Bedtime Stories: Guy Wheeler

In his charming book The Year ‘Round, Guy Wheeler takes the reader through a foxhunter’s calendar. It makes for comforting reading. When you’re suffering through a heat wave in mid-July and hunt season seems impossibly far away, it’s nice to open The Year ‘Round to the chapter titled “November: The Opening Meet,” where the description will keep you going in the certainty that there will indeed be cool weather and another opening meet. It’s also nice to read about the month you’re in and know that you are on a schedule that foxhunters have followed for many, many a year, making you part of the continuum.

As we’re on the brink of August and our hours among hounds have been taken up with summer walk, we present “August: Still Earlier Mornings.”

“If in mid-summer you think you, or with the approach of cub-hunting, your horse, could do with a little exertion to help dissipate what Mr. Delme Radcliffe MFH calls ‘inside fat,’ I can think of no better advice than to suggest that you ask permission to accompany hounds on exercise.

“You can exercise hounds on foot, on a horse or on a bicycle; that is, of course, you are on the bicycle or horse–hounds have difficulty reaching the pedals.

“The form is first to ask the Master. He will say–

‘Yes, of course. Delighted if you would help. I can’t get out as often as I would like. Will you see Tom about it?’–and leave the rest up to you.

“The next step is to go to the kennels. Tom, the kennel-huntsman, will say–‘Very happy to have you come along, sir. We’ll be walking ’em out tomorrow morning if you care to come to kennels at five, sir?’

‘Walking out? On foot? At five?’ You try to say all this nonchalantly, as though you expected it. …

“There you are at five in the morning, standing by the grass yard gate, in a gentle, warm drizzle, wondering how you are going to stay awake at the rather pompous dinner party in the evening. Confidentially, that is the least of your worries. Just remember to say to your hostess as soon as possible after your arrival and loudly enough for everyone else to hear–‘Sorry if I seem dull tonight, I was out exercising hounds at five this morning.’ That will explain everything, including falling asleep in your soup; but remember to say it before you do; it doesn’t sound nearly so effective through a table napkin soggy with Vrown Windsor. …

“Back to the yard gate. There you stand watching the hounds circling, playing, rolling, galloping hither and yon and rearing up against the wire fence shouting at you to hurry and let them out.

“Your cap is down over your eyes, your hands are deep in your pockets and your shoulders hunched against the weather. You think of the warm bed you have left. The drizzle oozes over your fourth vertebra.

“Tom comes bustling round the corner of the fence. Ben, the second whip, strides down the yard. Their cheery alertness shames you out of your misery and you try to look more alive than you feel.

“‘If you’ll just stand over there,sir,’ says Tom. ‘They’ll come out a bit sharp like, so you don’t want to bein their way. Right, Ben. Let ’em on.’

“Ben pushes his way through the hounds. ‘Get back, Marvel! Get back, Somerset, get back will you! How the hell d’you think I’m going to open the gate with your fat backside in the way. Get back! You, too, Thrasher. Get on out of it.’

“He heaves the gate open against the weight of the close-packed hounds and out they pour, squeezing, shoving, leaping over one another in a tumble of tan, white, and black. Most rush over to where Tom stands, calling them quietly by name as they surge round him. Some swing over to have a look at you, more out of curiosity than courtesy. …

“Though my memory is the despair of my associates, I have never had any difficulty in learning and remembering the names of hounds. The first and easiest feature for recognition is, of course, the colour. But many hounds share the same pattern of colour, so this means can often be misleading particularly at a distance. The trick, I was taught, is to study the way the hounds moves and carries itself; and to learn how it speaks. It fascinates me how when, with a minor gale blowing and the width of a thick wood between them, a huntsman will listen to a solitary hound speak faintly once and say–‘That damn Sextant! What he’s babbling on about I’m sure I don’t know. And he don’t neither, I warrant you!’ or, on the other hand–

‘Hark to old Counsellor there!’ A pause, and the hound speaks again more insistently. ‘Counsellor’s got it! Hark to Counsellor! Hark to Counsellor, all of you!’

–and be right both times.

From a summer hound walk: The Day of the Decoy. Photo by Eloise Penn.

“… It comes from a real love for hounds and understanding of how they think. This is not learned from the study of pedigrees and books on hound management, but by being with and observing hounds in kennel and out at exercise. One never learns exactly how any hound will behave in the hunting field this way; but one will get a very good idea. For those who ride to hunt there is no better way of increasing your enjoyment of a day’s hunting than by this sort of knowledge of the hounds you follow. And such acquaintance enables you, in times of crisis and a divided pack, to offer valuable help to th ehunt staff.

“However, there you are striding alongside Tom behind the hounds, feeling a touch better now that you are on the move, and your instruction begins.

“‘Now this bitch here by me is Silence, entered last season and done well, she did. Bit light you’d say and her neck’s on the short side too. Statesman there, you can always tell him by the white line between his shoulders, he’s out of the same litter; and so’s Stamper, him with the black saddle, he’s a good sort. Takes after his sire old Pageant up in front there. Always in front those two, Pageant and Paragon. Good hunting hounds those two, sir, go all day they will; they’re the devil to stop when you want to. They’re by Blankly Chaplain out of our Parasol, that old dark bitch what’s getting under your feet there; get on, Parasol girl!–can’t abide roads, she can’t, sir, her feet’s none too good, poor old girl, but get her on grass and she ruddy flies.’

“And so on. At the end of the exercise your head is full, so to speak, of Parasol’s feet, Stampers saddle, and Silence’s short neck and you wonder if you will ever get them straight. You find yourself looking forward to the next time you are invited to be at the kennels at five in the morning and wondering why it was all so difficult earlier.”

Peterborough Pictures

Neither of the houndbloggers was able to attend Peterborough this year, so we were especially pleased to find that photographer David Ryan did go–and has now posted his typically beautiful photographs from the day in this slideshow. A helpful note: turn your speakers on, because the background sounds are also a lot of fun to hear. Enjoy, and here’s hoping we can go next season!

Unfortunately, we’ve yet to find a results list from the hound show, but we’ve heard that Badger–a full brother to Baffle, the mother of the BA litter–was third among the stallion hounds!

Photos for a Friday

It's nice to have a friend in a thunderstorm, says Mr. Box.

THE houndbloggers, and indeed the hounds, missed a couple of hound walks this week due to the unbelievably torrential rains. Which were not as bad as they were in Milwaukee, so, really, we’re not complaining. But we hated to miss those walks. I still took some pictures, though, and, having less than usual to say about hound walks, I thought I’d share them.

The way we know that the rainfall truly was torrential is by how soaked Gerald got. Gerald is Bingo’s pet rabbit, or something close to a rabbit. It’s hard to tell what Gerald’s exact  taxonomy is. Looking at him he looks like a cross between a rabbit and an octopus, and then there’s the fact that he’s a toy. However odd his looks, Bingo loves Gerald and brings him almost everywhere with him–everywhere except indoors from the rain. I try to remember to go out and collect Gerald from the yard before storms hit, but sometimes I forget, too. I am not my dog’s rabbit’s keeper.

The Gerald Sog-o-Meter read "saturated" this week.

Gerald reached unprecedented levels of sog this week, meaning 1) it rained a hell of a lot, 2) he felt like he weighed about 38 pounds, and 3) he had to stay outside a good long while until he dried in the sun, finally, this afternoon.

That’s not to say we didn’t make it out with hounds at all this week. We did, and we caught some nice photos of a few of our favorite hounds.

Bonsai and her amazing bronze eyes.

Paper does a little subterranean sniffing.

The hounds.

… not to mention one of those hot Hound Welfare Fund saddle pads in action:

Most weekdays, we walk out from a place we refer to as The Pig Lot, but don’t let the name fool you. It’s picturesque, especially at this time of year when everything is in full bloom and butterflies are everywhere.

At the pig lot.

A post-walk visit to the barn revealed that my horse Sassoon has gone into the witness protection program …

Sassoon incognito.

… but I think Tuxedo the barn cat still recognizes him.

Tomorrow we return to Boone Valley for another hound walk morning, and we expect to get some more video and photographs. If Trevor’s there again, we’ll stop in and say hello, as long as he’s not, you know, feeling too shy.

Where's Trevor?

See you on Saturday!

Puppies of Two Species

Driver meets four-year-old Trevor on Saturday's hound walk

WHAT a beautiful day Saturday was! It started with a crashing thunderstorm that prevented me from riding over to catch our trailer ride to the day’s hound walk, so the houndbloggers went out with the hounds on foot for what turned out to be a Very Special Morning.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason brought the hounds, including one-year-old Driver and many of the BA litter, to Boone Valley Farm instead of to the usual meeting point on the farm across from The Corners. The change of location was exciting to the hounds. The older hounds, Paper among them now, associate Boone Valley with nearby Pauline’s Ridge, one of the richest coyote coverts in the hunt country and understandably a place that holds great interest for experienced hunting hounds.

To the puppies, the field trip was especially exciting. New sights, sounds, and, most importantly, scents! New country to explore!

Even before kennel manager Michael Edwards unloaded the hounds from their trailer, there was some excitement when a herd of cattle came barreling past not far from the hound truck. But the hounds, safe inside, didn’t turn a hair, and when Michael turned them out, they ignored the cattle’s trail and put their noses right in the grass to find the biscuits Michael and Lilla had scattered there for them.

Nearby, another “puppy” was making his debut at Boone Valley, too. That was young Trevor, the four-year-old son of an Iroquois member, who was out on his new pony Polly for his very first hound walk. Driver and Paper were hugely curious about this pair, the smallest person they’d ever seen, riding either the largest hound or the smallest horse they’d ever seen. Like kids everywhere, Paper, Driver, and Trevor were drawn to each other.

Paper, who joined the hunting pack last season, says hello

Paper's pretty sure he's figured out where she keeps those biscuits ...

The day had the potential to be a little too exciting: inexperienced young hounds in exciting new territory where running cattle had piqued their curiosity, old hounds returning to a place they know well for coyote runs, and a strong breeze to carry the scent of coyote to them from Pauline’s Ridge. It was a good test for both groups of hounds, and they did very well. When temptation drew them too far away from her, their noses in the air to catch the odors wafting by, they returned when she called. Occasionally, one or two of the puppies–most notably Backfire, a BA puppy who has showed himself to be forward many times on earlier hound walks–would range away from the main group of hounds and stand gazing off into the distance, nose twitching.

Those are critical moments in a puppy’s development, Lilla pointed out, because they mark a decision. The puppy can either decide to follow his nose and head for the hills, leaving the pack and Lilla, or he can decide to back away from that temptation and stay with his peers and his huntsman.

Backfire, one of the year-old BA litter

“We want them to process information and then make the right decision,” Lilla explained.

Backfire was an especially good example of all of the puppies’ progress. At Boone Valley, we could see Backfire developing the idea that he’s part of a pack. He’s learning that, when the group stops, he can wander a little and taste the air, but when he’s out on his own too far away from the pack and Lilla, it’s a little uncomfortable. Looking off to the far hills, he’s still in touch with Lilla, and when she calls, he hears her and turns.

A huntsman’s ability to stay in a hound’s mind like that, to maintain that golden thread of connection between himself and a hound even when something else is calling to the hound’s deep instinct, is vital to success. It’s not always possible to hold a hound’s attention, but a huntsman that consistently can regain a hound’s attention simply by saying its name–a twitch upon that golden thread–has perhaps the greatest gift a huntsman can have. But it isn’t easy to achieve, and it isn’t foolproof.

“Backfire,” Lilla said, “is a thinker. And we want these hounds to think.”

As with young horses, hounds that can process information and respond to it thoughtfully, rather than simply react with instinct, are better to handle.

Trevor, mom Debbie, and Polly the pony watch the hounds. Well, okay, Polly was watching the grass.

As for Trevor, he had a good day, too! He learned about hounds and also about Polly. The main thing we think he learned about Polly is that she is a PONY, meaning, yes, she will try to roll even while (maybe even especially while) you are riding her, in which case it’s best to get off. He learned that Driver is very big. Most importantly, he found out that this business of following the hounds on horseback is about as much fun as there is in the world.

We think so, too.

Bedtime Stories: But it LOOKS so easy!

IT all seems so simple. Your huntsman turns to you and says something innocent like, “Cross the creek, go up to the top of the hill, and stand on the right. I don’t want hounds to head off that way.”

I mean, how hard can that be? You kick your horse on, trot through the creek and along the dirt road to the top of the hill, where the road emerges into an empty field. So far, so good. It’s then that you suddenly realize a truth that had never struck you before: there are a lot of rights. Did she mean right as in a) sort of blocking the cliffs that run above the creek bed? Or did she mean right as in b) closer to the road itself, to block the hounds from coming out into the middle of the field? Or what if she meant c) stand on the right side of the road clear around the bend of the road, where you could head hounds off if they made for the gate at the other end of the pasture?

The summer whip.

Let’s just say, there are a lot of rights, and I chose the wrong right this morning. No harm, no foul, so my mistake didn’t cause any real problems. But if I’d been thinking like a whipper-in (which, I hasten to add, I’m not), I’d have known instinctively that the most attractive of the available rights was the one along the top of the creek, where it would be cool and any scent would likely linger. There weren’t any cattle in the open field, something I knew when we rode through it earlier, so the most interesting scents were more likely to be along the cool of the creek. I chose b), the “block hounds if someone got a wild hair and galloped into the open field” right, when I should have chosen a), the place where a few hounds did, as a whipper-in would have predicted, slip over to take a sniff among the shaded rocks as our huntsman, Lilla Mason, came up the road.

“Someone should have been right there,” she said in a perfectly nice, matter-of-fact way, kindly pointing to the very spot where, it now seemed completely obvious, my horse SHOULD have been standing.

The sniffing hounds just returned to Lilla when she called to them, and I got another reminder that, as that simple exercise showed, whipping-in can not be as easy as it looks.

The winter whip. It can be a lonely but highly rewarding job on hunt days.

That’s what brought me back to the technical side of things for today’s Bedtime Stories.

The following are some of the observations huntsman Thomas Smith (1790-1878) had on the topic of whips in his Diary of a Huntsman.

“To be a whipper-in requires both a good eye and a good ear; but the greatest qualification for one is that he should be free from conceit, so that he will consider it right to obey the huntsman most implicitly, whether he thinks him right or wrong, and not hesitate, but at once and instantly do what is required; then he does his duty, but not till then. … [F]or what is the use of his thinking, when the hounds are going with the huntsman?

“The thing is to find a man who does not wish to save himself; and if he is really fond of it, he never will.”

From Dennis Foster’s Whipper-In:

“All new whippers-in want specific answers to all their questions. Where should I go? What do you want me to do? Most of the time there is no clear answer. No answer is the answer … then you realize that you’re on the road to success.

Another whip's job that sounds easy but isn't: counting hounds, even when they're on the move.

“Then there are the whippers-in the field hardly ever sees, those who do not halloo the fox, who quietly bring up the stragglers or return the portion of the pack that split on the non-hunted fox. These are the ones who see what needs to be done and do it quietly despite their desire to stay with the hunted fox. These whippers-in are, most certainly, doing the job for the right reason.

“Whipping-in is tough on both rider and horse. It requires considerable time, concentration, and a strong commitment to the hunt and the huntsman. Ironically, if whippers-in do their job right, they often miss all the action. They must bring hounds forward that have been left behind, or stop the hounds that have split off or on the wrong quarry, or guard an unsafe area to assure hounds don’t go there. Often, because whippers-in usually cover an area or specific side of the pack, they can miss a chase that exits the other side.

A whipper-in's equipment includes a radio and hunt whip. The hunt whip is rarely cracked, except in case of emergency.

“What keeps many amateurs whipping are those few times when they get to stay with the hounds and experience the ultimate fantastic hunt. Those occasions underscore the importance of the job and whippers-in are willing to pay their dues in return for those perfect moments.”

From Hunting Pie, by Frederick Watson:

“To the casual observer the whipper-in is the forlorn figure mounted on a rawboned horse in the most exposed angle of a rain-slashed landscape. There he crouches–his jaundiced eye upon the angle of the dripping covert, a succession of cold drops vacating his frigid nose, a hopeless hedge and ditch before him and a fox just sneaking out of the bracken.

“The whipper-in watches the fox out of the corner of his eye. Nothing moves except the continuous procession of drops from the tip of his nose. The fox pauses an instant, one delicate foot upraised, the perfection of agility, balance, and the eternal spirit of an English winter. The whipper-in has a greater personal experience of a fox at that dramatic moment than all the poets, naturalists, humanitarians, and other sensitive souls in Christendom. But he is not a poet or a naturalist–he is a whipper-in. And even a humanitarian confronted by that drenched and incorruptible thorn hedge would turn aside and weep a tear for a hunt servant with so much wear and tear dependent upon so small and energetic an objective.

“The whipper-in stares drearily at the fox which, satisfied that hounds are approaching, reaches the hedge–that ruthlessly made hedge–and twitching his brush is off like a wind-spun red leaf for Cobblers Copse.

“Instantly the whipper-in is galvanised. He raises himself in his stirrups. (The rain now pours from his coat upon his saddle.) He thrusts a finger in his ear (because that is traditional and whippers-in are die-hards to a man). He opens his ugly disillusioned jaw. He emits with the full force of his lungs a piercing and electrifying ‘holloa!'”

So spare a kind thought for the whipper-in, next time you are out with hounds. And remember–he knows which right is right better than you do!

What I Did This Summer

The Iroquois hounds and huntsman Lilla Mason in the summer clover, as captured by Eloise Penn. Do you see any hounds you recognize?

YOU’RE right–I’ve neglected you lately. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you. But this has turned into a busier-than-usual summer, which happily has provided some fodder for blogging, though not all of it is strictly hound-related.

For many of the folks I know here in central Kentucky, this is yearling sales season, and, by dint of my job as bloodstock business correspondent at Daily Racing Form, that means I’m busy, too. Fortunately, even for those of us whose lives are about to be consumed by the Thoroughbred auction season, the summer so far hasn’t only been about work. We’ve had some good playing, too, and that’s one reason I’ve been away from the keyboard more than usual.

Summer hound walk has been especially interesting this summer. On Saturday, I got out with huntsman Lilla Mason and the hounds, and what an interesting morning it turned out to be! Because a local farmer was working with his cattle in the area, we relocated from the usual starting point and into a beautiful nearby field that featured hills, thick clover, and a pond. The move didn’t bother the hounds a bit, and this was my first opportunity to see two of the pack’s most beloved young characters out at the same time: Paper and Driver.

Paper, you will undoubtedly remember, was a puppy last summer and joined the hunting pack in the fall, where he acquitted himself well. Although Driver is one of the new puppies–and there are a bumper crop of those, because Baffle’s litter is nine hounds strong!–Saturday’s comic relief was, once again, initiated by Paper, last season’s class clown.

What's THAT, Paper? Photo by Eloise Penn

When the hounds stopped off for a dip in this new pond, they unexpectedly met up with what they quickly sussed out were two suspiciously unflappable characters bent on world destruction, starting right here in. this. very. pond. This plot obviously competes with Harry’s Complex and Mostly Secret Plan for World Domination. In the interest of good reporting, the houndbloggers asked Harry about this and he said, “They’re ducks. Fake ducks. Give me a break.”

Paper, not having gotten word that decoys, in the duck world, mean ducks that aren’t real, was the first to raise the alarm. He did have a point: ducks that aren’t real and that don’t seem intimidated by a fully grown foxhound are kind of creepy, especially if you are a foxhound, and it’s not clear what they might do next if they aren’t scared enough to fly away when you bark at them. But Paper gave it his best shot, and it sounded like he was saying something along the lines of: “Weird thing alert over here!”

They've got it surrounded--the world is safe! Photo by Eloise Penn

The other hounds heeded his call, and, to give him full marks for bravery, it was the BA litter’s Bagshot, one of this year’s puppies, who was the first to put his actual nose right on the object, which obliged by bobbing merrily (or in a sinister manner, depending on what age and species you were at the time). This encouraged a few other puppies, but they evidently needed some reassurance, so Bagshot, having survived the first risky encounter, touched it again. And guess what? Nobody died.

Many thanks to Eloise for catching some of the encounter with her digital camera!

I expect saving the world from the predations of a couple of old duck decoys will rate highly on the puppies’ essays on the topic of What I Did This Summer. Which gets me to thinking. What would we have to write about on that subject? Sassoon the horse (as opposed to Sassoon the hound, the big woolly standing in the middle of the pack in front of Lilla) would write: “I got back out with the hounds on summer walk for the first time in more than a year! That was worth dancing about, so I did.”

Sassoon does the Happy Houndwalk Jig. Another great photo by Eloise!

Mr. Houndblogger watched the World Cup, along with 1,999,999,999 other people, we’re told. Mrs. Houndblogger indulged in some happy childhood memories by visiting with “the shakeytails” at the recent Lexington Junior League Horse Show (yes, I am a fan!) and learned, among other things, how not to catch a loose horse.

But, mostly, I’ve gotten back in the saddle and found myself thinking dreamily about … the upcoming hunt season. It’s within view!

An interesting aside from history …

This was too short to make an official Bedtime Story, but we found an intriguing note in a biography of Bror Blixen, The Man Whom Women Loved: The Life of Bror Blixen by Ulf Aschan. Blixen, you might remember, was the husband (and later the ex-husband) of author Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame. To see a picture of him, click here. To rekindle your fond memories of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in the movie, click here.

In the biography, Aschan quotes a letter Bror Blixen wrote just before Karen arrived in Africa to marry him, and in it he said: “I am planning to take her up to Naivasha to Uncle Mogen’s place where I have arranged a lion gallop using Paul Rainey’s dogs.” There was a footnote  to that line, which explained that “Paul Rainey, an American, brought the first pack of lion dogs out. He was to have sent a guide to show them the way, but the guide never appeared. It was probably just as well, for Blix’s Austrian friend, Fritz Schindelar, was pulled from his horse that day and badly mauled by a lion. He died a week later.”

Good grief–lion dogs? I’ll just leave you with that thought. Yikes!