It was one of those warm, lowering days when the cloudbanks hover so low and the air becomes so still that you know a storm cannot be far off. Lugene Askins’ Penn-Marydels were listless, cold-trailing conscientiously but without much enthusiasm through the woods above the Tennessee River.
Sensing their listlessness, Lugene picked them up and took them at a bright trot across the wide pastures toward the riverbank, her husband Dick, along with the other whips, bringing up the stragglers. We followed, enjoying a brief series of coops, sure that this would be all the action we’d see.
Well, it never rains but it pours. No sooner had Lugene cast her hounds along the riverbank than they struck–a deep, belling chorus welling up from the whole pack. At the same time, a great bolt of lightning zapped suddenly from sky to earth and unloaded a thick, cold, stinging sheet of rain.
From that point on–two hours straight–we never stopped.
Our fox (and it was a fox, because Lugene’s hounds eventually put it to ground right in front of the whole field–or at least those who survived the run) took us up into the wilder country above the river at pace that was, to use the timeless term, “too good to enquire.” Not a day to take notice of much outside the immediate task of keeping the horse between oneself and the ground.
Yet it didn’t come easy: everything conspired to put hounds off. Soon after finding, they entered “the Knobs,” a series of dizzyingly high riverside cliffs with heart-stoppingly slippery mud trails too dangerous to ride in a rainstorm. In we went, only to have a pack of feral cur dogs (a bane of rural Tennessee) get up in front of hounds?who heroically ignored them.
Several times in the course of the run our pilot also tried to switch us onto other foxes: again to no avail.
It was clear that not only the pack but also the whips were all performing to perfection. Especially the first whip–Lugene’s husband Dick. Whenever a question mark occurred, he would appear as if from nowhere, receive a terse set of orders from his red-coated wife, and dash off to troubleshoot without so much as a backward glance.
The legendary English huntsmen Thatcher, Freeman and Firr would turn in their graves. So, probably, would the late Capt. Ronnie Wallace. Until a decade or so ago the thought of a woman hunting hounds would have had most foxhunters spluttering into their after-dinner port.
Even today, in England and Ireland, female professional hunt staff is almost unknown. Back in the Old Country, most hunt kennels still feed flesh, which means that whole carcasses have to be skinned and butchered by hand, a process that requires a certain level of physical strength.
Here in North America the average hunt kennel feeds dog food, so strength and squeamishness (butchering a carcass that has lain out in the fields a few days requires a strong stomach as well as biceps) are not an issue. Women huntsmen are common in today’s American hunting scene, although a team where the wife is the huntsman and the husband is the whip, as at the Tennessee Valley, is still pretty rare.
There are, however, a plethora of more conventional husband-and-wife teams out there. And now that I look back over my years of hunting on this side of the Atlantic, I realize that often my best days have been with such teams. It seems that, at its best, a good husband-and-wife team produces a human extension of the mythical “golden thread” that binds a huntsman to his or her hounds.
One would have thought that the inevitable conflicts and tensions faced by many, really most, married couples would lead to problems in field and kennel. Perhaps this is sometimes so, but I haven’t seen it. What I have had is memorable sport.
Electrifying–Without A Fence
We are on the Tejon Ranch, an hour north and east of Los Angeles. West Hills huntsman David Wendler is unboxing hounds while the field, perched upon their shivering, fidgeting horses, huddle into their coats.
When I left Santa Monica at 7 a.m. it was 70 degrees and sunny. Up here on the Tejon–a mind-boggling 275,000 acres of open range (and bear in mind this is just one of the West Hills’ many fixtures)–it is 20 degrees with a wind chill of God-knows-what.
A light, wet snow covers the steep hills. We hustle upward along a slippery turf track at a speedy trot, when all of a sudden, with a sudden, glorious upwelling of song, the 171Â³2 couple of Crossbreds take off to the left.
What followed was perhaps one of the most electrifying rides I have had in the USA, despite the fact that we did not jump a single fence.
For three solid hours we ran up and down those perilous hills, my lean Thoroughbred (borrowed from West Hills MFH Mitch Jacobs) slowing to a scrambling crawl at the crest of each hill, only to slip-slide at maximum speed (eyes shut, trying not to interfere) down the snow-clad lee-side, hounds always two or three hills to the front.
The pack split that day, but rather than fuss with it, huntsman David and wife Cynthia instinctively knew what to do: Each took half of the pack and hunted it on their own, the field deciding in the same instant with whom they wanted to ride.
I chose Cynthia, she being right in front of me when the split occurred. After that extraordinary three hours (I never knew a horse could be that fit), Cynthia simply picked up her half of the pack and let them hunt themselves back to David. Perfect response to a potential day-killer of a situation, resulting in augmented, rather than ruined, sport.
Could it have happened unless David and Cynthia had their own “golden thread” as a long-time married couple? I doubt it.
A Small Miracle
It is November in Virginia; the fall foliage is off the trees, which stand bare against the frost-browned pastures. Cubbing is over; it’s time for serious hunting to begin.
Yet conditions don’t look good. It’s too warm, and not enough rain has fallen. Hounds, when unboxed by Old Dominion Huntsman Gerald Keal, don’t exactly rush into covert once the last stirrup cup has been downed.
Among the blue-black trees, the lack of scent is palpable. Yet somehow–don’t ask me how–we manage to squeeze a red-letter day out of it. I say “we,” but “we,” as in the field, had nothing to do with it. Instead, I got to observe the husband-and-wife team of Gerald and his first (professional) whip and wife Clare perform a small miracle together.
As soon as hounds (finally) found, Clare immediately brought up the other hounds and put them on to honor. The resulting vortex of sound and energy made the woods resound, and what followed was an exercise in artistry that I hadn’t seen since my boyhood, spent following the legendary Quorn huntsman Michael Farrin across Leicestershire’s broad acres.
It’s called making the best of what you’ve got and showing first class sport in the process.
Gerald let hounds alone in the woods, where the scent could stick. Then–the moment they hit the open, where scent evaporated–he would lift hounds on and cheer them across the pastures to where Clare would be waiting, marking the spot where the fox had re-entered the woods, where scent could be picked up again.
How could she know where the fox would go? A mixture of knowing the country, knowing the way its foxes run, knowing the pack and the way her husband hunts them, with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure.
And for Gerald, carrying the horn, the same combination of factors applied in reverse. The result? Much adrenaline for the field and a fox–bemused at being so hard-pressed on what it must have known was an all-but-scentless day–marked to ground. Without some kind of telepathy between huntsman and whip, it could not have happened.
Of course not every huntsman/whip spousal team gets along quite so famously. I remember once with the?
Well, perhaps it’s best to draw a veil over that one. Suffice to say that despite the rancor, which simmered constantly below the surface, the couple worked together as smoothly as clockwork, their love of foxhunting and sheer professional competence combining to make sure that their own problems never became problems for the pack or the field.
I guess hunting has a salutary effect on the emotions as well as the body. Interestingly both parties, after the inevitable break-up, are now part of equally effective husband-wife teams elsewhere.
I recall an old, rather cynical saying from my boyhood: “Are you married, or do you hunt?” It’s good to think that such an adage need not necessarily apply.
One remarkable thing about equestrian sports is that the age of a competitor doesn’t always make a difference in the ribbons.
No one demonstrates that better than Dr. G. Marvin Beeman, 71, the renowned veterinarian, MFH and huntsman of Arapahoe Hunt, and vice president of the Masters of Foxhounds Association.
For the second year in a row, Beeman showed younger riders how to maintain a focused edge in a spirited competition. With his Thoroughbred mare Missy Long Legs, from whom he regularly hunts hounds, Beeman dominated the Pine Cliff Challenge Trophy classes at the Arapahoe Hunt Hunter Trials on Sept. 25 with elegant and polished rounds. It was a pleasing sight to see these two sail to victory in class after class.
Hosted by Nancy and Richard Gooding at their Plum Creek Hollow Farm in Larkspur, the annual trials attracted members from both the Arapahoe and Bijou Springs hunts, along with numerous juniors and Pony Clubbers.
Beeman’s main competition was junior hunt member Liz Benton riding E. Coli.
“I was a little slow and rough in the first couple of classes,” noted Beeman, “but then we got to going in the next few classes, and the judge liked what she saw.”
Beeman’s evaluation was a bit modest, for his rounds in the handy hunter and under saddle classes were his and his alone.
But Benton rode well, despite a recent knee injury that had kept her grounded. And Shari MacCallum, on her handsome gray Sebastian, had a spectacular round in the owner-rider class.
Beeman also turned in a notable round in the appointments over fences class, where he finished second on his other hunter, Claude, who had never competed before. But the class’ real star was Chris Towt’s Max, an import from England. Towt and Max negotiated the course in spectacular fashion, although they began the round as though each obstacle were at least 4 feet high. Towt, however, expertly settled the big bay, and they finished smoothly.
Although a heavy afternoon thundershower, complete with spectacular lightning, put the show on hold for nearly an hour, it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the competitors, who turned out in near record numbers.
Veteran hunt members Jerry Burk and Heidi Long put in elegant rounds in the senior hunt members’ special classes and ended up sharing the trophy. Burk’s Victoria’s Secret, now 26, has competed successfully in these hunter trials for more than 15 years. Long’s Atlas also is a seasoned hunter, and each of these teams demonstrated the meaning of experience and confidence. Victoria’s Secret, a brown-and-white pinto mare, won the Mountbridge Farm appointments over fences class in this division for the fourth consecutive year, a record.
Beeman climaxed the day by exhibiting the Arapahoe hounds with his staff, culminating with the entire pack crowding on top of the piano bench obstacle.