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!

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