What we’ve been doing this summer

Hounds among cattle

Getting hounds used to cattle is an important part of the summer training regimen.

CATTLE are boring. That’s the message Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason wants to give the hounds. Whether or not you happen to like cattle, or even find them exciting, it’s important that the hounds find them as unexciting as possible. Why? Farmers don’t like their cattle to be chased or harassed, and it doesn’t aid in chasing the quarry–coyote, in our case–if the pack decides they’re too interested in visiting with the cattle in a field the quarry has run through.

But hounds (and especially puppies) are curious beings, and so are calves. Letting the two populations meet and find each other dull company is something that has to be managed carefully.

“In our training program, our goal is to let the hounds investigate something, make the right decision, and learn from that,” explained Lilla. “What you don’t want on hound walk is, every time you get around cattle, the whips and I get nervous and all the hounds want to do is, like a child, the thing you tell them not to do. That’s what you don’t want. What I prefer is for them to go out, investigate the cattle, maybe make a mistake, but see the cattle and get bored with them.

“What you don’t want to do is create a situation where the cattle were fun and it was fun to chase them. You want them to get close to the cattle and smell them, get around their legs and maybe get pushed around by one, things like that. You don’t want them to find a lone calf that runs and they chase it. Then you’ve got more homework to do, because that was fun.

“It’s a fine line,” Lilla adds. “But the summer is when you want them to make their mistakes. So at some point you’ve got to just let them experience things. They say God is your best whipper-in. So on a hot day, that’s a good time to take them through cattle, on a day when the cattle don’t want to run, and with cattle that are used to seeing hounds so they don’t react to the hounds because they’re bored with them, too.”

A lone calf that runs away from the hounds can present a particular temptation.

Lilla started the summer’s hound walk at The Pig Lot, where there’s a herd of cows and calves in several large fields. “A lot of times the cows will encircle the babies when they’re lying down, so they’ll all be together,” Lilla said. “That’s ideal, because the cows are being protective, and the babies won’t get up and run, and the cows will swing their heads at the hounds to discourage them.”

There’s plenty of room for hounds and cattle avoid each other, but there also are good opportunities for the twain to meet, as we saw earlier this summer when a young steer sidled up to the pack by himself and tried to engage the puppies. You can see it at about the 3:48 mark :

By mid-July, the year-old puppies Driver and the BA litter had seen and smelled plenty of cattle at The Pig Lot under circumstances that usually weren’t very titillating: hot summer mornings, few lone calves, and plenty of watchful mama moo-cows with plenty of hound experience.

But when Lilla started walking the hounds twice a week at Boone Valley in late July, things got a little more challenging. On a recent Saturday, the hounds met up with a herd of curious young heifers who were both forward and prone to run–a mix the puppies hadn’t experienced before and a real test of their discipline.

“We do a lot of work with cattle before we ever go to Boone Valley, because those heifers are young and very curious, and when they see something they’re curious about, they’ll surround it,” Lilla explained. “They won’t stand still. And they’re young enough that they’re very mobile. They’re like a school of fish.

“It was a perfect test. They were at a distance, and we moved into their field. They came at us, and there were a lot of them.”

Then someone barked. The heifers spooked and ran. Did the hounds give in to the temptation to chase after them? See for yourself how they handled it:

“That was a really good test of our summer program so far,” Lilla said. “What the hounds didn’t do was switch off mentally and think, ‘I’ve gotta chase that, I’ve gotta chase that.’ What they did instead was make a decision, hear me tell them no, and come back. That’s the invisible thread.

“Any pack of hounds, any young puppy, has a tendency to run after what’s moving. You’ll see that during hunt season. Just because a deer flushes out of a covert and a hound gallops a few steps after it, that’s not rioting. If the hound then gets the chance to see it and smell it and then says, ‘Oh, right, I’m not supposed to do that,’ and comes back, that’s what you want. Rioting is when they take those few galloping steps and then switch off to the huntsman and say, ‘I’ve gotta chase that.’ Then you’ve got a problem.

“What was nice about that day,” she continued, “is that the whippers-in were very calm and I was calm. We didn’t create tension for the pack, where they get like a coiled-up spring ready to pop, where they’re thinking, ‘Everybody’s tense! We’re tense, too! What are we tense about? Oh, cattle are moving, we’ve got to run!’

“The whips did the right thing, because they got where, if there was a problem, they could correct it, but they didn’t come running in and push the hounds back to me. They allowed the hounds to obey me.'”

There’s still time for more training this summer: the informal hunting season, which will mark the puppies’ debut, doesn’t start until around October. But already the young hounds have passed some important tests. Next up: horn training. So far, Lilla hasn’t used the horn much at all on hound walks. How can she teach Driver and the BAs what it means? Find out next time, on the hound blog!

Summer strolls

The BA puppies are taking their first summer walks with older members of the pack this summer.

AND SO we come back to where we started–on summer hound walk! Driver has yet to make his debut, but the year-old BA puppies are gradually being introduced to the working pack. At this early stage, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason is bringing them out in small groups with some of the older hounds, who can lead by example as the youngsters meet up with new sights, smells, and adventures off leash and away from the kennel. Cattle are one of the important new sights and smells combined, and it’s crucial that the puppies get a good introduction to them, because once they join the pack on hunts, the hounds must be able to ignore cattle (and their scent) when tracking coyotes. The quarry often will run through cattle in an attempt to foil the scent, and hounds must maintain professionalism under those circumstances, parsing out the coyote’s scent without disturbing the cattle.

The Iroquois pack’s early summer walks take place in a large cow pasture. That gives the hounds the opportunity to work around cattle every day, to learn that they are simply part of the landscape, and to grow comfortable with them.

In the video, you’ll recognize quite a few of the puppies: Bangle, Banknote, and Bailey feature prominently!

Other goals on hound walk: to teach the puppies to come, even when something interesting has their attention, and to introduce the concept of working as a pack. It’s early days yet, and the walks at the moment are very gentle affairs as the puppies explore the wonders of the cow pasture, particularly the pond, where they take a dip twice in the course of the walk. But everything serves training.

The hounds clearly enjoy wading and chasing the biscuits Lilla tosses for them in the pond.

Stay tuned for more of their adventures, including Driver’s debut on summer walk!

In Memoriam: Savvy

On Feb. 4, Savvy had the kind of hunt day hounds must dream about. It was to be her last: she developed a twisted intestine about a week later and died after surgery.

EVERYONE has been saying it: thank heavens Savvy had such a good day out.

Our hunt season has been mostly ruined this season by the unusually bad weather, but on February 4 huntsman Lilla Mason and the joint-Masters spotted a chance between two foul weather systems. They went for it, aided by one of the Iroquois hunt country’s generous landowners. It was a chance worth taking: the hounds wanted out, there was another snowstorm looming on the horizon, and did I mention the hounds wanted out? It wasn’t a regularly scheduled hunt day, but who cares? We’re living in uncertain times, meteorologically speaking. Carpe passable weather!

What passed for good weather on February 4 was damp with a bone-chilling breeze, and a few brave souls convened to follow hounds on horseback. But the hounds had their hunt, and what a hunt it was. For Savvy, it was the hunt of a lifetime.

“It was absolutely marginal weather,” Lilla said. “The footing was horrible. The temperature was pretty warm, but the ground was semi-frozen, sort of melted on top and greasy underneath.

Whipper-in Blaine Holloway at the meet. The day was damp with a chilly wind, and the footing ranged from ice to greasy mud.

“The only reason we were able to go is that the people on Foxtrot Farm allowed us to park our trailers along their farm road, because they weren’t going to be doing much work on that part of the farm that day. You could never have pulled a trailer into a field, it was just incredibly wet. But the hounds really needed to go out.”

It seemed highly likely there would be some coyotes afoot, based on the farm’s own reports.

“The farm had asked us to draw the hounds through their cows, because the cows were calving and they’d seen some coyotes among their cattle,” Lilla explained. “They told us that any time we draw through their cattle the coyotes seem to stay away for a few days. The smell of the hounds lingers, and they get spooked off.”

To give everyone the best chance at a good day out before the next round of bad weather moved in, Lilla brought out 12 couples of hounds, including, of course Savvy.

“Savvy was one of our leading hounds, and Jerry (joint-Master Jerry Miller) said if she hadn’t died we would have bred her,” Lilla said. That’s a strong testament for a hunt that only breeds one litter each year.

Savvy on summer houndwalk. She led a group of hounds on a seven-hour chase on Feb. 4.

“She was that good,” Lilla said. “She had some of our best bloodlines, and she was everything that works for us. Every once in a while on a hunt she’d be the last one in because she would not stop, but she was never doing anything wrong. She just had this unbelievable nose and drive, and she would follow that nose no matter what.”

Lilla’s plan was to start at the Cabin Covert, draw hounds thoroughly from east to west through the calving herd, then head south to Murphy’s Covert and draw heading north. That would put the hounds heading away from a potentially dangerous two-lane road that cuts across the southern end of the hunt country.

“We were hoping not to get a coyote up that went south across that road, because we knew it was going to be hard to keep up with the hounds on horses,” Lilla said. “If we could get one up that would stay north of that road, that would be good.”

At their first stop, the Cabin Covert, Savvy and her 23 packmates picked up traces of coyote scent. “They were feathering a little bit,” Lilla said, referring to the quick side-to-side tail motion hounds make when puzzling out a scent. But they didn’t strike off. Lilla led them on to the cattle, weaving the hounds in and out among the herd.

Savvy enjoyed kennel visitors as much as they enjoyed meeting her.

“After we’d been through all the cattle, I looked up to my left, and there was Savvy, all of a sudden going perpendicular to my intended path,” Lilla said. “She was heading straight east. I knew better than to try to do anything about it. I wouldn’t call Savvy independent, but she would sometimes disagree with me when she knew she was right about something. Being the old wise girl she was, I knew she was winding something, and it would be counterproductive to send a whip over there to turn her around.”

One or two hounds, then four, then the rest of the pack drifted in Savvy’s direction, too. Then they started feathering. The hounds picked up their pace, heading up a hill. Lilla and the field trotted after them, but it was a treacherous climb, with ice patches and slippery mud. Led by Savvy’s nose, the hounds disappeared over the crest of the hill. By the time the riders got there, they were a field ahead–and then they opened up in full cry.

They ran north, then looped south. The field, struggling over the ground and forced to go through gates rather than risk jumping on the slick mud, struggled to keep in touch with them. When Lilla spotted a few tail hounds, she stopped atop Pauline’s Ridge to collect them. Blowing her horn there, she gathered up about seven couple–who promptly rejoined the hunt when the rest of the pack opened up in full cry again in the ridge.

“They really fired off then,” Lilla said of the pack.

The pack screamed along Pauline’s Ridge, dropped down to the creek bank at the ridge’s bottom, and then took off in a ruler-straight line heading north into the open grassland near the northern extremity of the country.

“That north country is completely open: no coverts, a few vegetation fencelines, and that’s it,” Lilla said. That big patch of the country is so open and grassy it’s called Little Kansas, and you can get some idea of its expanse from this “helmet cam” video Lilla took there several years ago:

“When a coyote starts running through Little Kansas, you better kick on, because they’ll be flat out,” Lilla explained. “Out in the open like that, that coyote is just going to run fast, and so will the hounds. Sure enough, they got way ahead of us.”

Lilla and the field could hear the hounds ahead of them in the distance, but there was little they could do to catch up to them. Hillsides facing north proved especially icy, but even where the ground was relatively good, horses couldn’t safely go faster than a trot.

Then Lilla spotted a farmer repairing a fence.

“I stopped and said, ‘Hello, have you seen any hounds?'” she said. “He said, ‘Yeah! I saw big coyote go by, and there was this one white hound right on its tail, and the rest of the hounds came about a minute later. But that one hound was right on its tail!’

“Now, I don’t know because I wasn’t there,” Lilla said. “But I would bet you that was Savvy.”

That was a thrilling bit of news, but the immediate concern was more pressing: if they kept heading north, as seemed likely, the coyote and hounds would cross another busy two-lane road and would then be at the northern extremity of the hunt country–and close to a large cattle operation in the corner of the country that has asked the hunt not to bring horses through during calving season. Lilla had sent road whips Michael and Alan onto the two-lane in question, Todd’s Road. But three couple got past them and blazed across the road, and Savvy was one of them.

“We had started hunting at 1, and it was about 3:30 when I stopped with the nine couple I had,” Lilla recalled. “It was about 4 when that three couple crossed, including Savvy. The nine couple I stopped were pretty tired and winded, and I didn’t have much choice but to take them in, especially after it became apparent that the three couple on the other side of the road were going to keep on hunting. All the road whips were up there. If I’d taken my nine couple closer to those three couple, they’d have heard the three and gone to them, and we couldn’t get into that cattle operation with horses to protect all those hounds’ safety. So it seemed more prudent to take the nine couple in.

“The three couple all had tracking collars on, and it seemed that Michael and Alan (kennel staff Michael Edwards and Alan Foy) would catch up to them pretty soon. I definitely didn’t want to try to entice those three couple back across a road, especially as it was getting on to rush hour.”

One of the houndbloggers keeps an eye out for hounds from his post near Todd's Road

Lilla took her group in, and Michael and Alan closed in on Savvy and her gang, expecting them to be tired and ready to leave off their coyote trail in due course.

But Savvy and her pals had other plans. And they were long-term plans. Those hounds streaked up and down that part of the country, encouraged by the fact that that land is rich in coyotes. Sitting on a gate to help protect the crossing at Todd’s Road, at various times the houndbloggers themselves saw three coyotes racing through the field to the north of the road. We spotted Savvy and the other hounds, too, racing along the trail, far away from us and obviously having the time of their lives.

Driving along the roads in his hound truck, Michael kept his window rolled down so he could stop and quickly whip out his radio tracking device; both he and Alan carry these so that they can “beep” the hounds’ location by their tracking collars. Whenever he stopped, Michael could still hear the hounds singing, and he caught the deeper note of Savvy in the chorus.

After he rode back to the meet, Jerry, too, sped out in an all-terrain vehicle to help us catch these hounds as they criss-crossed the fenced farmland. But this little corps of nine hounds hadn’t been out hunting in a while. I don’t know whether they knew more foul weather was on the way, but they had no intention of coming in until they were good and ready. They hunted until about 8 p.m., seven hours after they had started.

Savvy was among the winners at the Virginia Hound Show in 2009. Photo by Jim Meads.

“Every time anybody saw them, they had their noses down and were in full cry, doing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Lilla said. “And that was Savvy. That was what she was like her whole life. Once she got her nose down and she was hot on something, you might as well pull up a chair, put your feet up, and just wait, because that was it. And that’s what you want in a hound.”

Michael, Alan, and Jerry were gradually able to start picking up individual hounds, but the last three to come in that night were Savvy, Grindstone, and Parish.

When Michael and Alan finally laid hands on them behind the Sisters’, Savvy and Co. looked tired but deeply content with their day.

It was a day to remember, both for them and for us. In light of the sad event the following week, that hunt day is a happy memory indeed. Savvy developed a twisted intestine and was rushed to the vet clinic. They performed surgery, but Savvy did not recover. She was 7. She is sorely missed, not just for her own talents, nose, and perseverance, but also for what she undoubtedly would have given the pack through her puppies. And she just had that way about her.

“She wasn’t only one of our best hounds, she also had a lot of personality,” Lilla said. “She had kind of a funny face, because she was really woolly, and she had these intelligent eyes in all this silly hair.”

“She had this way of looking up at you with a kind of smile with squinty eyes,” Michael said. “She loved people, loved life, loved being a hound. If you wanted to breed a hound, she’s what you’d hope to get, one with the personality and heart to run six or seven hours, speaking the whole time. She was incredible.”