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!

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