Hard-working hounds

TOMORROW is Blessing Day, so today presents a good moment to look back on an excellent cubbing weekend. The last weekend in October was damp, misty, and chilly with highs in the 40s–a perfect weekend, really, for a spooky Halloween. Despite a stiff breeze, the hounds had no trouble finding coyote lines, and, in fact, the pack hardly ever stopped working during two days of hunting. The video above is from both days combined and gives you some indication of hounds’ general work ethic. You’ll spot quite a few familiar faces, too: red and white Samson, whose trip from England to Kentucky made him very conservational; bounding, powerful Banker; Sage, the mother of our current SA puppies, and their father Driver, too; as well as Paper, better known in his youth as “Playper”!

Tomorrow the formal season begins. Looks to me as if the hounds have absorbed their lessons well during the informal training season!

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Bedtime Stories: J. Stanley Reeve

An occasional series in which we offer a pleasant “good night” to  our readers, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

The houndbloggers can’t say they knew very much about author J. Stanley Reeve when , in 2009, they picked up a slightly water stained copy of his 1921 book Radnor Reminiscences: A Foxhunting Journal. But he was, in fact, quite a figure of the day. Reeve, who lived from 1878 until 1960, was second cousin-in-law, if there is such a thing, to Theodore Roosevelt (himself a friend of Iroquois Hunt founder General Roger D. Williams) and of the famous poet Amy Lowell, too. Time magazine once described Reeve as the “seasoned and punctilious sportsman of Haverford, Pa.,” and Town and Country gave him the title of “the leading fox hunter of the leading fox hunting city in the country.” Better yet, we have since found a 2010 article by Terry Conway that gives a less formal but more delightful portrait of tonight’s Bedtime Stories author: ” a seasoned sportsman and snappy dresser celebrated for his colorful straw bowlers and, on occasion, a nearly orange suit.” Goodness.

A Radnor Hunt stalwart, Reeve also was on hand for one of the great runs in the history of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, the so-called Lenape Run of February 1932, described in delicious detail here. The history describes “a 9 3/4-mile point–39 miles as hounds ran–in five hours and 20 minutes” that ended with only three riders remaining when the gallant fox was accounted for by the hunt’s bitches: huntsman Charlie Smith, M. F. H. Plunket Stewart, and Reeve.

Without further ado, we turn the evening over to Mr. Reeve:

“It has always seemed to me that those hunting people who never begin hunting until the regular season commences, in November, miss half the delights of the game. Anything that one gets real enjoyment from is worth a little hardship; and it certainly pays in regard to hunting.

“It seems like getting up in the middle of the night the first time one does it; but that good early morning smell; the hack to covert in the dark; and the glorious music of about 30 couples of hounds as they go swishing through the wet grass; a field of only three or four out and all in rat-catcher kit, and all with the same trend of thought! Who is the ‘lay-a-bed’ chap who says it does not pay? he’s never tried it; that’s the reason he talks as he does.

‘But what a blessing it is,’ as my father used to say, ‘that we all don’t think alike.’ Other wise, there would be no nice small fields in August and September, and we would not have that feeling, after a morning’s cubbing, of having sort of ‘put one over’ on the other fellows.

“The present generation of sportsmen–and especially the younger ones–are a bit prone to want their sport made easy for them. Motors, too, have quite taken away one of the most delightful parts of a day’s hunting; that of hacking to the meet and the hack home with a congenial friend; a good pipe of tobacco and maybe a nip or two from a flask; and, as Sabretache, in his ‘Pictures in the Fire,’ says:

“‘How often in riding to the meet have you met and been greatly amused by overtaking a chap who evidently had gotten out of bed that morning with the wrong foot first. Nothing is right with him or his world; horse won’t walk; there’s a button giving him Hades inside his boot; the bad-worded groom has put on the very saddle that he doesn’t like; it’s a rotten part of the country we are going into; not a dog’s earthly of a gallop, and, even if we do, the whole place is wired like a mouse-trap; then, cuss these motors that make his nasty, flashy, washy chestnut shy and go up on the bank; dash the wind that won’t let him light a cigarette; and if he ever rides that horse again may he be boiled; he’d sell him for half-a-pound of tea (rather a high figure to on him in these days); and why the devil grooms put on odd leathers and can’t take the trouble to burnish one’s irons, blessed if he knows … and so forth and so on! Poor old thing! He’s bound to be in trouble, a man like this, who starts out looking for it. First thing that happens to him is that the chestnut, who will not wait his turn at a gate, bangs his knee against it, and then, raking at his bridle, nearly puts one of his thumbs out of joint against the breast-plate; next thing, at a small place that a donkey could jump, the chestnut drops his hind legs in, and flounders and sprawls in a manner that nearly causes the owner to leave the plate. Know him? Of course you know him, so do we all!’

“So different from the other kind of fellow, who, like the ‘lady’ who went to the ball-dance and said she’d had a splendid time–three falls, four Scotches, and a mazurka–is full of beans and benevolence, no matter what happens. When you meet him after the first scene of the first act–say after those men on the haystack have interfered with the plot as originally arranged by the high-class expert who is hunting the hounds–he has a nasty red mark bang across his nose, there’s a hole in his new ‘Hard-hitter,’ and the nice-looking bay five-year-old he is riding has a large consignment of Chester County distributed over his forehead-band and face. Mr. Fuller-Beans says, in reply to your inquiry about the bouleversement: ‘Not a bit, old cock! And he’s never put a foot wrong since! A real topper, and he’ll make up into one of the very best.’ And that nice, persevering young bay horse really does perform brilliantly in Act II, just because he realizes that Mr. Fuller-Beans’s heart is in the right place, and that a little matter like that fall over the bit of a stick that mended that gap is not the kind of thing that is going to choke him off or upset his temper. However, it takes all kinds of people to make up the world, and most of them are pretty nice, especially the ladies.”

Bedtime Stories: J. Otho Paget

An occasional series in which we offer a pleasant “good night” to our readers, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

From Paget’s Hunting (1900):

“There have been sufficient rains to lay the summer dust, and there is a slight yielding on the surface of the turf, as a horse canters along. A goodly shower the previous day has left the grass still moist, and there is a delicious coolness in the air. It is barely daylight when you ride up, and after posting your men at different corners, you throw hounds into covert. … The place you are about to draw is ten acres of blackthorn and gorse in the middle of your best country.

“Though you will probably have no use for a second horse, let them come out, and the men may be of use to you in assisting the whips. Another hint: before you leave home, make a good breakfast, however early the hour, or you will probably be tired before your fox.

“You are drawing downwind, so that there shoud be no danger of chopping an old fox, and, riding into the thickest part, you encourage the young hounds to try. Old one-eyed Solomon from the York and Ainsty is busily snuffling at a tuft of grass, probably where a fox stopped a minute on his way to his kennel. The little tan dog from Belvoir forces his way through the narrow smeuse, and then makes a dash at the clump of briers that are interwoven with long grasses. There is a flash of bright red fur, and a white tag disappears in the thicket beyond. A cheer from your lips and a blast on th ehorn brings all the old hounds to the spot.

“The melody soon increases in volume, and in a few minutes every hound seems to be throwing his tongue. Some of the young ones have already joined in, and the rest are following on with the excitement of the cry.  Keep quiet now, and don’t holloa if you see the fox, whilst they are running well. Listen! there are two or three scents, the tail hounds have crossed the lines of other foxes, but the majority of the old hounds still stick to their first-love, and are bustling him round the covert with an echoing crash of music. It must be a dog-fox, and he will very soon have to leave, but at present he thinks the pack are too near to make it safe. There is a sudden lull–now he is away, and you hear the hoof-beats of the whip’s horse as he gallops down ready to stop hounds should they come out. Your orders were to stop hounds and let all foxes go.

“Now blow your horn and take this lot of hounds to where the others are running at the further side of the covert, but if they can hear the cry, they will soon get there without your help. There is music from every quarter, and the litter are now all afoot.”

Bonus points if you know what a smeuse is without having to look it up! And, no, we still haven’t changed the wallpaper below that chair rail, have we?

To get you in the mood for Blessing Day …

… 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!

Hound of the Day: Dragonfly

WEDNESDAY dawned chilly, with the season’s first light frost and thin fog here and there. A perfect morning to start the houndbloggers’ hunting season! We missed the first hunt of the informal cubhunting season on Oct. 2 in order to attend the World Equestrian Games, and we were glad to be back out again in the hound truck with Michael Edwards, the Iroquois kennel manager and a road whip for the hunt.

Huntsman Lilla Mason, on the bay horse, and joint-Master Jerry Miller discuss the morning's strategy with the whippers-in at Wednesday's meet. Iroquois joint-Master Dr. Jack van Nagell is visible to the left and behind Lilla, mounted on a gray horse.

The fog gave way to golden sunlight as hounds met at Foxtrot. Wednesday’s pack marked the debut of several of the year-old puppies, including Driver (whose mother, Dragonfly also hunted Wednesday and is our hound of the day!). Lilla opted to introduce the 10 puppies in small groups rather than all at once, and Driver had been angry not to be chosen in the first group of three that went out on Oct. 2. According to Lilla and Michael, he threw a bit of a tantrum over being left behind, flinging himself against his kennel gate and howling his disappointment.

Dragonfly's son Driver, second from right, was glad to make his debut.

So Wednesday was a day of great excitement for Driver and Bangle, also hunting for her first time, as well as for the houndbloggers. We feel as if we’ve been too long away from the hounds, and it was good to see them again.

It was also a day of lessons for Driver and the BA litter puppies who are brand-new to the chase.

If anticipation has a sound, this is it. These are the hounds waiting to get off their hound trailer at the meet. As Michael prepared to unload them, they followed his every move. This video also includes some distant footage of a coyote we spotted mousing in the afternoon after scent had all but burned away.

Speaking of the heat, it’s worth noting the scent conditions. After a very wet spring, we have had drought conditions for the last half of the summer. If you’ve been watching the World Equestrian Games, you can see the frizzled, brown grass around and get some idea of the Sahara conditions after a rainless nine weeks in the Bluegrass country!

The wet early spring produced thick, scrubby coverts, but the drought and temperatures heading back into the 80s (is it really October?) mean there’s almost no scent to speak of.

Last year, curiously, we had much the same weather pattern, and when cubhunting season rolled around, it seemed as if there were no game at all. In retrospect, here’s what we think happened: in the hot, dry autumn weather, coyotes figured out that, under such poor scenting conditions, they could lie low in the thick coverts. Instead of running out in the open across the fields, they could simply creep from covert to covert with less fear than usual of raising a strong scent for hounds to pick up.

“Early in the season, what you really want is for the hounds to stay in the covert that you’re drawing until you move on to the next covert,” Lilla explained. “Otherwise, puppies will get left behind or hounds will get into another covert and possibly get on a run before puppies even have time to honor the cry.”

To help keeps hounds in covert, Lilla asks the whippers-in to surround the covert. That way, when a hound–particularly a puppy–pops out of the covert and sees a whipper-in, it’s more likely to return to or stay near the covert rather than independently move off to the next one. The whippers-in stationed around the covert also serve as extra sets of eyes on the huntsman’s behalf.

A stirrup cup always adds a little cheer!

“I had two and a half couple of puppies out,” Lilla said. “That’s not that many, but when you try to put them in corn for the first time, it’s not very inviting to them. You have to rely on the older hounds to convince the puppies. So I stood there for a while. I had two first-time puppies, Driver and Bangle, with me. They stuck their noses in the corn, but there were thorns and things, and at first they decided, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and they stayed with me. But then the older hounds started speaking, and suddenly they wanted to go in the corn. That was great. The older hounds’ voices draw the puppies into the corn, and then they want to stay in there, because they get excited about the fun going on there.

“Corn is a good way to teach puppies to draw a covert, but in some corn fields there can be weeds and thorns and things in there, too. But they get in there, and they follow the other hounds and hear the other hounds. It can make for good training.”

Backfire: keen as mustard

Hounds spoke in the corn, and the coyote ran around and around, and then joint-Master Jerry Miller spotted six couple of hounds running the line into the Cabin Covert.

“So I moved the rest of them into the Cabin Covert,” Lilla said. “They spoke there, and then a coyote was viewed away from the east end of the Cabin Covert.”

In the rising heat and dry conditions, the scent did not stick around for long, and the hounds cast themselves back into the corn in some beautiful hound work. They screamed off again in the corn, but lost once again. They cast themselves north and east toward the Silo Pond Covert, but with no success this time.

At this time of year and in these dry conditions, and given what the coyotes are doing–lying low in the thickest scrub–it’s more advantages out to cast those areas, because that’s where game is. So Lilla headed south with the pack toward one of the thickest, biggest, most inviting coverts in the area: Murphy’s Covert. Her plan: cast the hounds there in hopes of recovering the line.

All muscle: Dragonfly training at home before placing second in her class at the Virginia Hound Show this summer.

The grass on the way to Murphy’s Covert was tall, obscuring her view, and as she rode on, Jerry radioed again with a crucial piece of information: Dragonfly, with a few older hounds not far away from her, was behind Lilla and feathering madly–a sign that she had picked up scent. Dragonfly and these hounds, it appeared, had made a U-turn in the high grass and were working back north toward the Cabin Covert again, while Lilla, with the young hounds, was heading south.

No sooner had Jerry told this than Lilla heard a wonderful sound: Dragonfly’s voice, behind her.

“She opened up,” Lilla said. “Everybody immediately honored her, and I thought, ‘Well, I can count on that,’ and I encouraged the hounds with me to join her.”

Banker, recently arrived from the North Cotswold in England, got his first experience of the Kentucky countryside at the Foxtrot meet.

Lilla’s decision to count on Dragonfly proved wise. Dragonfly, an import last year from the North Cotswold in England, knew what she was doing. Lilla put her faith with this hound who had hunted only fox in England and smelled her first coyote just last year.

“Dragonfly was just screaming, and off they went again,” Lilla said. “You know, coyotes will do that. They’ll get behind you a lot. And Dragonfly was smart. I think she’ll really beginning to figure out coyotes. She turned around and went back, toward the direction we’d already come from, and a lot of the older hounds were with her. Most of the hounds that were with me that I was taking to Murphy’s Covert were younger, and that made me think I should go back to see. And, yes, she was right.

“That’s why you count on old hounds like that. They call it fox sense. Well, Dragonfly’s got coyote sense now. She might not have last year, but she sure does this year, and she showed it to me Wednesday.”

Goodbye, moles: Bangle on the move.

So how about Driver? How did he do on his first hunt?

“Driver and Bangle, it was their first day out, and so they didn’t want to go in the corn, and they were happy just to stay with me,” Lilla said. “When hounds spoke in the corn, they went in. But every time the hounds would quit speaking Driver would come out and start lollygagging about. Betsy, our field secretary, was standing out by herself, and she told me that Driver came galloping by her, as if he thought he’d just go off and explore on his own, maybe put his nose down and start investigating things.”

We’ve seen him do that early in his houndwalking days this summer, too.

“But suddenly Driver noticed her there on her horse, and she said he stopped as if he was startled to find her there. She got on the radio and told one of the whips he was over there. A whip came to get him back to the pack, and she said he glared at her, like he was saying, ‘You told on me, I know you did.’

Driver (center) back in April.

“His immaturity showed that day. We’ll bring him out every hunt day. Paper was the same way, if you remember. He would sort of play and pick up garbage, but then once the hounds started speaking he was always there.”

And Bangle?

“She got a little intimidated by all the horses, and at one point she got behind all the horses and couldn’t catch up to me. So I asked both fields to stop and I rode back there and got her eye and brought her forward. After that, she figured it out and knew not to get in back with the horses but to stay in front of them.”

Here’s another interesting side note about Bangle’s development. She might finally be outgrowing her mole hobby. Some people have a passion for fly-fishing, antique-collecting, or vintage cars. For Bangle, it was all about moles. It’s easy to see the appeal: they’re sniffable, they’re small and soft, and they probably make a pretty good snack if you dig down far enough to catch one before a whipper-in shows up to break up the party.

Yuck.

On hound walks, Bangle would slip away from the group and pull up to her favorite pasture for some digging–something the whippers-in and houndwalk volunteers quickly learned to anticipate and head off whenever possible. Because once Bangle was in her mole field, she was planning to be there as long as it took to find every single mole. (To see video of Bangle on summer walk–but no moles!–click the play button below)

But, on Wednesday, Lilla said, “I think Bangle is finally saying goodbye to the moles.”

I think we can all agree this is good news for both the hunt and the moles.

“On Wednesday, I saw her digging in a mole hole, and then the hounds went on past her,” Lilla continued. “She looked up at the hounds, looked at the mole hole, then looked up at the hounds again. She took a last look at the mole hole, and then said, ‘I think … I think I’m going to go with … the hounds.'”

Good call, Bangle!

The star pupil at the moment: Backfire. We’d all been eager to see this handsome guy out on the hunt field, because he seemed so sharp even on hound walk in his early days integrating with the pack. He seemed precocious, and now it looks like that initial impression is bearing out.

“Backfire is really turning on,” Lilla said of Backfire after his second hunt. “He’s learned to honor cry, he’s very quick to cry, he’s just alert. Hyper-alert. The minute he hears something, he’s over there to find out about it. It’s not like he just stands and cocks his head trying to decide what to do. He automatically does it. He still doesn’t know what his nose is, but he is really enjoying this. It’s like he’s thinking, ‘This glove fits. I can do this!’ He’s just crisp and sharp.”

Conclusion: “It was just a great day.”

Next up … More oddities and some great marathon driving from the World Equestrian Games!

Corn, the puppies’ friend

Roading Sept 2009 001

“THE corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” or so goes the wonderful old Rodgers and Hammerstein song. The Bluegrass isn’t Oklahoma, where maybe it really does grow that tall (or else the elephants are smaller), but after a wet summer it’s looking good in the fields we see on our way to and from the barn.

When I think of corn, I tend to think in terms of how much feeding the horses is going to cost this winter, but Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason sees something else, too, when she gazes across a field of Zea mays. She also sees a training tool for the puppies in their first year with the pack. Lilla mentioned to me the other day that she always likes a nice cornfield during the early autumn cubhunting season, the weeks of informal hunting that precede the season’s formal start in November. Why corn?

Corn fields are inviting because they are more spacious and easier for hounds to get into and move around in than overgrown, brambly, thickety coverts. Corn offers a good opportunity for the puppies to get used to diving into coverts without encountering thorns or tough going their first few times. This year, the coverts are looking thicker than ever, thanks again to the abundant rain central Kentucky had through most of the summer months.

“I think I have a better chance of getting puppies into coverts if I can get to corn early on to teach them to go in. It’s easier than if the first thing they encounter is thick, briery undergrowth with stickers,” Lilla explained. “You can easily put the hounds in a big corn field and surround it with the field members.”

Which raises another question. How does a huntsman, especially when sitting on horseback, convince young, inexperienced hounds to run into a covert if they have doubts about it?

“Remember the exercise where we hold the hounds up at the pond?” Lilla said. “It might look like a parlor trick, but we do it for a reason, too. During cubhunting season, we’ll ride to a covert, then hold the hounds up and release them into the covert, just as we do at the pond in the summer. The older hounds will run in because they know coverts are interesting, but the puppies don’t know that yet. They run in because they were trained to run in after we hold them up. That’s what they were trained to do at that cue. So that’s one way we teach them to go in.

“But sometimes, even with that training, a puppy might not understand why it should stick its nose into a thick covert that’s got stickers. So during cubhunting we try to go to little coverts or cornfields, where you know you can get the older hounds in and you hope those older hounds will speak. Sometimes, it takes that to get puppies in if they don’t understand where they’re going. In a cornfield, often the older hounds will go in so fast the puppies get swept along before they can process what they’re doing, and once they get inside they might then come right back out again, looking for guidance. But if the older hounds speak, that really gets the puppies’ attention.”

Those who were out last cubhunting season might remember a good example of this with young littermates Starter and Stanway, who wouldn’t go into a corn field at first.

“They wanted to, but they weren’t sure about it,” Lilla recalled. “They looked at the covert, they could hear the other hounds inside it, but Starter and Stanway still couldn’t quite convince themselves. But when the older hounds started to speak, they shot into the corn, then popped right back out again. The older hounds kept speaking, and Starter and Stanway just couldn’t stand it. So they both dove in, popped back out to listen, and then went back in again.

“They did this a few times, and it was like they were sticking their toes in the water, just testing it. It was funny, but that’s how they learn. Once they figure out that when other hounds speak, they want to hark to it, then it drives them crazy not to, and they’ll jump right in. It’s fun to watch.”

Kind of gives “children of the corn” a whole new (and much nicer) twist. Needless to say, I’ll be keeping my eye toward the corn this cubhunting season to see how the Iroquois puppies respond.

Hark to the horn–hunt season’s almost here! (with audio)

HUNTSMEN are amazing for all kinds of reasons. Personally, I’m impressed by the fact they can blow into a hunting horn and have something other than a raspberry come out the other end.

HEYTHROP HORN CALLS AND HOUNDS IN FULL CRY

I came across this audio of “Gone Away” and “Blowing for Home” while looking up some information on England’s Heythrop Hunt at their website, and it put me in a hunting mood. If you’re in the midst of trot sets and trying to get yourself and your horse fit for the coming hunt season (heck, depending on where you are, you might already BE cubhunting!), hark to this musical reminder of why you’re doing all that fitness work–and why it will be worth it!

As a bonus, the third button on the Heythrop audio is even better than the horn calls. It’s the Heythrop hounds in full cry.

The Disappointed: the Beagle House hounds thought the horn was calling them

The Disappointed: the Beagle House hounds thought the horn was calling them

To hear the horn and hounds, click on the link above. The first two buttons (labeled “One” and “Two”) are the horn calls; button “Three” is the pack in full cry. Oh, yes–you might want to turn the volume down slightly (or not!) and hold on to your house hounds. Mine came racing from the backyard to my desk, looking for the action all those hounds were yelling about. They were pretty disappointed to discover the quarry had gone to ground in my laptop. Sorry, guys.