Countdown to the Blessing of the Hounds!

The Iroquois Hunt’s Blessing of the Hounds honors the pack’s retirees as well as its current hunting members. Shirley McQuillan photo.

ON Saturday, the annual Blessing of the Hounds will mark the transition from October’s informal part of the hunt season (generally known as cubhunting or autumn hunting) to the formal months that run from November until March. Blessing Day is the “high holy day” of the Iroquois season, and it’s made even more special by the fact that some of our retired hounds get to participate in the ceremony each year.

The Blessing of the Hounds harks back to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, and it’s his medal that our riders receive on Blessing Day as part of the ceremony (you can see them on their red ribbons, above, lined up along Iroquois joint-Master Jack van Nagell’s hunt whip). To learn a little more about St. Hubert and the history of this beautiful and curiously affecting service, click here.

Bonfire received a personal blessing at the 2008 Blessing of the Hounds. Houndblogger photo.

The Blessing of the Hounds takes place each year on the first Saturday of November and attracts the hunt’s landowners, neighbors, and friends, who enjoy the service, the spectacle, and also a traditional stirrup cup hosted by huntsman Lilla Mason. The schedule this year starts at 11 a.m., when the riders, horses, and guests arrive at the hunt club’s front lawn. The hounds themselves–including 2012 Hound Welfare Fund Retiree of the Year Sassoon!–will arrive at 11:30 a.m. The Iroquois joint-Masters and huntsman will make a few brief opening remarks, followed by the blessing by the Venerable Bryant Kibler, Senior Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. Each rider will then take his or her turn to receive the St. Hubert’s medal.

At noon, the riders will proceed up the road on horseback to Miller Trust Farm, while guests and spectators follow by car. The huntsman’s stirrup cup–featuring ham biscuits, cake, port, sherry, and apple cider–will take place in one of the Miller Trust fields. All those attending the Blessing of the Hounds are welcome to join in for the stirrup cup, which got its name, incidentally, because the mounted riders are served their food and drink at stirrup level by the unmounted person holding the tray!

The hounds, hunt staff, and hunting members gather on the Iroquois Hunt Club’s front lawn for the ceremony before riding up the road for a traditional stirrup cup.  The riders receive a St. Hubert’s medal.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a last look back at the informal season with video from the last weekend in October, when superlative hounds combined with cool, damp weather and fast coyotes to give October a great sporting send-off!

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To get you in the mood for Blessing Day …

… we thought we’d take a look back at some highlights from the cubbing season that ended Wednesday. Some of it you’ve seen already in the recent preview, but a lot of it is footage we haven’t shown before. Most was taken with Zoom, the older of the houndbloggers’ two cameras, so most of it is not in high-definition. But we’ll be taking the HD camera to the Blessing of the Hounds tomorrow morning! (If you’re new to the traditional Blessing of the Hounds ceremony and would like a little background, click here)

We hope the new video will help you reminisce about what we’ve seen of the season so far–and about how far the BA litter and Driver have come, not to mention Paper! Paper has blossomed so far this year and we hope to hear more from him during the formal season.

Thanks to the Hound Welfare Fund, all the canine stars of this highlights video can expect a peaceful, dignified retirement. They give us great enjoyment while they’re members of the working pack, and we value every one. As we prepare to celebrate these magnificent animal athletes at the Blessing of the Hounds, please consider helping the Hound Welfare Fund provide for the hounds in their golden years!

We have pups! (with video)

Baffle, the dam of the current BA litter, with her new puppies by Hawkeye

BORN just in time for St. Hubert’s Day and the annual Blessing of the Hounds, which kicks off the formal season, Baffle had 11 puppies. You read that right: there are 11 (or five and a half couple, as they’ll eventually be counted), almost enough to start a new pack! These are by Hawkeye, who, like Baffle, is an import from England. Baffle and Hawkeye both are from the Cottesmore hounds.

The puppy scrum.

Baffle started to whelp on Friday night, and the last of the puppies was born on Saturday morning. Mother and puppies are doing well so far, and we are looking forward to following their adventures as we have those of Baffle’s first litter for Iroquois, the BA litter who are now in their first season with the working pack. And doing extraordinarily well, we should add!

An interesting side note: because there are already so many BAs (Baffle’s first litter was nine puppies strong), it looks likely that this litter will not have names starting with BA, the first two letters of their dam’s name, as is the usual custom. Instead, to prevent confusion from so many BA names, they’re more likely to be named with HA, for their sire. In which case, we humbly suggest one name for consideration, considering their birthdate: Halloween!

To see about 20 second of adorable puppiness—more than 20 seconds would risk cute overload–click on the video below. Congratulations, Baffle and Hawkeye!

Blessed are the foxhounds (with much video!)

IHC Blessing of the Hounds 11-07-09

The Iroquois Hunt's Blessing of the Hounds honored the pack's retirees as well as its current hunting members. The human "new entry" also were well represented among the riders!

THERE’S something truly beautiful about the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony that opens the formal foxhunting season. It’s a “high church” event for foxhunters, a way to honor the sport’s most important players: the hounds, the game, and the land.

At Iroquois, we add a special twist by including retired hounds in the blessing ceremony, a tip of the top hat to their years of service and all the sport they and their progeny have given the club.

A good many of the Iroquois Hunt’s neighbors and landowners were in attendance today as the riders, horses, hounds, and hunt staff gathered in toasty sunshine on the clubhouse lawn. Deacon Bryant Kibbler conducted the service, and in his brief homily, he, too, made a point to honor our old soldiers who were standing nearby with huntsman Lilla Mason, their sterns gently waving as if they were remembering their glory days in the hills and fields around them.

They were joined by a sprinkling of current members in the hunting pack. Our big woolly, Grundy’s son Sassoon, is “far from retired,” Lilla said, “but he loves a party.” The sisters Finite and Finesse, fondly known as “two bodies, one brain,” also attended before taking to the hunt field.

Finite and Finesse

Two bodies, one brain: Finite and Finesse

(In case you need a reminder about how they got their nickname, here is their story, originally posted in Hound’s Life: Summer Walk earlier this year:

They are a testament to this hunt staff’s patience. They showed little real interest in hunting early on in their careers and usually could be found loping along together as if in their own world. But one day, something clicked.

“Lilla spotted them on a run out hunting one day near Blue Fox Farm,” Miller recalls. “She said over the radio, ‘It’s Finesse!’ I said, ‘No, you’ve got that wrong,’ and she came back on the radio and said, ‘And Finite!’  I couldn’t believe it.”

But there they were, the two sisters leading the whole pack.

“They lost 10 or 15 pounds that season because they finally started hunting,” Miller said. “Before then it seemed like they could just live on air. We used to feed them about this much”–cupping his hand–”and they still stayed fat because they expended so little energy on the hunt field.”

Sassoon, Finesse, and Finite are all woolly hounds rather than smooth-coated. The other woollies out this morning to receive their blessing were Gloucester, Fickle, and Stalker.

For Stalker, it was an especially important milestone. Stalker is nine years old this season, and he has a heart ailment. “Every day is a blessing for Stalker,” said Lilla, and that’s true. We don’t know how long we will have old Stalker around, but he has earned the hunt’s special affection for his courage.

Stalker '01

For Stalker, every day is Blessing Day

The other retired hounds who enjoyed a nostalgic visit to the hunt club were Parapet, Pancake (better known in her early hunting days as “Pancake. Pancake. PANCAKE!”); Glamorous, so named because she appears to be wearing an ermine wrap around her neck and shoulders; Radiant; Glowworm (whose father, Captain, was the first hound retired under the auspices of the Hound Welfare Fund); and Harlequin, the HWF’s retiree of the year for 2009 who was featured in the blog earlier this year.

Harlequin photographed by Peggy Manness

Harlequin, as captured by Peggy Manness of Maness Photography

The older hounds stepped right back into their familiar role, pushing their way right up with the younger hounds to compete for biscuits and trotting over to visit spectators gathered around the lawn for the ceremony. One child could be heard to say, “Mommy! That dog’s got a beard!”

We love our woollies!

The clip below is from the beginning of the Blessing of the Hounds ceremony; the two biggest woollies are Sassoon and Stalker.

Then it was on up the road for a stirrup cup in a field adjacent to Miller Trust Farm, where the hounds are kenneled.

It was especially nice to see so many young riders out today! They took everything in stride. The smallest riders retired from the field after having their photos taken (and some ham biscuits and cake, provided by Lilla as part of the stirrup cup). But the other juniors joined right in for the hunt day, galloping and jumping and watching the hounds work in the grassy fields, woods, and creek bottoms on Miller Trust and the surrounding country.

We think everyone–hounds, horses, and riders–went home happy. The weather was too hot for good scenting, but the hounds worked well together, and, all in all, it was a pleasant start to the formal season, complete with some impromptu schooling over fences in “the bowl” near Boone Creek on Miller Trust. In the clip below, you get a good idea of how high some of the growth is now, courtesy of the unusually wet summer we’ve had. The clip starts with the field jumping a coop and also includes the sound of Lilla’s horn and the hounds speaking briefly.

Finally, it was time to hack home again. Lilla rode her horse, Lager, right into the kennel to make sure everyone was home safely.

Blessing Day - Back in kennels

Lilla and Lager make sure everyone's back safe at the kennel

Hound at Miller Trust

"I'd rather be hunting!"

We hope you had a happy hack home, too.

Long hack home

The end of the day. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Happy Blessing Day, everyone!

St. Hubert and the Blessing of the Hounds

Bonfire at 2008 Blessing of the Hounds

Bonfire received a personal blessing at the 2008 Blessing of the Hounds. The St. Hubert's medals, which the riders receive at the Blessing, are being readied to the right.

AT Iroquois, the formal hunting season traditionally opens with the Blessing of the Hounds on the first Saturday of November. That puts it close to the Nov. 3  feast day of hunting’s patron saint, St. Hubert of Liege (circa 656-circa 728), a huntsman himself.

The Blessing of the Hounds is the highlight of the opening meet, and at Iroquois we do things a little differently: the Masters, huntsman, and staff invite some of the hunt’s retired hounds to be blessed. (The retirees certainly have a good few blessings to count, not least the fact that they receive good care until the end of their days, thanks to the Hound Welfare Fund and its supporters. And we at the HWF count those supporters among our many blessings, too!)

The Blessing of the Hounds isn’t, of course, unique to Iroquois or even to foxhunting. In Belgium, where Hubert was Bishop of Liege, the Blessing of the Hounds (and their huntsmen) is mainly a ritual to ward off rabies, because the saint was famous for curing the dread disease using either (or both) of two tools: thread from a white and gold stole the Virgin Mary was said to have bestowed on Hubert and the St. Hubert’s Key, supposedly given to Hubert by St. Peter. Both were used up even into the modern age by monks in the Brotherhood of St. Hubert. The thread cure involved making an incision in the skin of the sufferer’s forehead, then placing the thread in the wound. The key cure wasn’t much better, according to this account: “A priest would prick the forehead of a rabies sufferer and a black bandage would be applied for nine days while the heated key was placed on the body where the bite had occurred. This could actually help, because if the heated key was applied immediately it could cauterize and sterilize the wound, effectively killing the rabies virus.”  To see a picture of the key, which was used in some parts of Europe even up to the 20th century, click here.

The Brotherhood of Saint Hubert, or Compagnons de Saint-Hubert, is headquartered in the small Ardennes town of Saint-Hubert (surprise!), where they put on a really big show for their Blessing of the Hounds.

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St. Hubert: prince, huntsman, healer, and saint. He is the patron saint of hunters, but other groups that also claim him include butchers, machinists, mathematicians, and metal workers.

In 2004, one enchanted travel writer described the crowded scene:

“Every year on November 3rd the green-cloaked Compagnons de Saint-Hubert proceed to the basilica followed by the scarlet-coated hunters with their hounds, the sonneurs carrying huge circular hunting horns over their shoulders, the flag-throwers, and–this being Belgium–a solid contingent from the brewers’ guild. During the High Mass, hounds stand next to hunters in the nave, good-naturedly waving their tails and tilting their heads in recognition whenever the service is punctuated by the refrain of the hunting horns, whose chords reverberate amid the soaring columns. The sound disturbs something primordial; it is impossible to remain unmoved.

“After Mass, the hounds are sprinkled with holy water. Outside, the large square is packed with such a throng of people holding up their dogs to be blessed that the priest can hardly move amongst them: ‘Glory to dog on high,’ indeed. … When I was there, a group of pilgrim hunters had ridden for four days to Saint-Hubert; they sang a song about the glories of hunting and its empathy with nature, and then clattered off into the frosty sunshine.”

It’s customary to eat bread (variations on the Blessing of the Hounds often have the hounds and hunters eat bits of blessed bread as protection from rabies), as well as other traditional game dishes.

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The basilica of Saint-Hubert in Belgium

But just who was St. Hubert? The story of his conversion to Christianity is very similar to that of St. Eustace, and both are clouded by suspicion that they were fictional. St. Hubert, so the story goes, was the oldest son of Bertrand, Duke of Aquitaine, and grandson of Charibert, King of Toulouse. He did not appear at first to be saint material. He was a worldly courtier, a married father, and not at all a regular churchgoer; he preferred to hunt his hounds. He was doing just that one Good Friday morning when a stag appeared to him. Between its antlers he saw a crucifix, and he heard a voice say, “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you shall go quickly down to the abyss of hell.”

(St. Eustace was a general named Placidus under the Roman emperor Trajan who changed his name upon his conversion, which also came about after seeing a stag with the crucifix between its antlers. Eustace died in about 118.)

Hubert’s wife, Floribanne, died soon after this experience, and it seems Hubert took that as the clincher. He renounced his worldly life and all his possessions, left his son in the care of his brother, and devoted himself to priestly studies. He later became the first bishop of Liege. Legend also has it that Hubert accurately predicted the date of his own death and died just as he had begun reciting, “Our Father, who art in heaven–.”

In addition to being the patron saint of hunters, he also has been associated at one time or another with furriers, trappers, mathematicians, metal workers, and machinists, and he is invoked against both rabies and bad behavior in dogs–especially in hounds and other hunting dogs (Harry and Driver, meet Hubert!).

Hubert may have given up all his worldly possessions, but he didn’t give up his love of hounds, and the monks of the St. Hubert abbey honored this by naming a breed of hound they developed the “chien de Saint-Hubert”: Saint Hubert’s hound.  The breed originally is thought to have been all black or black and tan, medium-sized, and smooth-coated, a forebear of the bloodhound and others. The modern version, seen below, looks very like the bloodhound, but some historians believe today’s version differs significantly from the original bred by the Belgian monks.

Some say the originals were powerful but shorter-legged than their modern brethren, and principally valuable in hunting boar. The bloodhound and modern St. Hubert’s characteristic loose, wrinkly skin also, one hound breed historian noted, “was not at all typical of the St. Huberts of the Abbey.” Others say that the modern bloodhound was developed by crossing black St. Hubert’s hounds with white Talbot hounds, the latter a large early hunting hound, now sadly extinct.

File:Cartercrestbuckle.jpg

The Talbot hound. Now extinct, this large white hunting hound features in medieval paintings, stone carvings, and coats of arms.

Given the passage of so much time, it’s difficult to know exactly what the originals looked like. It is usually said that William the Conqueror first imported the St. Huberts to England, calling them bloodhounds.

But, in Hounds of the World, Sir John Buchanan-Jardine makes an interesting note about the early St. Hubert hounds:

“Probably the most direct importation of St. Hubert’s hounds into Great Britain was the present of a pack of hounds made to the monks of Margam Abbey in Glamorganshire. The tradition is that these hounds were presented by the monks of some continental abbey, presumably by St. Hubert’s Abbey itself, as I have failed to trace any other monastery that bred hounds. In any case, these hounds are traditionally reputed to have been of St. Hubert’s  breed, smooth-coated and black and tan in colour. They were kept and bred at Margam Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, when they passed into the hands of the Lord of the Manor and later, about 1700, the descendants of this pack become the property of Mr. Jenkins of Gelli.

“Probably the modern Welsh foxhound owes much of his fine nose and voice to this particular importation.”

The gene that makes some of the Iroquois hounds woolly is Welsh, so could our woollies like Sassoon hark back to St. Hubert? It’s awfully nice to think so, especially today, on St. Hubert’s feast day.