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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The HA puppies take a hike (with video!)

The HA puppies on their recent walk, as photographed by Dave Traxler.

WE don’t want to say anything too soon, but … it looks like spring finally is here. With hunt season behind them, the change of seasons mean the hounds’ attention turns to hound shows and summer walk. For the newest puppies at Iroquois, the so-called HA litter (click here for pictures and video from when they were teeny, tiny pups!) by Hawkeye out of Baffle, everything is brand new–including the change of season. Well, almost everything. While we were out hunting (or, in my case, riding with Michael Edwards in the hound truck), Iroquois member and kennel volunteer Cice Bowers was back on the farm, working with the HA puppies.

As a result, the growing hounds have made an extraordinary amount of progress. At just five months of age, they already have been taking daily walks and learning to come back as a group when called. So by the time we and an enthusiastic group of Iroquois members showed up for the first official puppy walk of spring, walking and coming back when called was almost old hat for the precocious HAs.

Creek crossing were part of the adventure for the HA puppies. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“Cice has been taking them out on walks and letting them go out away from her, then rewarding them for coming back, so that they learn to come back,” Lilla said. “She’s also taken Magic, who is quite a bit older than they are, so they’re exposed to someone they don’t live with, and she’s given them a lot of individual attention.”

“We try to give them as much exposure to other people as possible at the age they are, because you don’t want them to grow up knowing only the two people in the kennel who manage them,” explained Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason. “We want them to experience people, children, the house dogs, and strange environments. These puppies had never been away from the kennel and loose in the direction we went on Saturday.”

Cice Bowers (left, in gray fleece and light cap) has been working closely with the puppies all season. Photo by Dave Traxler.

Why let the puppies run loose on the walk rather than put them on leashes or the traditional couples?

“They learn more,” Lilla said. “They get to make their own decisions. I wanted to see whether they would stay with us, which they did. They’re kind of young yet to leash train, but even if we had them on leashes, it would be like having a fish on the end of a fishing line. They wouldn’t experience the walk we wanted them to experience: to be free in the woods, walk along with us, and go out from us and come back.

“We also wanted them to be exposed to house dogs, which we seemed to collect along the way, since we had biscuits upon us!”

A walk in the woods benefitted everyone, not just the puppies! Photo by Dave Traxler.

On Saturday’s walk, the puppies did get some new experiences, including meeting the local terriers and chasing after their companion, Magic, when she found what can best be described as an ex-rabbit. That presented a special challenge to the puppies’ discipline. You might forgive a five-month-old hound puppy, or a litter of puppies, for getting so distracted by a dead rabbit that they forget to come back when called. But, amazingly, no forgiveness was necessary. Magic galloped down a narrow path with her long-eared prize, pursued by a line of wildly curious puppies, and they all disappeared around a bend. But when Lilla called out to them, here they all came back again, one by one. Except Magic, who enjoyed her rabbit lunch and met up with the group a bit later on the walk.

It was frankly amazing to see how responsive the five-month-old HA puppies were, especially under circumstances that could invite disorder. You can actually see one of the puppies, Hanbury, making the decision whether to chase after Magic or return to Lilla at the 2:17 mark on our video from the walk; click below to see it. To see the high-definition version, roll your cursor over the video window; you’ll see a box that says “HD” appear in the upper right-hand corner. Click it!

“When they’re all together and following another dog, that’s when they’re more likely to switch off to commands and keep going, so I was extremely pleased that they came back when we called,” Lilla said. “It showed a lot of focus on their part. They had to make a decision. They had to hear the command then decide to come back; they didn’t just blindly run on. That was great.”

That good decision-making will be important when these puppies eventually join the working pack for summer hound walk and then hunting.

The HA puppies and the kids on the walk found each other entertaining. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“It’s immensely important,” Lilla said. “You want to turn them loose, but you want them to have that invisible thread with you at the same time. In our training program, this kind of training has been much more successful. We’re lucky to have the leeway to train this way rather than on couples. When they’re on couples, they learn nothing. But on a walk like this one, they get to make a lot of decisions, and they learn a lot. We want to let them make decisions, and then reward the right decisions.

“The hounds have to have the confidence to go away from you but the attention to come back. That’s what the invisible thread is.”

Magic (far right) joined the HA puppies on their walk. Photo by Dave Traxler.

There’s a happy side-effect for the human participants, too–especially the younger ones.

“What a wonderful way to get these young kids hooked into the sport,” Lilla added. “They relate to puppies and love puppies, and it’s a fun outing for the parents.”

Goodbye, Stalker

Stalker was a lion-hearted leader of the Iroquois pack until he retired in the care of the Hound Welfare Fund. He remained noble, friendly, and much-loved until his death on Monday, Jan. 25.

THERE is no sadder task than parting with a good friend, but there are times when it is right to do so. That was the case Monday, when kennel manager Michael Edwards realized that it was Stalker’s time.

Stalker’s time was something that we were all dreading, but come it did, and Michael shouldered the heavy burden of making the last drive to the Richmond Road Vet Clinic so that Stalker, his favorite hound, could be put to sleep. And so one of the Hound Welfare Fund‘s great favorites, and one of the Iroquois Hunt’s bravest hearts, died peacefully in Michael’s arms.

Stalker was 11. He was entered in 2001 and hunted right up until 2008. The circumstances of his retirement tell you a lot about Stalker, and also help explain why Michael, in particular, was so close to him. The following description of Stalker’s last hunt day is from the Hound Welfare Fund website’s “Meet the Hounds” page:

It was a windy day in 2008, making scenting conditions challenging. A cold front was blowing through. Hunt staff knew coyotes would be tucked in coverts out of the wind; on a still day, they’re more likely to be found out in the open.

The hounds moved off and explored one covert after another: the Railroad Track, Norton’s Clover, then Betsy and Knox’s Coverts, moving east to west, but found nothing. They moved on to the Swamp Covert but moved past it quickly, as if they knew it was empty and were anxious to try somewhere else. It began to seem hopeless that the hunt would find any game. But then they reached Possum Hollow and swarmed in. After a few minutes, Stalker’s unmistakable voice rose out of the underbrush. The other hounds harked to him and began speaking, too. They went around and around, speaking, then going quiet. Whatever game was in there didn’t seem to want to come out. The hounds knew they had found something, but where exactly was it?

Most of the pack finally came out of the covert but looked back into it, frustrated but listening. Stalker, one of our English hounds, stayed behind, thrashing around in the brush. Soon he spoke again, and out popped a coyote. Tally ho! The chase was on. It was a thrilling but brief run, as the coyote soon ran across a road too dangerous for hounds to cross.

The hounds stopped, and the hunt staff gathered them together, but one hound was missing. It was Stalker, who had stayed at Possum Hollow, happy to have found the coyote, but clearly out of breath and unable to keep up with the pack. We later discovered that he had developed a heart ailment and would never hunt again. But Stalker found that “invisible” coyote and mustered the energy and desire to get him up and running for the rest of the pack. …

When he came back from the vet hospital where they discovered his ailing heart, Stalker slept at the foot of kennelman Michael Edwards’s bed—on the mattress, of course!

“That’s the only hound that’s ever slept on my bed,” Michael said.

Stalker’s last public appearance was at the kennel open house earlier this month, when he waggily greeted visitors and enjoyed pats and scratches from children and adults alike. You can spot him in the video below, the giant woolly with the big smile that made him look absolutely delighted to see you:

Stalker was the son of two Iroquois greats: Grundy, probably the most famous hunting and stallion hound Iroquois has had to date, and Stamina, the grand dame who served as Miller Trust Farm’s unofficial mascot after her own retirement to the HWF.

Stalker, immediately to the left of huntsman Lilla Mason, was among the retired hounds she chose to attend the 2010 Blessing of the Hounds.

“I remember when he was a puppy, we’d turn him out with the other puppies in the back paddock and play with them,” Michael recalled. “He would just run and run and get so fired up he’d be going about 90 miles an hour, making these grunts and growls as he went around. He was always very boisterous, and he had an opinion about everything.”

Another favorite game of Stalker’s in his puppy days was to find Michael when he hid in the thickets of the turnout paddock. “We’d see how long it would take them to find us,” Michael said of the ST litter that included Stalker. “It didn’t usually take them very long. They could smell pretty well.”

In addition to his good nose, Stalker also had good sense. He once got his hind toes caught in a wire at the top of a fence he’d tried to jump out hunting. Rather than thrash and do more damage to himself, he waited patiently, certain that he’d be found and rescued. Which he was.

“He was just so smart,” Michael said, “and he had such heart. I can always remember him and his brother Standout, who was big like him. They both had a lot of heart, and if we ever had to stop them from chasing a coyote across the road, they’d both get so mad at us.

“Stalker was big and tough. He probably was one of the most powerful hounds I’ve worked with here. But the thing I like about him was that he wouldn’t take anything off of anybody, but if he got mad at another hound he’d never carry it too far. He’d let them know that he was mad, but once they’d get the message he’d stop: lesson learned.”

In November, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason selected Stalker as one of the retirees to join in the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony at the Iroquois Hunt Club, an invitation Stalker appears to have taken with great seriousness. You can see him in this video, alongside his larger and younger packmate Sassoon (who is still an active hunting hound). Incidentally, you can also spot Michael at the start of the video in his white kennel coat and orange Hound Welfare Fund cap. Toward the end of the video, Stalker is still standing at full attention:

“He couldn’t have been happier to be there,” Lilla recalled. “I chose him to join us because he was retired and we knew he wouldn’t be with us that much longer. I thought he needed a blessing, and he deserved one. He was magnificent.”

“I liked his boldness,” said Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller. “He had the courage of his convictions and was very bold out front when he was running. He was sure of himself, he was all business, and he was always right.”

Stalker was the boss in a lot of ways, but he also was a model team player, said Lilla. “Stalker was everything we want in a hound, for our country and for our quarry,” she said. “He was perfectly conformed and biddable and intelligent and tenacious. He just had everything, and he was always a contributor to the day. He really epitomized what that ST Carlow outcross brought to our pack when our quarry became coyotes.”

Stalker’s tenacity served him as well in retirement as it did on the hunt field. “He certainly was tough, and he lived longer than we expected,” Lilla agreed. “There were many times when we thought it might be over, but he was happy and wanted to continue on. He clearly enjoyed his life to the end.”

You might think that a hound that tough on the hunt field, and who loved his work that much, would be difficult to retire, but Stalker adjusted to his new life of ease without any trouble.

“He just settled right into it,” Lilla said. “You know, I think he knew something was wrong. He couldn’t keep up with the pack anymore, and he was happy in his retirement. His retirement was seamless.”

Fortunately, Stalker has left us more than just fond memories. He’s got sons and daughters currently in the hunting pack, including Sage and Sayso. Son Salt, sadly, died late last year, and another son from that litter, Sackett, recently retired and is now, like his father was, in the care of the Hound Welfare Fund.

“You’d think it’d get easier, but it doesn’t,” Michael said sadly. “He was one of my all-time favorites. But he was ready. You could tell. He had a look in his eye, and he was tired.”

When Stalker skipped a meal, that was the sign to Michael that the brave old hound was telling us something.

“He just had that look in his eye like, ‘I’m ready,'” Michael said. “He was one of a kind.”

The Great Hound Match of 1905 – Part 1

Many thanks to the National Sporting Library for access to its archives and for use of the photos. Among the original artifacts there are hunting diaries kept by both Henry Higginson and Harry Worcester Smith.

IT started with a letter in The Rider and Driver back in 1904, when Massachusetts M.F.H. Harry Worcester Smith called on American foxhunting authorities to widen their breed standards to include the emerging American type of foxhound. At that point, the English hound–bigger and heavier–was the foxhound breed standard, but Smith led the charge to include the leaner, racier American type of hound that was being bred mostly in the deep South, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as a legitimate and approved standard. His argument was founded mainly on his strong belief that, while the English hounds were still dominant in the hound show ring, the lighter-boned American hounds were better at catching foxes.

“Shall we hold to the heavy English type or shall we go to the racing type, that type which is the successful hound to kill a fox and acknowledged by and proven so by our own trials?” Smith, the Master of the Grafton Hunt (Massachusetts), wrote.

Smith’s assertion was an affront to many established packs who had carefully selected their hounds from some of England’s best packs, packs that had bred hounds for centuries to chase and account for foxes. By comparison, English proponents argued, the new American-style hounds hardly constituted a reason to alter an established breed standard.

“The truth of the matter is this–there is no American foxhound to-day,” responded another Massachusetts M.F.H., Henry Higginson of the Middlesex Hunt. “What Mr. Smith wants, what we all want, is a hound that will kill foxes in America. Now, how are we to get this? Mr. Smith thinks by turning to a lighter type of hound. To quote him: ‘This being the situation, it seems wise to me to allow the Southerners, who have put more time, care, and thought into the breeding of hounds for killing the fox than all the rest of us combined, to have their type acknowledged.’

“Now, if Mr. Smith thinks this, then why not take the English standard? No sane man will deny that our brother sportsmen across the pond ‘have put more time, care, and thought into the breeding of hounds to kill foxes than all the rest of us’ (including the Southerners) combined. Why, when they have produced an animal which, for symmetry, power, hardiness, speed, nose, and staying qualities is unequalled, should we Americans–novices at the game–say: ‘No! We know more than they; we’ll stick to our own weedy sort!'”

Higginson faulted the American hounds both for their “weedy” build and for a relative lack of biddability, and asked, rhetorically, how many of the American hounds’ kills were accomplished “without the use of powder and shot?”

Higginson ended his letter with a direct challenge to Smith: “Let Mr. Smith choose a judge, let me choose a judge, let the two name a third. Then let Mr. Smith go to any fair fox-hunting country in America with such hounds as he chooses–and I will bring such clean-bred hounds as I choose and my huntsman and whippers-in–and we’ll hunt on alternate days for love, money, or marbles. Then if his hounds kill more foxes than mine or show better sport, I’ll admit I’m wrong–but not till then.”

Harry Worcester Smith, the man who got the ball rolling for the Great Hound Match. The Grafton (US) Master was an outspoken proponent of the American foxhound.

After weeks of negotiations over the match’s terms–and after both Smith and Higginson had pulled together packs with the best hounds they could find from American and English breeders, respectively–the Great Hound Match of 1905 finally was agreed to take place on November 1, 1905, in Virginia’s hunt country. The months leading up to the match were marked by acrimonious public exchanges between Higginson, Smith, and their various pro-English or pro-American supporters, as well as by breathless press accounts of the two packs, their breeding and facilities, and the larger debate over which type of hound was indeed best for pursuing the American fox. Insider magazines like The Rider and Driver and The Sportsmen’s Review were understandably hanging on every development, but so, too, did the New York Tribune and the Associated Press.

Smith, for his part, didn’t hesitate to make a Master’s opinion on hound breeding a question of patriotism: “We have just enough pride in America to be willing to back the Grafton Hunt with American hounds, American thoroughbred horses … with saddles and bridles not made by Whippey, but the best that can be made in the United States of America; the livery made in American mills by American operatives, from the tip of the boot to the velvet on the cap, against the imported production.”

By the time the first hunt took place, a lot had happened. The parties had each put up $1,000 for a winner-take-all prize, the Orange County Hunt in Virginia sponsored the winner’s choice of a cup or a $250 purse, and both Smith and Higginson had scouted out the best recruits for their respective packs. Smith appears to have been more detailed in his preparations: he bought a topographic map of the Piedmont Hunt country and toured the land with Piedmont M.F.H. Dick Dulany. Neither pack was allowed to hunt the country before the match opened, but Smith brought his pack to the Middleburg area the month before the match and, coupling them, roaded them all through the lanes between Upperville and Middleburg, with the aim of teaching his hounds  their way back to kennels, wherever they might find themselves on a hunting day.

In fact, the Grafton competitors had had ample training in Virginia hunt country already, courtesy of the famed Virginia hound breeder Burrell Frank Bywaters, from whom Smith had bought hounds. In a letter quoted in Alexander MacKay-Smith’s The American Foxhound 1747-1967, Bywaters wrote: “I hunted his hounds for him the winter before the meet. He wanted them to mouthe a lot of foxes.”

The composite Grafton match pack consisted largely of hounds from Virginia and Kentucky.

Henry Higginson, a staunch supporter of the English-bred hound and MFH of the Middlesex Hunt.

By the time Higginson’s 25 couple of English hounds and their hunt staff rolled into town a few days before the match, Smith’s comparatively small pack of six couple were old hands at Virginia foxhunting. It’s interesting to note, as an aside, that two of his hounds, Snodgrass and Simon, were, as Smith put it, “quarter-bred English,” but these he apparently considered the weakest members, “simply good as running with the pack,” he claimed in The Sportsman’s Review.

Higginson himself didn’t arrive until the day before the match, when his hounds were to be the first to hunt. But, like Smith, he had put careful thought into making up  his pack for the match. He imported 20 couple of foxhounds from the Fernie.

“All are built along the approved English type,” a reporter who visited the Middlesex kennel wrote, “and it has been the main contention of the opponents of the English dogs that they are too heavy to travel fast, although the justice of this criticism has been questioned, as they are able to go faster than any horse that has ever run with them. They are also noted for their docility and can be called from a scent no matter how hot it is, and steered away on a new course with little difficulty.”

If the main question American hound proponents had about the English hounds was whether they were fast enough, the doubt English supporters had about the American hounds was whether they could be controlled. MacKay-Smith notes, “Even those who had faith in the hunting abilities of the American hounds were fearful that they would be uncontrollable.”

The main reason for those doubts stemmed from the way the nascent American type of foxhound had been bred and raised to hunt: independently, often on their own in rocky country too difficult for man to follow on horseback, and often in the night-hunting tradition, in which the “followers,” instead of following, built campfires and sat through the night, enjoying echoes of their hounds’ voices as they ran foxes on their own.

Night-hunting with foxhounds, an American tradition that heavily influenced early American foxhound breeding and produced a fast, highly independent hunting hound

In his unpublished autobiography in the National Sporting Library‘s archives, Harry Worcester Smith himself described the style, utterly foreign to generations of English huntsmen, that he found when he visited Bywaters in Virginia:

We started out with 15 couples of grand looking hounds. … There was little chance to follow hounds because of the rough and mountainous country, but it was great how all these sporting families loved and appreciated a good hound. When the hounds were taken to hunt, they went to the mountain. Their owners knew from the cry which hound had struck a cold trail and when another joined in. When the cry was redoubled we knew that Reynard was up. There was no chance of getting to the hounds–you could only figure in your mind where you thought they might come, and, by galloping, obtain a position at a point where they could come towards you in full cry, possibly see the red fox, and hear them go away.

Faced with hounds who were bred to be highly independent, both of the huntsman and each other, Harry Worcester Smith had done three things to try to minimize potential control problems: he had limited his match pack to six couples, sent his hounds for hunting in Virginia with Bywaters, and roaded them extensively, in couples, around the Middleburg area in the month leading up to the match.

The Match

The match started off with tremendous fanfare. A local newspaper reported that 100 horses had been imported to the Middleburg area so that their riders from up and down the East Coast could ride behind the Grafton and the Middlesex packs as they attempted, once and for all, to settle the question of whether English or American hounds were superior for hunting the American red fox.

Despite the minute-by-minute coverage in the press and the pressing hordes of riders, including quite a number of Society’s brightest lights, the first two days–the Middlesex hunting Nov. 1 followed by the Grafton on Nov. 2–proved blank. Interestingly, Higginson arrived nearly an hour late for the opening meet, delaying his hounds’ start, an incident that in retrospect did not help their chances as scenting declined with the rising sun. He was not, at any rate, late again.

Things picked up on day 3, when the English pack, on a scenting day the judges described as “only fair,” found a fox and ran it for 47 minutes without a check, “even giving tongue as they swam across a creek,” according to the judges’ report. They earned high praise for their good work on cold trails under professional huntsman Robert Cotesworth. The day wasn’t without incident for riders, either. At Goose Creek, judge Fred Okie attempted to follow hounds across the water, as described in the press: “Both he and his horse disappeared under the water, and for a few minutes it was thought that both would drown. After a hard struggle both horse and rider were gotten safely to the other shore.” Bolling Haxall later “swam for his life” when hounds crossed the creek again, and Harry Smith fell off twice, breaking his foot. The hounds finally lost in high wind.

The Great Hound Match of 1905 brought fashionable society, with their horses and hampers, to northern Virginia in droves. It also helped establish the area as prime hunt country.

The six couple of Grafton hounds, hunted by Smith, got their own back at the fourth hunt. They jumped a fox after trailing for an hour, then blazed through another 1 1/2 hours, losing all but nine of the 28-horse field in their sizzling pace. There were seven falls as the field attempted to keep up, and “Mrs. Tom Peirce of Boston, one of the best riders to hounds in America soiled her hunting coat when her gray hunter Tapps put his front feet in a hidden drain.”

Hounds checked at a derelict house, where they “were cast again and again around this old house without success, and finally it was decided that the fox had gone to earth beneath the foundation, and so the hounds were called off,” according to a newspaper report.

The following day, the Middlesex pack of 18 1/2 couple ran a blinder, too, as described by one newspaper: “The English foxhounds of the Middlesex Hunt Club started a red fox in Bald Hill woods, on the Fred farm, this morning, They drove him hard for nearly an hour, and denned him in the Goose Creek bottoms, below the Dudley Farm. It was a smashing run of six miles, with many stiff jumps, and nearly the whole field of 30 riders was well up. Though it was only nine o’clock when Reynard was put to earth, Henry Higginson, Master of Middlesex, decided to let well enough alone, and called off the hunt for the day.”

The reporter also noted: “The fox was tired and laid down in an edge of cover for a moment, but the hounds soon made him understand that he must run for his life. He was too hotly pressed to lay many puzzles as he scurried across the open and down into the Goose Creek bottoms. As he entered the covert the hounds were running on sight. The fox headed straight for an earth he evidently knew and in a few seconds more was safe from the hounds’ fangs snapping impetuously about him.”

This unassuming box at the National Sporting Library contains many original artifacts that make the high drama of the Great Hound Match of 1905 come alive.

The field of 32 riders were able to stay with hounds during the 57-minute run and viewed the fox twice. “The report filed by the judges showed that every one of the 37 hounds were up; the first flight will bear witness that a blanket could not have covered the lot as they pressed into the woods which sheltered the quarry’s refuge,” the Boston Herald‘s reporter wrote.

And as a final feather in Higginson’s cap, one of the judges, James K. Maddux, told the Middlesex Master after the run that “the day had proved a revelation to him as he had no idea English hounds could run so fast and true in the stiff country of Piedmont valley,” the Herald noted.

The following day was Sunday, and the horses, hounds, and huntsmen took a day of rest. So will we, but the story, of course, isn’t quite done yet. Will Harry Worcester Smith’s Grafton pack of American hounds pull off another blistering run, leaving the field in its dust? Will either pack ever catch a fox, the goal they and the judges had set as the ultimate test? Stay tuned.