Countdown to the Blessing of the Hounds!

The Iroquois Hunt’s Blessing of the Hounds honors the pack’s retirees as well as its current hunting members. Shirley McQuillan photo.

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.

Bonfire received a personal blessing at the 2008 Blessing of the Hounds. Houndblogger photo.

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!

The hounds, hunt staff, and hunting members gather on the Iroquois Hunt Club’s front lawn for the ceremony before riding up the road for a traditional stirrup cup.  The riders receive a St. Hubert’s medal.

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!

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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.”

St. Hubert and the Blessing of the Hounds

Bonfire at 2008 Blessing of the Hounds

Bonfire received a personal blessing at the 2008 Blessing of the Hounds. The St. Hubert's medals, which the riders receive at the Blessing, are being readied to the right.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Of horses and hounds

Stalker the horse and Stalker the hound

Stalker the horse and Stalker the hound

IROQUOIS has a lot of horses that are named for hounds. Joint-MFH Jerry Miller always has named all his horses for hounds, not all of them Iroquois hounds. Miller’s great hunt horses Furrier and Tennessee Lead, for example, were both named for famous hounds from history. (Furrier was described as “crooked as a crab’s claw” but the black and white Belvoir-born hound “ran hard at head and was as stout as oak” in his career with the Quorn and Brocklesby, according to author William Scarth Dixon; Furrier went on to become not only a famed hunting hound but also a renowned sire).  

But many of Miller’s current horses–such as Gangster, Farmer, Bonfire, and Grundy–are named for Iroquois hounds of the recent past. A few are named for hounds that are still with us, such as Stalker (pictured above with his equine namesake). Now retired under the auspices of the Hound Welfare Fund, Stalker is the fourth hound profiled in the “Meet the Hounds” link provided with his name above.

The Iroquois field secretary has a hunter named Harlequin after her favorite hound, the Hound Welfare Fund’s retiree of the year for 2009-2010.

Members of the field also have honored hounds by naming horses after them. I understand one of our accomplished young riders has a horse named Glog, just as Iroquois has a hound named Glog. Willy, if you’re out there, send us a photo of your horse!

If you’ve got a horse who shares a name with a hound, please e-mail beagle52@aol.com. Tell us why you chose the name you did and a little about your horse. If you’ve got a picture of your horse, send that as a JPEG file, too, and we’ll post it.

I’ll get the ball rolling. My horse, Sassoon, and the hound Iroquois Sassoon ’04 both were named for the English writer and World War I soldier Siegfried Sassoon. He’s best known for his poetry about the war, but he also is the author of the sporting classic Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. I got my Sassoon in 2003 from the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The same summer, Jerry gave the name Sassoon to the only male puppy in that year’s litter by the great Iroquois stallion hound Grundy and out of Bicester Sandal.

The hound Sassoon was entered at Iroquois in 2004, the same year my Sassoon hunted his first full season.

Sassoon hound

Sassoon hound

 Iroquois Sassoon ’04 has gone on to fame and fortune! He won the foxhound championship at the Mid-America Hound Show a couple of years ago and has turned into an exemplary hunting hound. He’s easily recognizable in the hunt field, because he’s large and woolly.

My Sassoon has had a more up-and-down path. In 2005, just before the start of what would have been his second full hunt season, Sassoon got a tiny puncture wound underneath his fetlock while he was turned out. The puncture went into the tendon, infecting the tendon sheath, which then required four surgical tendon flushes and a stay at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

We weren’t at all sure he’d survive, but he did. Then we were pretty certain he’d never be rideable again, but he surprised all of us by coming all the way back. It was a long recovery, but in 2008 my vets declared him hunting sound again. He had missed two full seasons when I took him out again last October for the first time since his injury.

 

Sassoon horse

Sassoon horse (the black one!)

He’d been off so long, I put a green ribbon in his tail to let everyone know he might be unpredictable. That morning I overheard another rider remark, “She’s saying that horse is still green?”  That seemed unkind, but then she didn’t know the full story!

Sassoon doesn’t get out hunting as much as either of us would like (this really is true, according to a “horse psychic” I met at a horse sale the other day!), but he’s a great pleasure in my life, as I’m sure your horse is, too.

By the way, Siegfried Sassoon died in 1967, but his son George carried on his father’s support for hunting. When the foxhunting ban was debated in England, George and his stepson put pro-hunting signs on the family’s pasture fencing. The day the ban went into effect in 2005, George attended a local hunt’s first post-ban meet for drag hunting. He was too frail to ride anymore, but he wore a Countryside Alliance sticker (and an old Soviet army hat!).

George Sassoon and his furry Soviet hat attended a local drag-hunt meet in February 2005 after live fox-hunting was banned in England. He thought it was both flattering an amusing that there was a hound named Sassoon across the Atlantic in Kentucky!

George Sassoon and his furry Soviet hat attended a local drag-hunt meet in February 2005 after live fox-hunting was banned in England. He thought it was both flattering and amusing that there were canine and equine Sassoons hunting across the Atlantic in Kentucky!

George, a farmer, engineer, and linguist, died in 2006 after a remarkably interesting , though sometimes turbulent, life. After his funeral, the attendees gathered in in his regular pub. One of his pals at the bar, on hearing I was from Kentucky, said, “That’s where they’ve  got that hound and horse called Sassoon!” I got a kick out of that, and I guess George did, too.