Spinning the Golden Thread (with video!)

The van Nagells' Boone Valley Farm provided a splendid setting for an unusual training tactic by Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason. Photo by Dave Traxler.

DRIVER and some of the BA puppies took it amiss when their huntsman, Lilla Mason, stopped walking out with them on foot and came out on horseback this past week. It’s a change that signals a transition from gentle, summertime on-the-ground training to faster-paced fitness work, but the year-old males weren’t so sure they liked this new way of doing things. They pouted and avoided looking up at her, even as their sisters went about business as usual.

Eye contact is important, Lilla explained.”It’s absolutely paramount,” she said. “On a hunt day, when I leave a meet, the first thing I do is call the name of each hound that’s hunting and I look them in the eye. It’s a way of saying hello to them, and it means I’ve got their eye. It means, ‘Okay, we’re a team now. I’m in control, I see you and you see me, and we’re on our way. We’re on a mission, and we’re a pack.’

One regular follower found a good way to keep her flash cards with the hounds' pictures handy!

“On a hunt day, if you can’t ride to the first covert, call a hound’s name, and have it look up at you, it’s not such a good thing. I don’t want them to tune me out going hunting.”

Bonsai says hello to Lilla during hound exercise on Sept. 5. Photo by Dave Traxler.

To reconnect with the year-old males, to “get their eyes” again, Lilla employed an unusual tactic at Boone Valley last Saturday. Instead of riding immediately, she started off the exercise by leading her horse as she walked with the hounds. The idea was to get the young hounds to associate her with her horse–in this case Bonfire–and to know that she is still the same leader she was for all those summer walks. This also let the puppies, male and female, get used to working close around Lilla’s horse.

As she and the hounds made their way around Boone Valley, Lilla alternated riding with walking, giving the once-pouty males every opportunity to see her on horseback while also letting them know that she is still among them and paying close attention to them. The hounds seemed to be learning this lesson.

And was there anything new that Lilla learned about them?

“One thing I see is that Driver really needs attention,” she said. “One interesting thing is that, you know, sounds echo. When you’re on a horse, you have to be very careful about when you do and don’t call hounds. If your voice echoes off a wall of trees, or if you’re in a low place, the sound comes to the hounds from another direction. You have to be careful when you call them when it’s windy, too, like it was Saturday. I could see the puppies looking around. There were also a lot of people out yesterday, and sometimes when I would call them they’d run to someone and then realize that wasn’t who called them. Then they’d come back to me. They need to focus more on just me and not other sounds.”

Tall grass and windy conditions were additional challenges for the hounds.

Now that Lilla is generally on horseback with the hounds, the puppies also must learn to be comfortable farther away from her, while still tuning in to her and coming back when called. Developing the trust to allow the hounds to work farther away is not always easy, but it’s critical for a hunt chasing the fast-running, wide-ranging coyote.

“An overly controlling person would want them right around their horse all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily serve me well during hunt season,” she said. “I could do that, go out on hound walk and have the whips keep them in really tight and under my horse’s legs, but then when hunt season comes and I want to cast them into a covert, why would they go away from me? I need them to have the freedom to go away from me. So, on hound exercise, I need them to be close to me, then away from me to a degree–but not as far as they might want to go–then stop when I stop and come back to me.”

Summer is finally beginning to turn into fall. The cooler temperatures are providing better scenting, and as the scent improves and hounds get fitter, the pack is readying to hunt. They got a chance during their last walk at the hog lot, where, suddenly, the older hounds in the group struck off in full cry on a hot coyote line. The puppies, who have yet to go hunting, knew there was some great excitement afoot … but what, exactly?

“You never realize how much hounds hunt by scent until you see puppies try to figure out what the heck the older hounds are doing with their noses,” Lilla said. “The hounds came right upon that coyote, and the older hounds got right behind it in full cry. The puppies, who were with me, heard it and decided to go toward the cry.”

When the older hounds stopped speaking and Lilla called, the puppies immediately headed back toward her. But when the older hounds spoke again, the puppies halted in their tracks, then heeded the sound of their packmates.

“They know they want to be over there where the older hounds are speaking,” Lilla said. “Every time the older hounds would make a lose and go quiet, the puppies would come right back to me. But when the older hounds would speak again, they’d go running over to them.

“They actually passed the coyote on their way to catch up with the older hounds! They may or may not have seen it, but they still don’t know what their noses are. They don’t know what they’re doing. It was funny to see that. The most exciting thing about hunting hounds is to see a puppy realize what it’s doing with its nose. That’s what they don’t know yet.”

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