Who would be a Master?

Sure, you get the title and the buttons ... but you'll be expected to contribute time, treasure, diplomacy, and land in return.

Not long ago I heard a member of a hunt remark that those who join hunt clubs and ride to hounds regularly “make a lot of effort and spend a hell of a lot of money on the hunt.”

“We buy horses, we buy trailers, we take time away from our families, we have to arrange babysitters,” she said.

Fair enough. Hunt members pay dues and also spend a lot of time and a good bit of cash to enjoy their favorite hobby, much as opera buffs spend for tickets to hear their favorite arias and die-hard football fans invest in season tickets. Hunt clubs are, after all, clubs, and the support of hunt members is a crucial and appreciated part of the sport. But as you pay the feed bill for your own horse or pick up the phone hoping your babysitter is available this Saturday, spare a thought for the Master! The same is true for him or her (Masters, too, feed horses and need babysitters), but on top of that they have piles of hidden costs and work that hunt members rarely see.

Given the challenges of the modern Mastership, from acreage to animal rights activism, it wasn’t all that surprising when a 2009 article in England’s sporting magazine The Field revealed why good Masters are becoming a scarce–and urgently needed–commodity among hunts.

“The role has become arguably less glamorous, more nerve-wracking, and more open to criticism,” The Field reported, adding that in addition to the traditional responsibilities of providing land, clearing it, and maintaining relations with landowners, today’s Master also must be a public relations leader and legal expert, as well, on subjects ranging from employment law to animal welfare standards.

Joe Cowen, a Master of the Fernie since 1972, told the magazine that “there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a Master, which is sometimes forgotten.”

On the front line of landowner relations

Unlike the hunt member quoted at the top of this page, Masters’ expenditures of time and money don’t only go directly to their own enjoyment of the sport; they must also lay out time and treasure for things that benefit the hunt first, and themselves only indirectly. A disgruntled landowner blames the hunt for an injury to his best bull because it crashed through a fence when the hunt rode by a field away? Chances are, the Master (or Masters) will pull out their personal checkbooks to make good the veterinary expenses, all in the name of keeping landowners compensated and happy–and the hunt country open.

“In one respect, all Masters of every generation are united: they have always been expected to pay for everything and please everybody,” wrote Frederick Watson in his lighthearted classic Hunting Pie. “A Master must therefore be a millionaire, an Adonis, a loss to the diplomatic service, and possessed of all the virtues and aspirations of the early Christian martyrs with none of their ultimate recompense.”

The writer and famed hunting authority Otho Paget evidently agreed, noting that “to find these qualities combined is well-nigh impossible, so we must give up hope of ever finding the perfect Master, and content ourselves with ordinary men. It is a thankless task, and it has always been a wonder to me that anyone can be found willing to accept the responsibilities.”

Very high on the list of these responsibilities is maintaining good contact with landowners and keeping hunt country open.

Keeping country open, and, if possible, expanding it, has been a constant worry for Masters for almost as long as people have ridden behind hounds, and it’s become a far more pressing concern in the last 50 years, as development and highways have closed in steadily on the countryside. For centuries, it’s been understood that anyone offered the title of Master should be prepared to bring land and/or money to the table, a responsibility that is probably even more important now as hunt country grows increasingly scarce.

A hunt's country belongs, in fact, to its landowners, and a large part of a Master's work involves keeping that land open to the hunt--and undamaged by it.

When tracts of hunt country come on the market, Masters frequently will be among the buyers. If they don’t purchase it themselves, chances are they’ll be working hard to recruit hunt-friendly buyers, and preferably hunt members, to secure the land, and thus the hunt’s future invitation to continue riding over it. A Master’s status as a landowner also can improve his credibility with his neighbors in the hunt country. They are less likely to take seriously someone who arrives from town, having no previous contact with the owners or land other than by riding over it, and seeking concessions from them for the hunt’s sport.

“If a man is not a landowner in the country he hunts, he ought to buy a small quantity, and thus have a personal interest in the soil,” Paget wrote in The Master. “Farmers always prefer a man at the head of the hunt who through his own experience can understand and sympathize with them in their troubles. The Master who does not know wheat or seeds from weeds is not in a very good position to warn his field from damaging those crops, and there are many other useful hints he will pick up by a closer acquaintance with the land. I do not say that a man is not eligible to be an M.F.H. if he owns none of the soil in his hunt, but it would be a point in his favor.”

Landowner relations are the primary concern of any Master, and most of a Master’s most important duties trace back, one way or another, to maintaining the hunt country and good relationships with the people who own that country.

One of the finest descriptions of the necessary (and generally invisible) work Masters quietly do to keep their hunt’s hooves on (and game readily available in) good country comes from the English author Siegfried Sassoon’s famous hunting memoir, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The book was published in 1929 and describes Sassoon’s youthful hunting exploits much earlier, before World War I broke out in 1914. It’s noteworthy that a Master’s duties, like much else in the tradition of foxhunting, have changed very little from that time. Speaking of Denis Milden, the fictionalized name for the actual Atherstone Hunt Master and huntsman Norman Loder, Sassoon wrote after one hard hunting day:

It was after half-past six when he came in. … He threw off his wet hunting coat and slipped into a ragged tweed jacket which the silent servant Henry held out for him. As soon as he had swallowed a cup of tea he lit his pipe and sat down at his writing-table to open a pile of letters. He handed me one, with a grimy envelope addressed to ‘Mr. Milden, The Dog Kennels, Ringwell.’ The writer complained that a fox had been the night before and killed three more of his pullets, and unless he could bring the dogs there  soon there wouldn’t be one left and they’d really have to start shooting the foxes, and respectfully begging to state that he was owed fifteen shillings by the Hunt for compensation. Many of Denis’s letters were complaints from poultry keepers or from small farmers whose seeds or sown ground had been ridden over when the land was wet. I asked what he did with these, and he replied that he sent them on to old McCosh, the Hunt secretary. ‘But when they look like being troublesome I go over and talk to them myself.’

I found afterwards that he had a great gift for pacifying such people, to whom the Hunt might have been an unmitigated nuisance if it hadn’t been an accepted institution. The non-hunting farmers liked to see the Hunt, but they disliked the marks it left on their land. The whole concern depended on the popularity and efficiency of the Master, and the behavior of the people who hunted. …

Watching him open those letters was an important step in my sporting education. Until then I had not begun to realize how much there was to be done apart from the actual chivvying of the foxes. Thenceforward I became increasingly aware that a successful day’s hunting was the result of elaborate and tactful preparations, and I ceased to look upon an angry farmer with a pitchfork as something to be laughed at.

The quiet diplomat and sponsor

The angry farmer shaking his pitchfork at the passing hunt is the very thing a Master works to avoid, and generally–often because farmers do not want their business gossiped around the hunt country, where their neighbors are sure to hear it–he or she must accomplish that task quietly, tactfully, and without compromising the hunt’s position (e.g., without losing the privilege of crossing the farmers’ land). Such dealings can be fraught with risk: if a hunt member forgets to shut a gate and a landowner’s cattle get loose upon the adjacent road, it’s the Master who faces the task of getting the entire hunt back in the landowner’s good graces as a result of a someone else’s mistake. Discretion is an absolute requirement: if personal discussions between a Master and a landowner get out into general circulation, embarrassing the landowner, the diplomatic channel between hunt and landowner can close for good.

"There are very few young men who can afford to undertake the responsibility which devolves upon a Master and entails a large personal expenditure, in addition to the guarantee provided by the average hunt committee," Henry Higginson, MFH, wrote back in 1948. Since then, the Master's job has remained expensive and become even more complicated, thanks to problems like suburban development.

The list of expenses begins with land and landowner-related costs (such as the aforementioned compensation, as well as friendly gestures, like sending over tickets to a favorite sporting event, hosting a landowner-appreciation event, donating to a farmer’s favorite charity, or sponsoring a rural children’s baseball team), but they do not end there.

Most hunt budgets do not cover the actual expenses required to run a hunt program, and Masters are expected to step up to the plate and cover privately any expenses outside the hunt budget, whether for veterinary care to hounds, land-clearing equipment like weedeaters and chain saws, or the costs of allowing the hunt to travel to hound shows.

For prestigious packs that hunt several days a week, those extra-budgetary costs can mount quickly, even into the tens of thousands of dollars. Which is why the Mastership has never been regarded as a job for the fainthearted or the faint-bank-accounted. Writing around 1950, M.F.H. Henry Higginson said: “In the old days, the cost of hunting used to be estimated at 1,000 pounds sterling per day for each day per week hunted. Today, particularly in the case of the so-called fashionable countries, the outlay is far in excess of that figure, owing to the increased cost of forage and labour. It is false economy trying to feed hounds on anything but the best … It is no use expecting horses to do their work on anything but the first quality oats and hay. Last but not least, if one does not employ both sufficient — and efficient– labour, one will not get good results.”

Another requirement for a Master: hide like a rhino.

“Everyone who comes out feels entitled to criticize and find fault with the Master,” Higginson observed. “It is … a common enough occurrence, and the only way that I know to counteract such annoyances is to cultivate a very thick skin.”

You don’t have to be a Master to help your hunt

If, like the houndbloggers, your finances don’t quite rise to the requirements of a Mastership, thank heavens there are plenty of other ways you can help ensure your hunt’s wellbeing! Join your hunt supporters’ club. Host a fundraiser that benefits the hunt. Donate to the annual Christmas Fund for your hunt’s staff. Volunteer to walk puppies or help socialize the young hounds at the kennel. Host a hunt breakfast or post-hunt tailgate. Sponsor the purchase of a new weedeater or chain saw to help with clearing country–and volunteer to help when your Masters clear the hunt country and conduct fence repairs in the summer. Join one of your hunt’s committees and pledge to pay any expenses you incur doing work for that committee.

And, above all, be gracious and friendly to landowners!

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.