’ve worked with here. But the thing I like about him was that he wouldn’t take anything off of anybody, but if he got mad at another hound he’d never carry it too far. He’d let them know that he was mad, but once they’d get the message he’d stop: lesson learned.”

In November, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason selected Stalker as one of the retirees to join in the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony at the Iroquois Hunt Club, an invitation Stalker appears to have taken with great seriousness. You can see him in this video, alongside his larger and younger packmate Sassoon (who is still an active hunting hound). Incidentally, you can also spot Michael at the start of the video in his white kennel coat and orange Hound Welfare Fund cap. Toward the end of the video, Stalker is still standing at full attention:

“He couldn’t have been happier to be there,” Lilla recalled. “I chose him to join us because he was retired and we knew he wouldn’t be with us that much longer. I thought he needed a blessing, and he deserved one. He was magnificent.”

“I liked his boldness,” said Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller. “He had the courage of his convictions and was very bold out front when he was running. He was sure of himself, he was all business, and he was always right.”

Stalker was the boss in a lot of ways, but he also was a model team player, said Lilla. “Stalker was everything we want in a hound, for our country and for our quarry,” she said. “He was perfectly conformed and biddable and intelligent and tenacious. He just had everything, and he was always a contributor to the day. He really epitomized what that ST Carlow outcross brought to our pack when our quarry became coyotes.”

Stalker’s tenacity served him as well in retirement as it did on the hunt field. “He certainly was tough, and he lived longer than we expected,” Lilla agreed. “There were many times when we thought it might be over, but he was happy and wanted to continue on. He clearly enjoyed his life to the end.”

You might think that a hound that tough on the hunt field, and who loved his work that much, would be difficult to retire, but Stalker adjusted to his new life of ease without any trouble.

“He just settled right into it,” Lilla said. “You know, I think he knew something was wrong. He couldn’t keep up with the pack anymore, and he was happy in his retirement. His retirement was seamless.”

Fortunately, Stalker has left us more than just fond memories. He’s got sons and daughters currently in the hunting pack, including Sage and Sayso. Son Salt, sadly, died late last year, and another son from that litter, Sackett, recently retired and is now, like his father was, in the care of the Hound Welfare Fund.

“You’d think it’d get easier, but it doesn’t,” Michael said sadly. “He was one of my all-time favorites. But he was ready. You could tell. He had a look in his eye, and he was tired.”

When Stalker skipped a meal, that was the sign to Michael that the brave old hound was telling us something.

“He just had that look in his eye like, ‘I’m ready,'” Michael said. “He was one of a kind.”

Who would be a Master?

Sure, you get the title and the buttons ... but you'll be expected to contribute time, treasure, diplomacy, and land in return.

Not long ago I heard a member of a hunt remark that those who join hunt clubs and ride to hounds regularly “make a lot of effort and spend a hell of a lot of money on the hunt.”

“We buy horses, we buy trailers, we take time away from our families, we have to arrange babysitters,” she said.

Fair enough. Hunt members pay dues and also spend a lot of time and a good bit of cash to enjoy their favorite hobby, much as opera buffs spend for tickets to hear their favorite arias and die-hard football fans invest in season tickets. Hunt clubs are, after all, clubs, and the support of hunt members is a crucial and appreciated part of the sport. But as you pay the feed bill for your own horse or pick up the phone hoping your babysitter is available this Saturday, spare a thought for the Master! The same is true for him or her (Masters, too, feed horses and need babysitters), but on top of that they have piles of hidden costs and work that hunt members rarely see.

Given the challenges of the modern Mastership, from acreage to animal rights activism, it wasn’t all that surprising when a 2009 article in England’s sporting magazine The Field revealed why good Masters are becoming a scarce–and urgently needed–commodity among hunts.

“The role has become arguably less glamorous, more nerve-wracking, and more open to criticism,” The Field reported, adding that in addition to the traditional responsibilities of providing land, clearing it, and maintaining relations with landowners, today’s Master also must be a public relations leader and legal expert, as well, on subjects ranging from employment law to animal welfare standards.

Joe Cowen, a Master of the Fernie since 1972, told the magazine that “there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a Master, which is sometimes forgotten.”

On the front line of landowner relations

Unlike the hunt member quoted at the top of this page, Masters’ expenditures of time and money don’t only go directly to their own enjoyment of the sport; they must also lay out time and treasure for things that benefit the hunt first, and themselves only indirectly. A disgruntled landowner blames the hunt for an injury to his best bull because it crashed through a fence when the hunt rode by a field away? Chances are, the Master (or Masters) will pull out their personal checkbooks to make good the veterinary expenses, all in the name of keeping landowners compensated and happy–and the hunt country open.

“In one respect, all Masters of every generation are united: they have always been expected to pay for everything and please everybody,” wrote Frederick Watson in his lighthearted classic Hunting Pie. “A Master must therefore be a millionaire, an Adonis, a loss to the diplomatic service, and possessed of all the virtues and aspirations of the early Christian martyrs with none of their ultimate recompense.”

The writer and famed hunting authority Otho Paget evidently agreed, noting that “to find these qualities combined is well-nigh impossible, so we must give up hope of ever finding the perfect Master, and content ourselves with ordinary men. It is a thankless task, and it has always been a wonder to me that anyone can be found willing to accept the responsibilities.”

Very high on the list of these responsibilities is maintaining good contact with landowners and keeping hunt country open.

Keeping country open, and, if possible, expanding it, has been a constant worry for Masters for almost as long as people have ridden behind hounds, and it’s become a far more pressing concern in the last 50 years, as development and highways have closed in steadily on the countryside. For centuries, it’s been understood that anyone offered the title of Master should be prepared to bring land and/or money to the table, a responsibility that is probably even more important now as hunt country grows increasingly scarce.

A hunt's country belongs, in fact, to its landowners, and a large part of a Master's work involves keeping that land open to the hunt--and undamaged by it.

When tracts of hunt country come on the market, Masters frequently will be among the buyers. If they don’t purchase it themselves, chances are they’ll be working hard to recruit hunt-friendly buyers, and preferably hunt members, to secure the land, and thus the hunt’s future invitation to continue riding over it. A Master’s status as a landowner also can improve his credibility with his neighbors in the hunt country. They are less likely to take seriously someone who arrives from town, having no previous contact with the owners or land other than by riding over it, and seeking concessions from them for the hunt’s sport.

“If a man is not a landowner in the country he hunts, he ought to buy a small quantity, and thus have a personal interest in the soil,” Paget wrote in The Master. “Farmers always prefer a man at the head of the hunt who through his own experience can understand and sympathize with them in their troubles. The Master who does not know wheat or seeds from weeds is not in a very good position to warn his field from damaging those crops, and there are many other useful hints he will pick up by a closer acquaintance with the land. I do not say that a man is not eligible to be an M.F.H. if he owns none of the soil in his hunt, but it would be a point in his favor.”

Landowner relations are the primary concern of any Master, and most of a Master’s most important duties trace back, one way or another, to maintaining the hunt country and good relationships with the people who own that country.

One of the finest descriptions of the necessary (and generally invisible) work Masters quietly do to keep their hunt’s hooves on (and game readily available in) good country comes from the English author Siegfried Sassoon’s famous hunting memoir, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The book was published in 1929 and describes Sassoon’s youthful hunting exploits much earlier, before World War I broke out in 1914. It’s noteworthy that a Master’s duties, like much else in the tradition of foxhunting, have changed very little from that time. Speaking of Denis Milden, the fictionalized name for the actual Atherstone Hunt Master and huntsman Norman Loder, Sassoon wrote after one hard hunting day:

It was after half-past six when he came in. … He threw off his wet hunting coat and slipped into a ragged tweed jacket which the silent servant Henry held out for him. As soon as he had swallowed a cup of tea he lit his pipe and sat down at his writing-table to open a pile of letters. He handed me one, with a grimy envelope addressed to ‘Mr. Milden, The Dog Kennels, Ringwell.’ The writer complained that a fox had been the night before and killed three more of his pullets, and unless he could bring the dogs there  soon there wouldn’t be one left and they’d really have to start shooting the foxes, and respectfully begging to state that he was owed fifteen shillings by the Hunt for compensation. Many of Denis’s letters were complaints from poultry keepers or from small farmers whose seeds or sown ground had been ridden over when the land was wet. I asked what he did with these, and he replied that he sent them on to old McCosh, the Hunt secretary. ‘But when they look like being troublesome I go over and talk to them myself.’

I found afterwards that he had a great gift for pacifying such people, to whom the Hunt might have been an unmitigated nuisance if it hadn’t been an accepted institution. The non-hunting farmers liked to see the Hunt, but they disliked the marks it left on their land. The whole concern depended on the popularity and efficiency of the Master, and the behavior of the people who hunted. …

Watching him open those letters was an important step in my sporting education. Until then I had not begun to realize how much there was to be done apart from the actual chivvying of the foxes. Thenceforward I became increasingly aware that a successful day’s hunting was the result of elaborate and tactful preparations, and I ceased to look upon an angry farmer with a pitchfork as something to be laughed at.

The quiet diplomat and sponsor

The angry farmer shaking his pitchfork at the passing hunt is the very thing a Master works to avoid, and generally–often because farmers do not want their business gossiped around the hunt country, where their neighbors are sure to hear it–he or she must accomplish that task quietly, tactfully, and without compromising the hunt’s position (e.g., without losing the privilege of crossing the farmers’ land). Such dealings can be fraught with risk: if a hunt member forgets to shut a gate and a landowner’s cattle get loose upon the adjacent road, it’s the Master who faces the task of getting the entire hunt back in the landowner’s good graces as a result of a someone else’s mistake. Discretion is an absolute requirement: if personal discussions between a Master and a landowner get out into general circulation, embarrassing the landowner, the diplomatic channel between hunt and landowner can close for good.

"There are very few young men who can afford to undertake the responsibility which devolves upon a Master and entails a large personal expenditure, in addition to the guarantee provided by the average hunt committee," Henry Higginson, MFH, wrote back in 1948. Since then, the Master's job has remained expensive and become even more complicated, thanks to problems like suburban development.

The list of expenses begins with land and landowner-related costs (such as the aforementioned compensation, as well as friendly gestures, like sending over tickets to a favorite sporting event, hosting a landowner-appreciation event, donating to a farmer’s favorite charity, or sponsoring a rural children’s baseball team), but they do not end there.

Most hunt budgets do not cover the actual expenses required to run a hunt program, and Masters are expected to step up to the plate and cover privately any expenses outside the hunt budget, whether for veterinary care to hounds, land-clearing equipment like weedeaters and chain saws, or the costs of allowing the hunt to travel to hound shows.

For prestigious packs that hunt several days a week, those extra-budgetary costs can mount quickly, even into the tens of thousands of dollars. Which is why the Mastership has never been regarded as a job for the fainthearted or the faint-bank-accounted. Writing around 1950, M.F.H. Henry Higginson said: “In the old days, the cost of hunting used to be estimated at 1,000 pounds sterling per day for each day per week hunted. Today, particularly in the case of the so-called fashionable countries, the outlay is far in excess of that figure, owing to the increased cost of forage and labour. It is false economy trying to feed hounds on anything but the best … It is no use expecting horses to do their work on anything but the first quality oats and hay. Last but not least, if one does not employ both sufficient — and efficient– labour, one will not get good results.”

Another requirement for a Master: hide like a rhino.

“Everyone who comes out feels entitled to criticize and find fault with the Master,” Higginson observed. “It is … a common enough occurrence, and the only way that I know to counteract such annoyances is to cultivate a very thick skin.”

You don’t have to be a Master to help your hunt

If, like the houndbloggers, your finances don’t quite rise to the requirements of a Mastership, thank heavens there are plenty of other ways you can help ensure your hunt’s wellbeing! Join your hunt supporters’ club. Host a fundraiser that benefits the hunt. Donate to the annual Christmas Fund for your hunt’s staff. Volunteer to walk puppies or help socialize the young hounds at the kennel. Host a hunt breakfast or post-hunt tailgate. Sponsor the purchase of a new weedeater or chain saw to help with clearing country–and volunteer to help when your Masters clear the hunt country and conduct fence repairs in the summer. Join one of your hunt’s committees and pledge to pay any expenses you incur doing work for that committee.

And, above all, be gracious and friendly to landowners!

Puppy Report (and many nature points) from the Clear Creek Beagles

The Clear Creek Beagles at their kennel near Louisville, Kentucky, this summer

The Clear Creek Beagles, being a foot pack rather than a mounted hunt, have a real advantage over their horsey brethren at this time of year. They can go still hunt on days when riders can’t due to poor footing conditions. It’s much safer crossing slippery, thawing mud on top of frozen ground on foot than on horseback, and it’s also much easier on the farm land. I can’t think of too many farmers who would be happy to see a field full of riders gouging deep divots into their land under such conditions–hoof-scarred ground makes for awfully rough terrain when you’re trying to drive your tractor or a farm vehicle over it.

The beagles leave hardly a mark as they go, which is why even in really challenging conditions when you would never send horses out,  you often can still have a good day out with hounds chasing bunnies instead of coyotes.

On Jan. 17, the Clear Creek Beagles had what sounded like a terrific day despite treacherous footing, and we thought we’d share their hunt report (including pictures) with you. The day had everything: excellent runs by sporting rabbits, a pair of puppies making their debut on the hunt field (very successfully, it appears!), changeable scenting conditions, and all the natural beauty and intrigue that a day out in the countryside can provide. So, without further ado, we give you the beagling report, from Clear Creek Beagles whipper-in (and photographer) Jean MacLean:

Nine and a half couple of hounds, a handful of people and two puppies met in the rain yesterday in the Camp’s Bunny Patch. The ground was still quite frozen with an inch or so of mud and water on top – quite slippery!!  The scenting conditions were so-so.

The field was introduced to (puppies) King Eider and his sister Enid at the trailer.  They were SO excited to be out on their first adventure.  They politely greeted all, leaving many muddy paw prints on everyone.
Eider
The pack quickly hit their first rabbit entering the briars.  The next hour or so was spent trying to sort out the many bunnies zipping around in the bunny patch.  They did an excellent job working the wet rabbit around the briars for the first fifteen minutes or so until three others were viewed out and away.  Hounds found it difficult to smell right on the ground (frozen & muddy) but were running the scent a few inches up in the air!!  Very cool to watch them adapt from noses down to noses half up!!  Eider and Enid quickly caught on to the fact that they needed to keep up with the grown ups!!
Enid (behind) sticking with old man Mason (foreground)!

Hounds ran a rabbit from the bunny patch down through the cedars by the lake and along the dam.  I spent a lot of time watching for beavers, but could not see any of them.
While we were out, the air and air pressure seemed to change a couple of times, making the scenting both easier and more difficult.  Hounds got up a very sporting running rabbit about 4:15 who kept the pack flying around for almost half an hour.  Eider and Enid were both seen with their noses down and looking like big dogs!  (Huntsman and joint-Master of Beagles) WPW used his face to clear some briars from a fence to help the hounds keep moving!  500 or so Canada geese flew overhead to enhance the hound sound!  The sun came out as it was setting and made the woods and fields glow.  It was a beautiful afternoon.
Clear Creak Beagles huntsman and joint-Master WPW, better known as Buck Wiseman with proof he met some briars
Nature points – 500 geese, many hawks, many rabbits viewed, many chewed down trees

Thanks for sharing the highlights of the day, Jean and Buck!

We were especially interested to read about the two puppies, littermates Eider and Enid, who seemed to make an unusually good start to their hunting careers. I also was curious to know why Eider is nicknamed “King Eider,” and asked Buck about that.

Buck’s response: “His name is Eider, but he’s a big kid, so we go with the big species of eider when we are kidding with him.” An eider is a kind of goose (think eiderdown). Jean added that this particular young Eider “has become the king because he is teacher’s pet and big and goofy! I have spoiled him rotten.”

Eider sounds like he he has a good and curious nose; on Tuesday morning, he reportedly was sniffing a fox line! I guess he was as pleased with his first day out as the Clear Creek hunt staff was.

Like driving someone else’s racecar

Substituting for an injured huntsman means taking over a pack that has been trained by (and that has bonded with) someone else, and it takes more than just knowing how to blow the horn.

WHEN Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason broke her ankle out hunting in November, she was lucky in one respect: she had an experienced huntsman to whom she could pass the horn. And that person, Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller, was someone who works with the hounds daily alongside her.

That mattered, because as we’ve seen, Lilla has put a lot of time and training into the hounds (Jerry has had an important role in that training too). Having someone who knows the hounds and the huntsman’s style is vital to ensure the hounds’ steadiness until Lilla returns.

“Unfortunately, I got hurt right after the opening day of the hunt season,” Lilla said. “I’ve spent months since the last hunt season–from April to October–training the hounds and getting the pack exactly where I want them: responsive, together, controlled by voice. I’ve done that in the training style that Jerry has devised over the years, which is a kind, humane, quiet style. The reason it’s such a relief to have Jerry hunting the hounds for me now is that I know he knows he is a substitute. He hunts the hounds in that quiet way, but he’s also going to be very careful not to take the hounds over as his own, because I’ll be back.

“The worst thing would be if someone were to come in and hunt them in a different way from the way I do and try to take the pack over. That would usurp all the work we’ve done, and when I came back, it would be much more difficult for me to finish the season in the manner which it began.”

His years as Iroquois huntsman and his role as architect of the pack's training program has stood Jerry in good stead during the times he has subbed for Lilla out hunting and on hound walk. (Photo kindly given by Peggy Maness)

For Jerry, the prospect of taking over the Iroquois pack was more complicated than just accepting the horn and blowing it. A pack of hounds doesn’t automatically respect a horn; they respect the person who has worked to forge a bond with them through training. In order to maintain the continuity of what is effectively Lilla’s team, Jerry is careful to leave as little of his own imprint on them as he can.

“As much as I like them and would like to have these hounds be mine, that’s like taking somebody’s racecar and driving it as a substitute in the next three or four races,” Jerry explained.  “The first thing you need to do is not to wreck it. That’s the worst thing you could do. You don’t want to tear the transmission up and don’t tear the motor up, either. Just take it around carefully, because you’re not really the driver of that car. You’ll take it out because people want to come out and see the race, but the idea is to race it fairly and competitively, but don’t do any damage to it.

“The thing about a pack of hounds, and the reason you like your huntsman and Masters to have longevity, is because you breed the hounds not only for your country, but also for the way the huntsman hunts hounds,” he continued. “You can read about this in all the literature, but you can ruin a pack of hounds in a week or two weeks. If someone else other than Lilla came in and tried to impose their own personality on those hounds through the way they discipline them or reinforce them, and especially if they try to push them around or bully them, these hounds react to that. Some hounds won’t come back because they’ve gotten upset, and they’ll just be unruly. And the longer they stay away, the more they learn bad habits.”

Having temporarily turned her horn over to her back-up huntsman, jt-MFH Jerry Miller, regular Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason wore a regular member's black coat when she returned to the hunt field for the first time since her injury.

This hunt season, we’ve seen two strong examples of how important a hound considers the bond with its huntsman to be. When Strawberry first arrived this fall from England, her confusion at finding a completely new huntsman was clear. Since her birth, Strawberry had only ever known one huntsman–the Cottesmore’s Neil Coleman–and she was perplexed to find herself without her usual leader when she debuted under Lilla in November. Her first response was to head straight back to the hound trailer.

Similarly, when Jerry hunted the hounds for the first time after Lilla’s injury, he had to endure the pack’s initial skepticism about him, even though he knew them from training.

When he first blew the horn, the pack remained at the trailer, waiting for Lilla. Sure, that guy who walked with them in the summer had the horn now, but he wasn’t their huntsman. Their huntsman was Lilla. And they would just wait for her to show up, thanks. It took Jerry some minutes to get the pack away from the trailer.

Hunting history is riddled with similar accounts of hounds who, once “joined up” with their regular huntsman, will only have eyes for him (or her). Consider the case of whipper-in Jean MacLean in her first attempt to walk out the Clear Creek Beagles when huntsman Buck Wiseman was out of town:

When Buck was away and needed her to walk the hounds out, she discovered that the young hounds she’d helped raise from puppyhood merrily packed up with her when she opened the kennel gate for morning exercise. But the older hounds that had been there before she arrived were so skeptical that they would sit just outside the kennel and refuse to come along with her. They were, she realized, waiting for Buck. To them, she wasn’t the real deal, and no amount of biscuit-tossing could convince them to follow her.

Once the hounds finally moved off, Jerry still had his work cut out for him. One crucial element he had in his favor is his knowledge of the individual hounds and the philosophy under which they are trained.

Jerry Miller's role as back-up huntsman, he said, is to maintain the pack's steadiness and "not to do any damage" until Lilla can return

“A hound doesn’t just react to a couple of toots on a horn,” he said. “You have to know every individual hound. If you were going to play the piano and I took every third key away, that’s going to make it harder for you to play. You have to know which hound is acting up, which hound you have to pick up, which one you have to set down.”

Hunting hounds without imposing his own hunting style on them has required restraint from Jerry.

“He’s hunted them slowly and very deliberately, waited for any hounds that are missing so that the pack doesn’t get too spread out,” said Lilla, who has been following the hunt in a car regularly while she’s recovering. “It might be more fun for riders if he went out and hunted them the way  he would if he were always the huntsman, but he’s doing it this way so that the hounds will be better off when I come back.

“This helps me. If he had done things differently, it would have completely confused the hounds, because they’d have gotten used to a totally different style than mine, and I’d have to start over with them,” she added. “The ultimate honor you can do another human being is to do something for them that you know is not going to make you look your best. He knew he wasn’t going to look like a hotshot huntsman. He did it for the hound program.”

Part of "Lilla's team," as portrayed by Peggy Maness

Mind you, it’s taken some restraint from Lilla, too. While Jerry is hunting the hounds, she minimizes her contact with the hounds and rarely even speaks, in case the familiar sound of their regular huntsman’s voice distracts them.

“The worst thing I could do while he’s hunting is come out and be too loud, because pretty soon they’re going to get around me and stop doing what he’s asking them to do,” she explained. “They have to be obedient to the person who has the horn.”

“She has the golden thread with  her hounds,” Jerry acknowledges. “They know her personality, they know what she’s doing and when she’s upset. You can see it in them. When Lilla gets upset with a few of them, the others react to it, too. They just tighten up together and go on.  But if someone new comes in and gets uptight with them, those hounds will just disappear. They’ll decide they want to stay away from that person.

“And if a new person comes in and tries to be their best friend and keep them right next to his horse, that can be just as bad, because instead of working, the hounds will just trot along next to his horse like they were on a trail ride. So there’s a fine line between discipline and reinforcement. I try to put them in, let them work the covert, then be on the other end to pick them up and go on to the next covert, without imposing on them.

“I have to maintain things. I have to make sure that everyone responds and that I don’t get three or four hounds that decide they’ll refuse to listen and go hunting on their own, that decide since Lilla’s not out they don’t have to listen to anybody.”

It’s a slower style of hunting, but it preserves the pack and their training in the near term while Lilla recovers.

For a glimpse of Lilla’s relationship with the hounds, see how they gaze at her in this video taken from the huntsman’s point of view on hound walk this summer:

There’s a code of honor among huntsmen that holds the relationship between huntsman and hounds, that golden thread, as sacred. Jerry ‘s restraint in hunting “her” hounds is honoring that tradition, Lilla said. She has reciprocated, too, by wearing a black hunt coat–rather than her red huntsman’s coat–when she returned to the hunt field for an hour (with her leg in a cast!) at her first hunt since the injury.

“What Jerry has done for me is the most honorable thing a retired huntsman can do for one who is active,” Lilla said. “He’s not out there for the sake of his own ego. He’s not trying to look like the best huntsman in the world, and he knows he’s not going to look like the best huntsman in the world doing it this way. But he knows they’re not his hounds now; I trained them. And that’s the way he looks at it: ‘I’m just the substitute.’

“One huntsman would never insert himself or do anything to possibly damage or interfere with another huntsman’s relationship with his own hounds,” she concluded. “Your relationship with your hounds is like a marriage, and you wouldn’t step in between a huntsman and his hounds any more than you would step between husband and wife.”

So how is Lilla’s recovery coming? Very well, she says. She’s started riding again, and she had that happy hour out with hounds just before Christmas.

“Since I got off crutches, it seems like every day there’s been immense improvement,” she said. “I’ve been riding, but I still have this inconvenient boot on my leg. I need to go see a welder and get a big stirrup made. I’m riding in a dressage saddle and in a controlled environment, and, with the weather we’ve had, nobody’s riding outside anyway. So I’m very encouraged.”

Copyright 2010 Glenye Cain Oakford, http://www.houndwelfare.wordpress.com




The red ring-neck hounds

WHILE we were in Virginia earlier this fall, the houndbloggers got a chance to meet the Orange County Hunt’s pack of red ring-neck hounds. Alas, the hunt’s Mastership preferred that we not take any video, so we couldn’t give you a view of these interesting American hounds.

Since then, though, we’ve come across this short video online. It’s a preview for a documentary made some time ago about the former Orange County huntsman, Melvin Poe, who more recently hunted the hounds at the Bath County Hunt’s private pack and is the subject of the book Foxhunting with Melvin Poe, by the late Peter Winants.

In the documentary preview above, you’ll get a great view of these distinctive hounds. It’s easy to see how they got the name “red ring-neck”! I’m no expert on this strain of American hound, but I believe they were developed by William Skinker, who hunted the Orange County Hounds in the early part of the 20th century.

The Skinkers are an old Virginia family, and near where the Orange County hounds met the morning we saw them is an area called Skinkertown. William Skinker appears in MFH Henry Higginson’s book, The Hunts of the United States and Canada: Their Masters, Hounds, and Histories, which also has this interesting note about the Orange County Hunt of the time (Higginson’s book was published in 1908, just after the Great Hound Match of 1905):

It will be seen that the Orange County Hunt practically maintains three packs: the English pack at Goshen, N.Y., an American pack at The Plains (Va.), and a third pack of English and American mixed. The American pack is hunted by Mr. William Skinker, Jr., while Claude Hatcher, at Middleburg, has shown excellent sport with the mixed pack …

The mixed pack Higginson refers to here is, in fact, the Middleburg Hunt. The Middleburg Hunt has a close connection to the Orange County hounds; it was County MFH John Townsend who established the Middleburg pack in 1906.

The horn is one way to communicate with hounds. Voice is another.

But back to Mr. Poe. In addition to the red ring-necks you’ll see in this video, it’s also interesting to note the sounds Poe makes when communicating with his hounds. A huntsman’s language with his or her hounds is fascinating and traditionally has as much to do with tone and octave as it does with actual words. But it most certainly does have meaning to its intended audience, the hounds.

In Winants’s book, Poe put it this way: “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference what you’re saying, just so you’re communicating with hounds, and I sometimes whistle  softly when trying to sneak up on a fox.”

The hounds have their own sounds, of course. Back in the 1600s, George Tubervile described them thusly: “Hounds do cal on, bawle, bable, crie, yearne, lapise, plodde, baye, and such other noyses.” But that’s a story for another day!

Cold day, warm hearts: the kennel open house (with video!)

Undaunted by bitter cold, more than 30 people attended the Iroquois kennel open house Sunday to meet the puppies, hunting pack, and retirees

IT was so cold the cream for our coffee froze in its pitcher. But it didn’t matter a bit. The brave souls who arrived Sunday for the Iroquois Hunt kennel’s open house at Miller Trust Farm were in excellent spirits. Then again, it’s pretty hard to be in a bad mood while snuggling a hound!

Still, I think the crowd that attended the open house deserve the second Game as Grundy Award for showing up on a day when the high temperature was about 25 degrees.

Driver, one of the puppies born back in the spring of 2009 and easily the biggest pup of the bunch, figured he was the host of the whole deal and was really, really pleased to see this interesting crowd at his house! When someone went out to visit the puppies in their turnout field, Driver wormed through the gate and made a beeline for the guests. And, like any good host, he mingled, but at high speed, bounding around until kennelman Alan Foy reminded him that it was time to leave the grownups. Driver is expected to join the hunting pack next season, if all goes according to plan.

Iroquois joint-Masters Jerry Miller and Jack van Nagell were on hand, as was huntsman Lilla Mason, who talked about some of the things that make the Iroquois kennel special. Two especially interesting features are the 15-acre fenced turnout field and multiple indoor-outdoor runs that allow hounds to live among smaller groups that they are comfortable with (this differs from the traditional set-up, in which the hounds are kept in two large runs, one for doghounds and one for bitches).

The hounds were as interested in the visitors as the visitors were in them.

Another kennel feature worth noting: the warm room, where older, ill, or injured hounds can keep out of the cold. The warm room has a television, too, where some of the Iroquois retirees–whose care is supported by the all-volunteer 501(c)(3) charity Hound Welfare Fund–were listening to a game show while visitors recalled their exploits on the hunt field.

The retired hounds enjoyed the extra pats, and the puppies were delighted to meet some kids their own age for playtime in the turnout field. We were most impressed with one of the parents on hand, who managed to negotiate all the puppies–including Driver!–without spilling his hot chocolate.

Thanks to everyone who came, and to all who helped prepare the smorgasbord of edible treats: hot coffee, hot chocolate, and three kinds of Liquid Warming Additives to put in said beverages, plus warm little quiches, chips and dip, cookies, and more.

Thanks also to the Masters, Susan Miller, and kennel staff Michael Edwards and Alan Foy for making the day so much fun and for making the cold day seem a whole lot warmer.

Want to see who came? Check out our group photo, and try to identify your friends under all their winter woollies:

Unfortunately, the weather forecast has only gotten worse since the weekend. Now they’re talking about things like single-digit lows and accumulating snow.

*sigh*

Well, if you’re stuck inside this weekend and need a pick-me-up, please consider making a donation to the Hound Welfare Fund. Your donations are tax-deductible, and 100 percent of your donation goes directly to the retired hounds.