Dear Diary: Today I went foxhunting…

…and it was totally awesome. Excerpts from the journal of Courtney Carson, a hunting enthusiast who was accepted into the MFHA’s Professional Development Program. Basically, she’ll spend the next year hunting around the country and learning from the best. Here, she’s out with the Belle Meade Hunt in Georgia.

From Courtney:

Belle Meade Hunt- Wednesday, Feb 22, 2012

Hunting at Belle Meade Kennels

Huntsman: Epp Wilson

“Pick a buddy, tighten your girth, and let’s have fun!”

Those were the words spoken by First Field Master, Gene, right before Epp had the hounds released from the kennels.  I was immediately impressed at the pack before me when they calmly formed a circle around Epp and waited for him to move first.  They ran around, but in a confined area without the whipper-ins holding them, and they did not make a sound.

We moved out away from the kennels to what they called the pipeline and turned right into some cover.  I was invited by Gene to ride near the front of first field, so I was close to the action.  This was the first time in several years I have ridden in the field, so that was another experience for me.  We jumped a coop into a small field and it came across the radio that a coyote had been viewed.  We took off back into the cover, up, down, around, through the trees and away we went.  After about ten minutes of winding through the country (which is trails cut through the thick pine trees and other mixed timber) we came to a road where a whipper-in on a mountain bike was waiting.  This guy bikes for the entire hunt, on the better side of three hours, every hunt through these hills.  He is in better shape than I probably ever will be, and he books it too! We watched as the hounds attempted to work the line, but unfortunately the temperatures were in the mid-70s and so the scenting was not the best.  But have no fear, we continued to move along through the cover at a very brisk pace.

As we continued to make our way through the cover I had the pleasure of speaking with Gene and another one of the Belle Meade members, Steve, and getting some of the history on their hunt and country.  We came out of the cover at one point in time onto a road that ran in a valley with timber on both sides.  Gene was very quick to call me to the front along with another guest from upstate New York to tell us about this road.  They call it the Quaker Road and it runs east-west through their fixture and through Foxborough, Epp’s farm.  It was used over 200 years ago as a trade road through Georgia.  I also heard bits and pieces of Georgia’s history during this part of the hunt.  We wound our way through the cover and crossed a road where a few of the wheel whips were waiting for us.  As we moved through the next set of cover Gene told me that within the next fifteen minutes the hounds should strike something.  We came out about ten minutes later at the Foxborough drive and took a few minutes to gather the hounds, visit, and rehydrate (all real fox hunters know what I’m talking about haha).  From there we moved into the woods on Foxborough property and moved down through the bottoms where they train young horses.  Right after we crossed the creek out of the meadow the hounds gave the first voice of the day.  It was definitely a song if I have ever heard one.  These hounds had only given light voice near the very beginning of the hunt where the first coyote had been viewed, but had been silent since then.  When they hit this line it was about four or five hounds giving deep voice around half volume.  Within ten seconds the rest of the pack was right with them and in a beautiful full cry they took off up the hill.

From here we were right on the heels of the hounds through the woods, and I honestly could not tell you where we went or where we ended up.  Belle Meade’s country is so much different from Shawnee’s wide open fields, so it was interesting to be there with the huntsman.  He would gallop and wind through the country, then all of a sudden hold hard and listen to see where the hounds were, for most of the time we could not see them.  We would pop out on a road large enough for a truck, then all of a sudden cut back onto another trail and zig-zag back through the woods.  We came out at one point in time and the third flight was on the road saying they had just viewed a red fox.  We continued to run for awhile and eventually the pack split.


Belle Meade Hunt- Friday, February 24, 2012

Belle Meade Kennels

Huntsman: Joe Cassidy

Conditions: Wet

 “Eyes up, shoulders back, heels down, and hold on!”

Today marked the first of a two-day performance trials held here at Belle Meade.  Guest huntsman, Joe Cassidy, came in from Pennsylvania to hunt the hounds from five different hunts; Belle Meade, Snickersville, Rappahannock, Hillsboro, and Metamora.  He has never hunted any of these hounds before, they have never worked as a pack together before, and Joe has never hunted coyote before.  Needless to say, we were in for a heck of a day.  Over the last two days the different hunts have moved in and worked on bleaching out their dark hounds, gotten horses settled, and been apart of the festivities going on here at Belle Meade.  Thursday evening was the Judge’s Meeting, which I was lucky enough to sneak in on.  They went over safety guidelines, about road whips picking up hounds and bringing them up to the pack if they get separated, guidelines for hounds who lag behind or run deer, if a hound gets hurt, etc.  They went over what happens if a coyote is put to ground or killed, about where the huntsmen should ride, and stressed that only one horn would be used throughout the next two days.  We had some rain that was supposed to move it, and the trials hunt needs to last at least three hours, so we were trying to find a good window to get out there in.

The master’s decided to go ahead and leave right at 8 a.m. like planned, and we had a lovely stirrup cup before the hunt.  We moved out and away from the kennels, taking a couple of extra minutes to help a couple of lagging hounds quit looking for their huntsman and move up with Joe.  We moved out and across a couple of big fields when someone hollered that a coyote had been viewed.  Immediately the hounds were picked up and taken to the line and away we went.  Around we went and through the woods, jumping a few big logs and weaving through the trees.  We ended up coming out in a field where one of the judges who was riding in a vehicle was standing on the line.  Due to the wind the scenting was a little rough, so the hounds took a minute to pick up the line.  But then away we were again until we came to a gate with no coop.  At this point I jumped off to get the gate for everyone, and I want to say thank you to all who offered to stay with me as first and second fields moved through the gate, as well as to those who stayed while I got back on.  I joined second field and continued on with the run until I could rejoin first field.  While I was with second field the hounds were hot on a coyote, but heading out towards the airport and so whipper-ins were said to pull them off the line.  I was able to rejoin first field as we were hacking to our next destination to cast the hounds.

When I got back up there I was able to really watch the hounds work.  By now they were all worked up and ready to roll, but a little discouraged because they had been pulled off of a good line.  So the hounds, especially the hounds from visiting packs, tried to mix in with the field and look for their huntsman.  Todd Kern, the huntsman from Snickersville, was riding in front of me and I was able to watch him silently give his hounds permission to continue on.  Todd had told me the day before that because they are still ripe with foxes in his part of Virginia that they do not allow their hounds to run coyote.  This made it even more difficult for his hounds, as now they had not only run game they were essentially not allowed to run, but they had been pulled off of a hot line.  But they continued to work diligently and I was extremely impressed.

The hunt continued on for another hour or so and I think a lot of people were beginning to get a bit discouraged.  We knew that this heavy rain was about to move in and we new that something needed to happen.  We moved on for awhile, the hounds hitting and missing on the scent as we went, and finally they went ahead and called for fresh horses for the huntsman and judges.  We took a few minutes up at a spot called Quaker Cemetery (it actually is an old cemetery) and they had a very efficient team of trucks, trailers, and helpers, who got everyone switched out and we got some water, or other beverages, and off we were again.  By this time the rain was coming down pretty steadily and everyone was beginning to actually feel wet.  But we continued on as we are tough fox hunters.  After another forty-five minutes or so we had made our way back within about a mile of the kennels, and there was talk of going in, when all of a sudden a whipper-in viewed about a quarter mile away from us.  We moved to the line and were there within just a couple of minutes.  The rain was coming down in sheets and the hounds were having a ton of trouble with the line even with being mere minutes behind the coyote.  Epp even turned to the field and commented about how difficult the scenting was on a day like today.  About the time he said that an older, unmarked hound that was put in with the pack because of being true along with a hound from a visiting pack were voicing.  Before long the hounds had crossed in front of the huntsman and were voicing as a pack.  The chase was back on!

As far as what happened with the run from this point on it is a bit of a blur for me.  The hounds were moving at a coyote’s pace in woods where horses had to travel slower than a fox.  We ducked, dived, weaved, bobbed, slipped, slid, scrambled, and clawed our way along behind them.  At times it was raining so hard that all I could see was the hazy red outline of the coat in front of me, and I was just hoping that I was following the correct coat!  We crossed a road at one point in time almost ahead of the hounds and we got to hear them in full cry, and to any true hunter there is no sweeter sound.  We continued along on the run, galloping through pine forests and jumping ditches and creeks, pretty much anything that got in our way.  As for how long the run actually lasted, that I could not tell you either.  Near the end of the run the field master pulled up and said he was out of horse, but encouraged anyone with horse left who wished to continue with the hunt to do so.  I ended up being the only one who went on, but at the time I did not know that.  I was just determined to catch up so as not to get left in the woods all alone!  After about another ten minutes or so from splitting with the field the hounds checked, and we decided to call it a day.  All of the hounds and humans had to hunt again the next day, along with some of the horses.  There was a small split, but most of those hounds were retrieved and rejoined with the pack.  Joe got down and praised all of the hounds for their hard work.  We then roaded the hounds in while it continued to pour down on us.

This being my first performance trials I was not sure what to expect.  But I must say that I was extremely impressed with the huntsman’s ability to come out and hunt this pack of hounds as well as he did.  I was also impressed with the caliber of hounds that were present on this hunt today.  They went out in the worst possible conditions with a bunch of other hounds they did not know, and made it probably one of the best hunts I have ever been on in thirteen seasons of hunting.  It was truly amazing to watch those hounds in that valley, in the pouring down rain, noses to the ground and tails going ninety miles an hour just before opening up on the line.  It was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen.  After the hunt there was a lovely breakfast at the clubhouse and then that evening there was a wonderful award ceremony, dinner, and party.

Belle Meade Hunt- Saturday February 25, 2012

Hunting at Belle Meade Kennels

Huntsman: Joe Cassidy

Scenting Conditions: Wet, but temps near 65, winds around 15 mph

“If you ain’t the lead dog then the scenery never changes.”

Saturday’s hunt was day 2 of the Belle Meade performance trials.  The hunt had been moved from 8 am to 9 am to allow the guests a bit of a later start that morning as well as allowing the ground to try and dry out some from the day before.  The nice thing about being down here in GA is that the footing is a mix of the red Georgia clay and sand/silt, so it drains very well and doesn’t stay muddy as we are used to in IL.  Getting to the kennels that morning it was a gorgeous day, blue skies and big white clouds with great temperatures, so even if nothing happened we were set for a good day.

After a delicious stirrup cup hosted at Jean Derrick’s house we moved out from the kennels at 9.  Epp had given a speech during the stirrup cup and said that they were going to begin with casting the hounds on the north side of Tally Ho Lake, and that as members of the field we would be spreading out to try and push the coyote west or south away from the airport.  We began hacking towards the lake and it really was beautiful.  Once we got close to the lake we were directed to leave approximately 20-25 ft between us and the horse we were following.  By the end of the stretch horse’s were probably a mile and a half back.  Joe cast the hounds into the cover and we began to move around the lake.  We stayed stretched out until we were far enough away from the property lines that we could rejoin.  We moved through the woods and ended up coming out on the north end of the pipeline and hacked towards what looked like the elephant graveyard from the Lion King.  The hounds were working their tails off, trying on some older, cold lines but not getting much from those.  A couple of the older hounds in the trials would give voice but when the rest of the pack would not honor the line we would pick them up and move along.

After a bit the hounds did open up on a line and away we went.  It is amazing how quickly it all happens once the hounds move on.  The territory here makes it nearly impossible to just sit and listen to the hounds because they move over one hill as the crow flies and on horseback you have to weave through the trails and try to play catch up.  The whipper-ins and judges did a great job of staying in front of the hounds and doing their best to keep good scores.  We ran for at least thirty minutes on the first coyote and then the hounds checked and there was talk of going ahead and getting fresh horses for the staff, but we continued on for awhile before making that stop.  After about twenty more minutes the hounds struck again and this time they would run for a bit and then check and have to work to pick the line back up.  Some people have said that after a big rain like we had on Friday that it actually makes the scenting more difficult the next day, so that could have had a bit of an influence, but I honestly don’t really know.  The hounds also could have been fatigued from the long hunt the day before, I know some of the horses and people were!

We continued to work for awhile longer and then after horses were changed we crossed onto Foxboro and hunted there for awhile.  By this point in time we were getting well into the 3rd hour of hunting, and by performance trial rules it was time to head back in.  So we slowly hunted our way back towards the kennels and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch provided by the Belle Meade family.  We socialized and looked at pictures while the scores were compiled and then enjoyed a wonderful award ceremony.  The Belle Meade bitch hound Songbird won huntsman’s favorite, and while I did not know her number I am sure that she deserved it.  The awards were spread out between the five hunts, with Keystone from Hillsboro sweeping the competition for the second day.  It was nice to learn that the top ten hounds from this performance trials are now eligible to be entered in the performance class at the Virginia Hound Show, so I look forward to seeing some of these hounds there.  I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed once again by the hounds and the effort they put out both days, and while I did my best to get to know all the hounds I could I was only able to make friends with some Snickersville and Belle Meade hounds.  I am sure that even though I did not know the names of the hounds as I was watching them that they were all scored accordingly as the team of judges out there were phenomenal and always where I thought they should be.  I was beyond impressed with Mr. Joe Cassidy and his canning ability with the hounds.  They really took to him over the two days and he stepped right up to the plate, from an outsider’s point of view it looked at if it were his very own pack.  The hospitality from Belle Meade is over the top, and it is very true what they say about being in the South.  I felt right at home all week long, I feel like I made a lot of (hopefully) lifelong friends, and I am very thankful of everyone who made this trip what it was.  If you ever get the chance I encourage attending a performance trials, even if you have to road whip for the two days.  As a true hunter it really is the best of the best who come out and show off what they have, which is part of what makes this sport so great.  Thank you to the Masters at Belle Meade, those who put on the performance trials, Epp and Nancy, and everyone else I’m sure I’m forgetting.  Congratulations to all who did well, and I hope that everyone had safe trips home following this weekend.

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