Hound of the Day: Sassoon

Sassoon, the giant woolly, showed his leadership qualities on Dec. 31, 2010

THE weather has played havoc with the season, but on one of the better days when it was safe for hounds and riders to take to the hunt field, one of our favorite hounds was the hero.

It was New Year’s Eve, and the hounds hadn’t had a good gallop over the hunt country in two weeks (weather, weather, weather, more weather again …). After the long period of freezing temperatures, the temperature climbed to about 45 degrees on a windy New Year’s Eve.

“You’d expect them to be obviously anxious to get out and a little bit hard to handle at first,” Iorquois huntsman Lilla Mason said of the hounds. “It’s not unusual when they’ve had that much time off. But what you don’t want is for them to just run through the first few coverts with their heads up. I had a feeling it was going to be a marginal scenting day, although I never really know for sure about that until the hounds let me know.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla S. Mason. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“The first covert we drew, I tried to move really slowly, because the slower I go, the slower they’re going to have to go. I wanted them to empty and settle down and start putting their noses down and focusing. They were surprisingly good. This litter of puppies is just so mature for their age.

“It was kind of weird, because, even though it was windy, in a way it was still: there weren’t any birds, we didn’t see any rabbits, nature was still. The wind was going to be a factor, because it makes it hard to hear the hounds.

“I drew the Silo Pond Covert, and then I went and drew the Cabin Covert, which I never do in that sequence, because that puts me going back west toward an road that’s the border of our hunt country,” Lilla continued. “But this pack is so easy to handle that I went ahead and did it. I put them in at the west end of the Cabin Covert and then asked them to come out the south end. They could have just kept going on west, on down the covert to the road, but they did just exactly what I asked. They’re such a good team together.

“From there we went into Barker’s, and in Barker’s they started feathering. Then they started speaking.”

Baffle's first litter for Iroquois, the puppies now in their first year with the working pack, learned a valuable lesson about geese. Photo by Dave Traxler.

The chase was on. The hounds headed due east, with their huntsman galloping just behind. “But straight east there was a pond with a gaggle of of geese,” said Lilla. “And if there was one, there were 500 geese. I’ve never seen so many. All at once, they took flight, and they sounded just like a pack of hounds. The puppies ran straight to the sound; it sounded like a pack of hounds from God! The puppies must have thought they were going to hark to the biggest cry they’d ever heard. It was funny, because they ran right out of the covert and then on to the pond, and then you could see them realize pretty quickly they’d made a mistake. They looked so disappointed, like, ‘Aaaw, darn.’ But when puppies get caught like that, it’s part of their learning.

“They were kind of hot, so I thought I’d regroup and let the older hounds catch up to the puppies that had made the mistake and let them all get some water.”

The gray fox can climb trees--a feat that probably will amaze the young hounds! Photo by Steve Wayne Rotsch/Painet Inc.

After that brief rest, it was on to Murphy’s Covert, where hounds spoke again. Lilla rode to the north side of the covert in time to see Sassoon and Payton pop out, noses to the ground.

“They tried to take the line north but lost it,” she said. “They swirled around and cast themselves back into the covert, followed closely by the puppies, who also swirled around and followed them back into the covert, right along the line Sassoon and Payton had taken.”

Lilla waited. Sure enough, out came Sassoon and Payton again. This time, Sassoon took the line a little farther north before circling around and returning to Murphy’s covert once again, speaking a little from inside the covert.

The Iroquois hounds earlier this season.

“This went on a little while, and it was just beautiful hound work,” Lilla recalled. “You could tell they kept losing that line to the north, and they kept going back into the covert and speaking. You just never know if a coyote is concealed in there or what. You just have to let the hounds work it out. But to see the leadership of Sassoon. It was so clear. He just took charge: ‘The line’s fine here, here, here—no, not here. Gotta go back and try again.’ He kept coming out of the covert at the same place. They’d come tumbling back out of the covert and make a big cast with Sassoon in the lead, then go tumbling back into the covert behind him. That’s the experience a hound like Sassoon can offer your pack when the pack really needs it. When things get complicated, they look to a hound like him for that kind of leadership.

“They couldn’t find anything in Murphy’s Covert, and Sassoon was telling me the line seemed to be going north. To the north is a kind of scrubby covert that all year I have called ‘a covert of interest.’ It’s not much of a covert, just a long strip of scrubby weeds, and it’s not that wide and not very high. We don’t even have a name for it. It’s just sort of a scrubby fence line. But every time I’ve put the hounds in there they’ve spent a lot of time in there, even on a bad scenting day. It’s been a good training covert for them. They draw it really thoroughly. But it was odd, because it didn’t seem like enough covert for a coyote to sit in there.”

Another sort of gray fox, outside the Grimes Mill headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club.

Kennel manager Michael Edwards, who also serves as a road whip on hunt days, was in a good position to see what happened next. Sitting in his truck on the opposite side of the covert from Lilla, Michael spotted what appeared to be not a coyote, but a fox, dashing by. He was too far away to see the quarry in sharp detail, but he could tell even from a distance that it was small for a coyote. Michael later speculated that it was a gray fox or, possibly, a red fox with a lot of gray in its coat. That’s an intriguing development that seems all the more likely given that two local landowners’ automatic wildlife cameras recently have gotten images of gray foxes.

Iroquois Hunt kennel manager Michael Edwards spotted the quarry.

Whatever it was, the hounds had captured its scent and got on the line, blazing out the west end of the unnamed “covert of interest.”

The pack flew back to Barker’s, circling around and around in that covert and running between it and the back of Schwartz’s in the small circles that are typically for running foxes. They eventually made a lose in Barker’s. They  worked back to Murphy’s Covert and spoke briefly there before making a lose again. At that point, with hounds getting hot in the warmer weather, Lilla called it a day, still pondering the appearance of a possible fox at a time when we rarely see them.

The Iroquois field members always welcome a variety of game. Foxes will add a different spice to a day’s hunting by providing some days when hound work is the feature of the day, instead of the fast galloping sport that coyotes provide. There’s room for both in the Iroquois hunt country, and, while we continue to love the bold moves of hard-driving coyotes, we also hope to the foxes stick around–especially for days like New Year’s Eve, when we’ve been buried under snow and ice for weeks and our horses are no longer at peak fitness!

Huntsman Lilla Mason and the Iroquois hounds

“It wasn’t clear whether it was a red or a gray fox, but I would tend to think it was a red,” Lilla said, “because I don’t know why a gray would run out in the open like that. Usually, by this time of year, we don’t have any foxes in our hunt country, so it’s interesting that we found one. And now I know what’s been in that covert all this time.”

A fox or two will add a new element to the puppies’ education, as Lilla pointed out. “Especially if it’s a gray,” she said. “That will be a whole new dimension for the puppies, because a gray fox will go up a tree, and foxes just run so differently from coyotes. I guess Sassoon will have to explain that to them.”

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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