MFHA hunt staff seminar, day 1: Iroquois kennel visit

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason shows the BA litter to Live Oak MFH Marty Wood (left) and Iroquois joint-MFH Jerry Miller. Photos by Gene Baker--thanks, Gene!

THE Master of Fox Hounds Association’s hunt staff seminar only comes around once every two years, so imagine our delight when the governing body of North American foxhunting selected Lexington as the venue for 2010. The seminar weekend drew foxhunters from around the nation to the Iroquois kennel, and the gathering of so many hound people in our town provided a priceless opportunities to listen and learn.

On Saturday, April 10, the Iroquois Hunt hosted a kennel tour for attendees, and about 70 Masters, huntsmen, hunt staff, and members of many hunts showed up despite chilly temperatures. Two highlights really stand out for the houndbloggers: the warm reaction so many hunt members had to seeing the Hound Welfare Fund‘s retirees happily snoozing in their warm room, and watching Live Oak Master Marty Wood reunite with Paper, Hailstone, Gaudy, and Gaelic, young hounds that he bred that began their hunting careers this year with the Iroquois pack. Wood looked just like a proud papa when he saw how these puppies have developed, and he even joked that letting them go might just have been a mistake! And here’s another interesting note: asked to choose their favorites from our current crop of puppies, the BA litter and Driver, all scheduled to begin their training with the pack this summer for the first time, Wood and several other huntsmen present picked out Driver the pupposaurus for special praise, citing, among other things, his powerful, muscular hind end.

Driver (center): Not quite a year old, and already a muscle man.

It’s true: Driver has lost a lot of his baby fat and is showing distinct signs of turning into a hunk. But he’s lost none of his charm–or his energy. It was especially rewarding, by the way, to see how confident all the puppies were –not that Driver’s confidence has ever been much of a question!–around  a crowd of 70 strangers. Their lack of shyness under these unusual circumstances drew favorable comments from many and is a testimony not just to the puppies’ personalities, but also to their early handling and training.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason tosses biscuits for some of the new entry as MFHA hunts staff seminar attendees look on.

In addition to seeing the new entry and viewing many of the other hounds in the Iroquois active hunting pack, seminar attendees also toured the inside of the kennel. Many were especially interested in the tracking collars demonstrated by Iroquois kennelman Michael Edwards.

Iroquois kennelman Michael Edwards demonstrates the tracking collar and antenna that we use to help protect hounds when they are out in the country.

Iroquois joint-Masters Jerry Miller (left) and Dr. Jack van Nagell at Saturday's kennel tour.

Iroquois board member and former president Dr. Herman Playforth also explained how the hunt club itself is structured to allow both hunting and social, non-hunting memberships. Seminar attendees asked good, detailed questions that covered every imaginable topic: kennel management, hound feeding, the use of radios and tracking collars on the hunt field, and much more.

Thanks are due to everyone from Iroquois who volunteered to help with the morning. These included Cice Bowers, Christine and Gene Baker, Nancy Clinkinbeard, and Eloise Penn, and I sure hope we haven’t forgotten to mention anyone else! Thanks also to Michael Edwards and Alan Foy for their work with the hounds, and to guest Robin Cerridwen for her help, too.

One of the first-season hounds, Gaelic, gets some lovin'.

We’ll leave you with some images from the day that particularly caught our eyes, and tomorrow we’ll summarize the meat of the weekend: the seminar programs from Sunday, including  a presentation by coyote researcher Dr. Stanley Gehrt and a panel discussion that included Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason.

The visitors expressed interest in many of the kennel's features, including the retired hounds' warm room and the hounds' 15-acre grass-and-woodland turnout paddock

The kennel tour also drew new entry of the human kind!

Paper and his breeder, Live Oak MFH Marty Wood, do the cha-cha.

The hounds and their visitors enjoyed perfect weather once the spring chill wore off by mid-morning.

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Hound of the Day, Oct. 7: Bonsai

Caption Here

"Dear me! So that's a coyote!"

Hounds out : Sayso, Parrish, Payton, Star, Sting, Paper, Hailstone, Gaudy, Barman, Dragonfly, Bonsai, Stam, Stax, Sassoon, Savvy, Saba, Sage, Saracen, Griffin

ON one hand it seems improper to pick a “hound of the day,” because a pack of hounds should perform as a pack, and thus should equally contribute to the pursuit of quarry. It would do no good to have one or two hounds far superior to the others especially when hunting coyote. A coyote can weigh anywhere from 20 to 75 pounds, and their diet includes cats and dogs. If we are to serve our landowner farmers in keeping the coyotes dispersed, we have to chase them with multiple hounds who can find their scent and push them to get up and move. Most farmers don’t mind seeing the odd coyote passing through, but they do mind seeing four or five together, because there is strength in numbers and a coyote pack is a threat to livestock and house dogs. Coyotes have no predator, because they are at the top of the food chain in the animal world. Paradoxically, because of the hunt they are allowed to peacefully co-exist in the area. We have great fun and sport chasing them, and they are less likely to bother calves and humans. So farmers aren’t likely to shoot and poison them, which they would have to do if they were a menace.

On the other hand, there are moments on a hunt day where one hound does something so remarkable as to remind us all of their individuality even though they are supposed to be “just plain cooks and dairymaids.”

The chase is like a chess game between the coyote’s intelligence, instinct, and scenting ability versus that of the hound.  The “checkmate” really goes to both if they play a long and entertaining game, resulting in the quarry finally eluding the hounds.  All go home in hopes of meeting again another day.  This special matching of the wits between God’s creatures is what foxhunters really enjoy.  It is not, as some may think, a “sight hunt,” in which dogs see a coyote and chase it until they don’t see it anymore.  Instead, it is a “scent hunt”: hounds mostly use their noses to track the path of the quarry – and the coyote, aware of this, tries to throw them off the scent.  Coyotes behave cleverly while being pursued, using their complete familiarity with their own habitat to challenge the hounds.
The Oct. 7 hunt was a good example of the casualness with which a coyote will regard the chase on a day when poor scenting conditions give him the advantage.
The meet was from Dulin’s farm.  A long procession of trailers arrived with people and horses anxious to enjoy such a beautiful fall day.  The hound list included some first-year entries: Hailstone, Gaudy, and (of course!) Paper, plus three new drafts from England: North Cotswold Bonsai, North Cotswold Dragonfly, and Cottesmore Barman.  The new drafts have spent the summer getting used to all the new smells from unfamiliar plants animals and grasses native to Kentucky but not found in Britain.  One wonders what goes through their minds when they get the first whiff of a coyote.
The first draw was the biggest covert near this fixture, Pauline’s Ridge.  It is very thick with undergrowth and would likely take a long time for the hounds to work through thoroughly.  But, as it was, they found halfway through and erupted in cry.  A dark coyote was viewed across the top of the Ridge but was not the hunted one, as hounds moved west in the covert, full cry.  Hounds lost the scent at the end of the covert, casting themselves about madly in frustration.  It was clearly a bad scenting day.  However, this is good for the puppies, as they watch and learn from the older hounds to put their noses down and work.  They don’t really know yet what they are smelling for, but they feed off the energy and excitement of the pack, and they understand something important is happening.
Hounds continued to work well together, hunt staff counting all on after the next few coverts.  They were in the corn by Salts Barn when a coyote was viewed one field west.  Later in the season, hounds would be harked to the view, but today a training opportunity presented itself, and the hounds would have to work up to the line unassisted.  This is the kind of scene that thrills the field: first Stax became electric, his nose to the ground, as he frantically moved about, searching.  Then Payton, noticing this, hurried to Stax, then Sassoon, then Barman–all smelling the same little piece of earth.  Their bodies were coiled like springs ready to lurch forth, if their noses would confirm the scent in a certain direction.  Paper, sensing the excitement, dropped the small steno pad of paper he had found in Salts Barn and rushed over to help as well.  The houndwork was brilliant, they just couldn’t work it out solidly enough but kept moving west occasionally speaking as they would find and lose again.
After about a half mile, still feathering,  hounds came up a hill through a small clump of trees.  There on top of the hill sat a big blond coyote, casually observing the approaching entourage of hounds, huntsman, and field members. Hounds didn’t see him initially, as they all had their noses down.  Had it been a good scenting day, one imagines the coyote would have been long gone, but he wisely sat still knowing that by not moving he wasn’t throwing out a lot of scent.
The huntsman couldn’t contain herself and harked the hounds to the view.  They rushed forward, noses still down.  Bonsai raised her head, probably distracted and unsure about the noise the huntsman used to hark hounds to the view.  Bonsai hunted one season at the North Cotswold, and every huntsman has his own tones and voice inflections to communicate with hounds. Suddenly, Bonsai froze in place: she was face to face with a coyote no more than 10 feet away.  She stared, then looked over her shoulder at the huntsman with her intense, black-lined golden eyes, searching for confirmation that this was the right quarry.  She faced him again as the hounds erupted in cry.  His yellow eyes seemed to squint before he shot away.
In less than a second Bonsai showed much intelligence.  She didn’t just blindly rush forward to attack, she carefully thought things through, not wanting to run riot (I could imagine her saying “Dear Me” in an English accent).
This coyote took full advantage of the bad scenting day, weaving through cattle, disappearing into a 10-acre corn field. Found there, he passed into another large, thick covert, then vanished as the temperature rose and the sun began to burn any hope of scent away for good.
Special thanks … to field member Martha Johnson, who was last in line to go over a jump but pulled her horse up and waited to let one and a half couple of hounds go by even though the field was long gone, galloping
away.

— Lilla Mason

Teachable moments, thrilling hound work, and Paper’s first word!

Tall grass, a suicidal raccoon, and a cooling line provided excellent lessons for the hounds Tall grass, a suicidal raccoon, and a cooling line provided excellent lessons for Paper and the other young hounds

AS humid as Friday morning was, you could smell a little fall in the air. Undoubtedly the hounds can smell it better than we can, and now that they’re getting fit and the mornings are dawning cooler, you can see that the older ones know what we know: cub-hunting season is only a few weeks away.

Paper and his fellow freshmen don’t know about cub-hunting yet, but they do know this: morning exercise has gotten a lot more interesting recently. Their leader, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason, is on horseback now, and so are the whippers-in. We all–hounds, horses, hunt staff, and field members–move along briskly these days. And there are alluring trails left in the dewy grass when the hounds pass across the fields, smells that intrigue them and are stronger in the cool early air. Things seem somehow more serious and purposeful. “Yes, things are very interesting now,” the puppies must be thinking!

At this time of year, just before cub-hunting, we can begin to see the summer’s lessons paying off, especially for the puppies. Trotting along with six couple on Friday morning, Lilla pointed out how the older, experienced hounds were leading the way, straight through a field of tall grass and tangled clover and toward a covert known as The Sinkhole. The grass was thick and breast-high to the hounds, but they bounded along, with puppies Paper, Gaudy, and Hailstone willingly following their elders.

“This is good for them, to teach them how to get through tall grass,” Lilla said. Much of the grass will die back in the winter, but the fact that the young hounds plow through it now reinforces their confidence to jump into coverts, too, which can remain dense with brush, vines, and briars even in the winter.

Paper had an outstanding day and spoke for the first time on a line! Paper (left) had an outstanding day and spoke for the first time!

The older hounds went straight into The Sinkhole’s heavy brush without a pause; they learned long ago that this is a likely place for a fox or coyote. Again, the young hounds gamely plowed in behind them, though a few puppies popped out again before pushing back in.

Suddenly, a field member exclaimed, “Raccoon!” A young raccoon, disturbed by our arrival, had bolted from a hedgerow and was hustling through the deep grass, visible only by the rustling trail he made as he went. But he wasn’t running from the pack. He was racing toward them.

“Not one of your smarter raccoons,” someone observed as we watched in dismay. Sure enough, the juvenile met up with two couple of hounds right at the edge of The Sinkhole, who looked just as startled as we did to find a raccoon right under their noses. The surprise, we assume, was mutual. But the raccoon, taking advantage of the hounds’ surprise, shot into the covert just as the two couple pounced. There was a lot of growling from all parties, but the covert was so thick we never were exactly sure what became of the foolish raccoon. We think it’s possible he got lucky and found a safe spot in the overgrown debris that clutters the middle of The Sinkhole. We never saw any evidence that he didn’t survive the encounter! On the other hand, we didn’t see any evidence that he did survive it, either. There’s just not much to do, we agreed, if something decides to run harum-scarum into your hounds rather than away from them.

The puppies, Lilla said, actually got a good lesson from the bizarre episode.  “Now they’ll know that coverts are interesting places where interesting things happen,” she said.

Paper was in on the raccoon, but he quickly discovered something else at least as wonderful and much easier to catch and carry out of the covert: an old bone. And here he came, with a graceful leap, straight out of the thickest part of The Sinkhole, the priceless artifact in his jaws. Tail curled, he darted around the covert, advertising his find and clearly hoping to make his colleagues jealous of it. To be fair, it was a lot better than the usual dirt clod, and even better than last week’s highly desirable stick. 

Paper: “Ooooh, bone! I’ve got a bone! Catch me, I’ve got a bone!”

The pack: “Dude. Get over yourself. It does not compare with the wonders of The Sinkhole.”

Even Paper soon saw the logic of this and rejoined the group inside, exploring the thickety depths. But when Lilla moved off, he came out promptly with the others, ready to trot on to Davenport’s Corn.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason

One hound, however, did not follow everyone out: Barman, one of the four English imports that arrived from the Cottesmore and the North Cotswold in the spring. A pure white hound as handsome as a pinup, he has become the Big Man on Campus in the kennel, according to kennelman Michael Edwards. But he and the three other new imports–Bonsai, Baffle, and Driver’s mother Dragonfly–are still learning American culture.

You wouldn’t think it would be that different; isn’t the Currier-and-Ives scene pretty much the same around the world? Not a chance. Consider it from the hound’s-eye view. In the Cottesmore’s hunt country, the grass doesn’t grow to such a monstrous size as it does in the hot, humid Kentucky summer. (The hot, humid weather is, in fact, another thing the English hounds have to get used to.)  And each huntsman has his own distinctive way of blowing the horn. The Cottesmore horn’s English accent, so to speak, is not the same as Lilla’s American one. It can be pretty confusing for a hound who finds himself on the far side of a woolly covert while the pack is disappearing into the grass on the other side.

With the aid of whipper-in Blaine Holloway, however, Barman soon got sorted out and found his way back to the pack.

The morning air was lush with the scent of mowed grass, late wildflowers, and the slight tang of decaying foliage that signal the coming autumn The morning air was lush with the scent of mowed grass, late wildflowers, and the slight tang of decaying foliage that signals the coming autumn

The best part of the day came shortly after The Sinkhole, when the hounds, after exploring an overgrown fenceline, moved out into the low grass of Davenport’s field. Suddenly, the first group, a couple and a half of older hounds led by five-year-old Stax, had their noses down and were running excitedly in tight formation, each trying to own what appeared to be a coldish line, probably one from early that morning when a coyote had made his way across the field.

We all sat up straighter in our saddles, alert for what we knew would come next, and it did: Stax spoke, and the group of white hounds took off faster, criss-crossing the field as they puzzled out the faded scent. This was a beautiful scene, but even more exciting was that, as they wound around in front of our horses, Paper was right in among them, periodically lowering his nose, too. From the way he carried himself–loping along a little more relaxed than the older hounds, not working hard as they were, and putting his nose down only here and there, a little more tentatively–it was clear that Paper had felt the stirring of instinct but wasn’t quite sure yet exactly what it meant. He was excited, he knew something was up, he was catching the whiff now and then of a something that excited him, and the rapid, electric movements of the older hounds excited him, too. All at once, he put his nose down and spoke, a brief, clear note. It was thrilling.

The hounds quickly charged to the end of the field and into an adjoining one, but they were silent, the line now fading further as the day heated up, and in the end Lilla collected them and took them to a cool creek for a much-needed drink. We had been out less than two hours, but there had been so many little victories. The hounds lolloped along in front of Lilla’s dappled-gray horse, their eyes bright and their tongues hanging out as they went along, completely at ease and satisfied with their morning’s work. 

Approaching a gate, Lilla extended her right arm and lowered the thong of her whip over her horse’s shoulder. “Come behind, come behind,” she called out to the hounds, and they obediently moved behind her horse to go through the metal gate,  as disciplined and professional as an Army platoon. Once through the gate, they spread out and trotted along again, always casting an eye back to their huntsman. They were the picture of canine contentment.

“You see how relaxed they are?” Lilla said. “They’ve had their run, and now they know it’s time to go in. It’s the worst thing if you take them in before they are ready–it’s like they feel cheated. I did that once, and I’ll never do it again. It broke their hearts, and it broke mine, too.”

Remains of the Day: the biscuit bag after a morning's work Remains of the Day: the biscuit bag after a morning’s work