ON Saturday, the annual Blessing of the Hounds will mark the transition from October’s informal part of the hunt season (generally known as cubhunting or autumn hunting) to the formal months that run from November until March. Blessing Day is the “high holy day” of the Iroquois season, and it’s made even more special by the fact that some of our retired hounds get to participate in the ceremony each year.
The Blessing of the Hounds harks back to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, and it’s his medal that our riders receive on Blessing Day as part of the ceremony (you can see them on their red ribbons, above, lined up along Iroquois joint-Master Jack van Nagell’s hunt whip). To learn a little more about St. Hubert and the history of this beautiful and curiously affecting service, click here.
The Blessing of the Hounds takes place each year on the first Saturday of November and attracts the hunt’s landowners, neighbors, and friends, who enjoy the service, the spectacle, and also a traditional stirrup cup hosted by huntsman Lilla Mason. The schedule this year starts at 11 a.m., when the riders, horses, and guests arrive at the hunt club’s front lawn. The hounds themselves–including 2012 Hound Welfare Fund Retiree of the Year Sassoon!–will arrive at 11:30 a.m. The Iroquois joint-Masters and huntsman will make a few brief opening remarks, followed by the blessing by the Venerable Bryant Kibler, Senior Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. Each rider will then take his or her turn to receive the St. Hubert’s medal.
At noon, the riders will proceed up the road on horseback to Miller Trust Farm, while guests and spectators follow by car. The huntsman’s stirrup cup–featuring ham biscuits, cake, port, sherry, and apple cider–will take place in one of the Miller Trust fields. All those attending the Blessing of the Hounds are welcome to join in for the stirrup cup, which got its name, incidentally, because the mounted riders are served their food and drink at stirrup level by the unmounted person holding the tray!
Tomorrow, we’ll take a last look back at the informal season with video from the last weekend in October, when superlative hounds combined with cool, damp weather and fast coyotes to give October a great sporting send-off!
ARTIST Sandra Oppegard is one of the hounds’ best friends. Not only is she a staunch supporter of the Hound Welfare Fund who regularly donates her wildly popular art to the fund’s annual auction. She’s also got a foxhound of her own, Whistle.
Sandra already has donated her painting–photographed here shortly after its completion–for next year’s auction. The watercolor has a timely subject: it depicts part of the Iroquois Hunt’s annual Blessing of the Hounds, which Sandra attended. Thank you so much, Sandra, for your generous support of the retired hounds!
Please go on and mark your calendars! The 2012 Hound Welfare Fund dinner and silent/live auction will take place on June 16 at Grimes Mill!
To see photographs of last year’s event and some of the people who supported it, click here. To see short videos highlighting some of last year’s auction items, click here. We hope to see you at this year’s event! If you can’t be there in person, you can still bid–watch this space for more details closer to the auction. And, of course, you can donate to the retired hounds anytime either by snail mail or via PayPal. Visit the donation page at www.houndwelfarefund.org to get the HWF mailing address and PayPal information.
All donations are tax-deductible, and 100 percent of your donation goes straight to the hounds’ care.
AND so begins the formal season, with the blessing of hounds and riders gathered once again at the old Grimes Mill. Blessing Day harks back to St. Hubert, about whom we have written a great deal in the past. But it also, in a way, “harks forrard” to the hunting season proper, and God knows we need blessings aplenty for that, when somber weathermen and the Farmer’s Almanac both are making ominous noises about a winter of snow and ice. Phooey. The temperature is in the 40s today, and, though it is wet, the houndbloggers are determined that It Will Not Snow as much this year as it did last year.
The Iroquois hounds and followers were blessed on Nov. 5 to have very fine weather for celebrating hunting’s high holy day, as you can see from the pictures and video accompanying. The hunt, founded in 1880 and reincorporated (after a 12-year hiatus) in 1926, has been honoring the Blessing Day tradition since 1931, when Almon H. P. Abbott, 2nd Bishop of Lexington presided. To read more about the history of the club and of the hunt’s Grimes Mill headquarters, click here. Norm Fine, our good friend over at the Foxhunting Life website, recently unearthed a tiny jewel of a film that provides a glimpse of the Iroquois Hunt’s Blessing Day from 1934. To see it, click here. Interestingly, the 1934 blessing shown in this one-minute Universal newsreel isn’t at Grimes Mill, but, we believe, a stone church near Winchester. The following year, on Nov. 4, 1935, the Blessing of the Hounds took place at Grimes Mill (click here for a Universal newsreel of that Blessing Day), where it looked very like today’s ceremony: horses lined up along the drive, hounds brought down from the kennel behind the huntsman’s cottage, where our kennel manager Michael Edwards now resides. The priest today, as then, stands on the same old millstone to deliver his remarks.
From the Houndbloggers’ perspective, it’s especially interesting to look at the hounds, which then were of the rangy, longer-eared American type prevalent in the area at the time.
Today’s Blessing Day, as illustrated in the video below, shows that the hounds and the setting may have changed since 1934, but the basic ceremony (and its appeal to the general public) have not:
We’re also pleased to include a photo slideshow of pictures that our excellent friend (and excellent photographer!) Dave Traxler took on the day.
Several years ago, a friend sent me the text of the 1984 Blessing of the Hounds made by the Right Reverend Robert W. Estill, 9th Bishop of North Carolina, who, incidentally, also came back to the Mill for its centennial in 2008. Estill also was an Iroquois member before he moved to North Carlina, and so he was an especially interesting candidate to bless the hunt’s hounds for the 1984-’85 formal season.
“When I got my buttons and began to hunt with you while I was rector of Christ Church,” Estill said in 1984, “my Senior Warden and godfather, Cllinton Harbison, penned a poem to ‘Our Riding Rector.’ It read:
‘A parson should have a ‘good seat’
Amd ‘light hands’ and an ardor complete
For riding to hounds
Where clean sport abounds.
May no spill that parson delete!
“So you and I and this crowd of friends and well wishers come together for the Blessing of the Hounds,” Estill continued. “Yet are we not the ones who are blessed? Look around you. Even the person farthest removed from horses, foxes, or hounds could not fail to catch the blessings of the day, the place, and the occasion. We urbanites often lose touch with the good earth and with its creatures. We Americans have shoved our sports so deeply into commercialism and professionalism and competition that we have lost the sense of pleasure in sport for sport’s sake.
We lose touch with our past, too. With those who have gone before us. You and I are blessed today (in this time of the church’s year called All Saints) by those whom George Eliot first called ‘the choir invisible … those immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence.’ When those of you who will hunt step into the stirrups today, you will join, if not a ‘choir invisible,’ at least a bunch of interesting women and men who have done just that in years gone by.
“From the time of 1774 to about 1810, settlers from Virginia ‘came swarming over that high-swung gateway of the Cumberlands into Kentucky,’ bringing with them hounds, whose descendants are here before us now carrying their names as Walker foxhounds. They were first developed by John W. Walker and his cousin, Uncle ‘Wash’ (for George Washington) Maupin. Wash hunted as soon after his birth in 1807 as was practicable and continued to do so until close to his death in 1868.”
Today, the Iroquois hounds are English and crossbred, and the game is more often the coyote, who came into Kentucky from the opposite route that the Virginia settlers took, arriving instead from the West. We do still see the occasional fox, and the Houndbloggers take it as a lucky sign. We viewed a long red one on Blessing Day, racing across Master MIller’s driveway, and we hope he was an omen for good sport and safety for the season to come. But we are just Houndbloggers, and we will leave the actual, formal blessings to the professionals! And so we return to Estill, whose 1984 Blessing of the Hounds seems entirely apt today:
Lord, you bless us this day with all the abundance of your hand.
For horses which obey our commands,
and for mules with good manners,
for hounds in joyful voice,
for foxes given us to hunt,
and for covert in which you provide for their safety,
for friends and partners in the chase,
for food and drink and for those who prepared and served it,
for those whose vision and care made all this possible and for those who have gone before os and are now in your nearer presence,
for St. Hubert, our Patron, and his life in fact and fantasy, we give thanks to you, O Lord.
The Houndbloggers would like to add a particular blessing for the retired hounds, several of whom attend the Blessing of the Hounds each year. We’re lucky to have them and however many months or years of their good company left, and they are blessed to receive the Hound Welfare Fund‘s support. We hope you’ll give them a blessing of your own, a way of thanking them for their years of service and sport, by donating to the Hound Welfare Fund. One hundred percent of your tax-deductible donation goes directly to the retired hounds’ care.
… we thought we’d take a look back at some highlights from the cubbing season that ended Wednesday. Some of it you’ve seen already in the recent preview, but a lot of it is footage we haven’t shown before. Most was taken with Zoom, the older of the houndbloggers’ two cameras, so most of it is not in high-definition. But we’ll be taking the HD camera to the Blessing of the Hounds tomorrow morning! (If you’re new to the traditional Blessing of the Hounds ceremony and would like a little background, click here)
We hope the new video will help you reminisce about what we’ve seen of the season so far–and about how far the BA litter and Driver have come, not to mention Paper! Paper has blossomed so far this year and we hope to hear more from him during the formal season.
Thanks to the Hound Welfare Fund, all the canine stars of this highlights video can expect a peaceful, dignified retirement. They give us great enjoyment while they’re members of the working pack, and we value every one. As we prepare to celebrate these magnificent animal athletes at the Blessing of the Hounds, please consider helping the Hound Welfare Fund provide for the hounds in their golden years!
SO I thought I had captured some great moments in 2009 Blessing Day history. And I did capture the moments, but they’re all blurry! Well, they’re not blurry if you look at them in thumbnail size. This is what happens when a person breaks her camera by dropping it in the airport and has to resort to taking still shots on a video camera.
All of which makes me all the more pleased to have met Jim Lane on Saturday at the Iroquois Blessing of the Hounds. Jim knows his stuff, and his pictures are, well, let’s just say they are profoundly NOT blurry. They’re excellent. See for yourself, and enjoy reliving the day!
THERE’S something truly beautiful about the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony that opens the formal foxhunting season. It’s a “high church” event for foxhunters, a way to honor the sport’s most important players: the hounds, the game, and the land.
At Iroquois, we add a special twist by including retired hounds in the blessing ceremony, a tip of the top hat to their years of service and all the sport they and their progeny have given the club.
A good many of the Iroquois Hunt’s neighbors and landowners were in attendance today as the riders, horses, hounds, and hunt staff gathered in toasty sunshine on the clubhouse lawn. Deacon Bryant Kibbler conducted the service, and in his brief homily, he, too, made a point to honor our old soldiers who were standing nearby with huntsman Lilla Mason, their sterns gently waving as if they were remembering their glory days in the hills and fields around them.
They were joined by a sprinkling of current members in the hunting pack. Our big woolly, Grundy’s son Sassoon, is “far from retired,” Lilla said, “but he loves a party.” The sisters Finite and Finesse, fondly known as “two bodies, one brain,” also attended before taking to the hunt field.
(In case you need a reminder about how they got their nickname, here is their story, originally posted in Hound’s Life: Summer Walk earlier this year:
They are a testament to this hunt staff’s patience. They showed little real interest in hunting early on in their careers and usually could be found loping along together as if in their own world. But one day, something clicked.
“Lilla spotted them on a run out hunting one day near Blue Fox Farm,” Miller recalls. “She said over the radio, ‘It’s Finesse!’ I said, ‘No, you’ve got that wrong,’ and she came back on the radio and said, ‘And Finite!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
But there they were, the two sisters leading the whole pack.
“They lost 10 or 15 pounds that season because they finally started hunting,” Miller said. “Before then it seemed like they could just live on air. We used to feed them about this much”–cupping his hand–”and they still stayed fat because they expended so little energy on the hunt field.”
Sassoon, Finesse, and Finite are all woolly hounds rather than smooth-coated. The other woollies out this morning to receive their blessing were Gloucester, Fickle, and Stalker.
For Stalker, it was an especially important milestone. Stalker is nine years old this season, and he has a heart ailment. “Every day is a blessing for Stalker,” said Lilla, and that’s true. We don’t know how long we will have old Stalker around, but he has earned the hunt’s special affection for his courage.
The other retired hounds who enjoyed a nostalgic visit to the hunt club were Parapet, Pancake (better known in her early hunting days as “Pancake. Pancake. PANCAKE!”); Glamorous, so named because she appears to be wearing an ermine wrap around her neck and shoulders; Radiant; Glowworm (whose father, Captain, was the first hound retired under the auspices of the Hound Welfare Fund); and Harlequin, the HWF’s retiree of the year for 2009 who was featured in the blog earlier this year.
The older hounds stepped right back into their familiar role, pushing their way right up with the younger hounds to compete for biscuits and trotting over to visit spectators gathered around the lawn for the ceremony. One child could be heard to say, “Mommy! That dog’s got a beard!”
We love our woollies!
The clip below is from the beginning of the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony; the two biggest woollies are Sassoon and Stalker.
Then it was on up the road for a stirrup cup in a field adjacent to Miller Trust Farm, where the hounds are kenneled.
It was especially nice to see so many young riders out today! They took everything in stride. The smallest riders retired from the field after having their photos taken (and some ham biscuits and cake, provided by Lilla as part of the stirrup cup). But the other juniors joined right in for the hunt day, galloping and jumping and watching the hounds work in the grassy fields, woods, and creek bottoms on Miller Trust and the surrounding country.
We think everyone–hounds, horses, and riders–went home happy. The weather was too hot for good scenting, but the hounds worked well together, and, all in all, it was a pleasant start to the formal season, complete with some impromptu schooling over fences in “the bowl” near Boone Creek on Miller Trust. In the clip below, you get a good idea of how high some of the growth is now, courtesy of the unusually wet summer we’ve had. The clip starts with the field jumping a coop and also includes the sound of Lilla’s horn and the hounds speaking briefly.
Finally, it was time to hack home again. Lilla rode her horse, Lager, right into the kennel to make sure everyone was home safely.
We hope you had a happy hack home, too.
Happy Blessing Day, everyone!
AT Iroquois, the formal hunting season traditionally opens with the Blessing of the Hounds on the first Saturday of November. That puts it close to the Nov. 3 feast day of hunting’s patron saint, St. Hubert of Liege (circa 656-circa 728), a huntsman himself.
The Blessing of the Hounds is the highlight of the opening meet, and at Iroquois we do things a little differently: the Masters, huntsman, and staff invite some of the hunt’s retired hounds to be blessed. (The retirees certainly have a good few blessings to count, not least the fact that they receive good care until the end of their days, thanks to the Hound Welfare Fund and its supporters. And we at the HWF count those supporters among our many blessings, too!)
The Blessing of the Hounds isn’t, of course, unique to Iroquois or even to foxhunting. In Belgium, where Hubert was Bishop of Liege, the Blessing of the Hounds (and their huntsmen) is mainly a ritual to ward off rabies, because the saint was famous for curing the dread disease using either (or both) of two tools: thread from a white and gold stole the Virgin Mary was said to have bestowed on Hubert and the St. Hubert’s Key, supposedly given to Hubert by St. Peter. Both were used up even into the modern age by monks in the Brotherhood of St. Hubert. The thread cure involved making an incision in the skin of the sufferer’s forehead, then placing the thread in the wound. The key cure wasn’t much better, according to this account: “A priest would prick the forehead of a rabies sufferer and a black bandage would be applied for nine days while the heated key was placed on the body where the bite had occurred. This could actually help, because if the heated key was applied immediately it could cauterize and sterilize the wound, effectively killing the rabies virus.” To see a picture of the key, which was used in some parts of Europe even up to the 20th century, click here.
The Brotherhood of Saint Hubert, or Compagnons de Saint-Hubert, is headquartered in the small Ardennes town of Saint-Hubert (surprise!), where they put on a really big show for their Blessing of the Hounds.
St. Hubert: prince, huntsman, healer, and saint. He is the patron saint of hunters, but other groups that also claim him include butchers, machinists, mathematicians, and metal workers.
In 2004, one enchanted travel writer described the crowded scene:
“Every year on November 3rd the green-cloaked Compagnons de Saint-Hubert proceed to the basilica followed by the scarlet-coated hunters with their hounds, the sonneurs carrying huge circular hunting horns over their shoulders, the flag-throwers, and–this being Belgium–a solid contingent from the brewers’ guild. During the High Mass, hounds stand next to hunters in the nave, good-naturedly waving their tails and tilting their heads in recognition whenever the service is punctuated by the refrain of the hunting horns, whose chords reverberate amid the soaring columns. The sound disturbs something primordial; it is impossible to remain unmoved.
“After Mass, the hounds are sprinkled with holy water. Outside, the large square is packed with such a throng of people holding up their dogs to be blessed that the priest can hardly move amongst them: ‘Glory to dog on high,’ indeed. … When I was there, a group of pilgrim hunters had ridden for four days to Saint-Hubert; they sang a song about the glories of hunting and its empathy with nature, and then clattered off into the frosty sunshine.”
It’s customary to eat bread (variations on the Blessing of the Hounds often have the hounds and hunters eat bits of blessed bread as protection from rabies), as well as other traditional game dishes.
The basilica of Saint-Hubert in Belgium
But just who was St. Hubert? The story of his conversion to Christianity is very similar to that of St. Eustace, and both are clouded by suspicion that they were fictional. St. Hubert, so the story goes, was the oldest son of Bertrand, Duke of Aquitaine, and grandson of Charibert, King of Toulouse. He did not appear at first to be saint material. He was a worldly courtier, a married father, and not at all a regular churchgoer; he preferred to hunt his hounds. He was doing just that one Good Friday morning when a stag appeared to him. Between its antlers he saw a crucifix, and he heard a voice say, “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you shall go quickly down to the abyss of hell.”
(St. Eustace was a general named Placidus under the Roman emperor Trajan who changed his name upon his conversion, which also came about after seeing a stag with the crucifix between its antlers. Eustace died in about 118.)
Hubert’s wife, Floribanne, died soon after this experience, and it seems Hubert took that as the clincher. He renounced his worldly life and all his possessions, left his son in the care of his brother, and devoted himself to priestly studies. He later became the first bishop of Liege. Legend also has it that Hubert accurately predicted the date of his own death and died just as he had begun reciting, “Our Father, who art in heaven–.”
In addition to being the patron saint of hunters, he also has been associated at one time or another with furriers, trappers, mathematicians, metal workers, and machinists, and he is invoked against both rabies and bad behavior in dogs–especially in hounds and other hunting dogs (Harry and Driver, meet Hubert!).
Hubert may have given up all his worldly possessions, but he didn’t give up his love of hounds, and the monks of the St. Hubert abbey honored this by naming a breed of hound they developed the “chien de Saint-Hubert”: Saint Hubert’s hound. The breed originally is thought to have been all black or black and tan, medium-sized, and smooth-coated, a forebear of the bloodhound and others. The modern version, seen below, looks very like the bloodhound, but some historians believe today’s version differs significantly from the original bred by the Belgian monks.
Some say the originals were powerful but shorter-legged than their modern brethren, and principally valuable in hunting boar. The bloodhound and modern St. Hubert’s characteristic loose, wrinkly skin also, one hound breed historian noted, “was not at all typical of the St. Huberts of the Abbey.” Others say that the modern bloodhound was developed by crossing black St. Hubert’s hounds with white Talbot hounds, the latter a large early hunting hound, now sadly extinct.
The Talbot hound. Now extinct, this large white hunting hound features in medieval paintings, stone carvings, and coats of arms.
Given the passage of so much time, it’s difficult to know exactly what the originals looked like. It is usually said that William the Conqueror first imported the St. Huberts to England, calling them bloodhounds.
But, in Hounds of the World, Sir John Buchanan-Jardine makes an interesting note about the early St. Hubert hounds:
“Probably the most direct importation of St. Hubert’s hounds into Great Britain was the present of a pack of hounds made to the monks of Margam Abbey in Glamorganshire. The tradition is that these hounds were presented by the monks of some continental abbey, presumably by St. Hubert’s Abbey itself, as I have failed to trace any other monastery that bred hounds. In any case, these hounds are traditionally reputed to have been of St. Hubert’s breed, smooth-coated and black and tan in colour. They were kept and bred at Margam Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, when they passed into the hands of the Lord of the Manor and later, about 1700, the descendants of this pack become the property of Mr. Jenkins of Gelli.
“Probably the modern Welsh foxhound owes much of his fine nose and voice to this particular importation.”
The gene that makes some of the Iroquois hounds woolly is Welsh, so could our woollies like Sassoon hark back to St. Hubert? It’s awfully nice to think so, especially today, on St. Hubert’s feast day.