On the third week of the Masters of Foxhounds Association’s Hark Forward Western Tour, we finally made it to the Pacific Ocean. We drove from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Lebec, California, which is about an hour north of Los Angeles, on Monday, April 2, to hunt on the Tejon Ranch. As soon as we crossed the state line, the fuel prices sky rocketed. And we had a mandatory stop at an agricultural inspection site where one of my 10 health certificates for Phillip was actually examined. So far, it’s the only certificate to be used.
The wind has been steadily building since Kansas to about gale force in Arizona. Tanya Nelson, one of our group who lives in Florida, said, “We don’t call this breezy. We call this a hurricane!”
But when we arrived at the Tejon Ranch, the scenery all but erased the crazy winds from our minds. I’m not sure I can accurately describe the mountains that surround the ranch or that my photos even come close to doing it justice.
The Tejon Ranch originated as a Mexican land grant in 1843, and it is now around 270,000 continuous acres. The ranch is known for its trophy elk, almond and pistachio groves, the equestrian center, and of course the Tejon Hunt. It is a steep grassland dotted with oak and juniper trees. To say that we southerners were agog with such an unimaginable vista is an understatement.
Tyce Mothershead, professional huntsman for Tejon, got us on three coyotes during a private hunt. The second coyote was so accommodating that he waited for us to catch up to him after we spotted him snacking on the fallen almonds from the edge of the grove. He literally waited for us to trot over in the open, until we were about 100 yards away, before he started his leisurely stroll to a drainage ditch. So leisurely that Tyce was almost disappointed to have such a slow, boring run for us. But once he hit that ditch he kicked it into high gear!
We were flying across the grassland, stumbling into every ground squirrel hole and mole tunnel out there. And believe me, down in the flat by the groves there were a lot of them. Up high, there were fewer holes and collapsible tunnels, however up high is where the random boulders jumped up from their hiding places in the grass. Phil bounced a few on the fly more than once. But the worst, by far, were the pony-swallowing holes dug by badgers. Fitting that “tejon” means badger. I think I have now found a galloping country that is hairier than the invisible armadillo holes of Mississippi. But honestly, I wouldn’t have traded those gallops across that country for anything. It was exhilarating. And I would absolutely do it again!
Tyce said that second coyote was one of the hardest running coyotes he’s ever chased. We lost him in another almond grove, then we went and found the last coyote of the day, who decided to run straight up the mountains to where the trophy elk live. Overall, the hunt traveled 21 miles that day.
After a day like that we had no time to rest. We loaded up from the meet, picked up the extra horses left at the equestrian center, and then drove four hours to Santa Barbara County to the Santa Ynez Valley Hunt. Driving up the kennel driveway we could see the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Ynez kennels are located on MFH Steve Lyons’ Kick On Ranch.
The Kick On has a logo of a brown-topped hunt boot, and it’s both a cattle ranch and a vineyard. Steve owns, or has bought and then resold, the ranches surrounding the Kick On so that he has 11,000 acres with hunting easements attached to all of them. The country around the Kick On Ranch is not as open as Tejon, but with all the live oak trees, purple-blooming sage bushes, and vineyards dotting the landscape, it certainly has more character.
Santa Ynez is unique in its staff and hounds. Claire Buchy, professional huntsman, and her three female professional whippers-in may be the only hunt with an all pro, all female staff. Since Claire is French, she has a lot of French-bred hounds in addition to the crossbreds in her pack. Those French hounds are large, bidable hounds with a deep, baritone voice. That, added with her use of two hunting horns—an English horn (higher pitch) to cast the hounds and a curved French horn (so deep it sounds like a tuba) to call the pack back to her—makes hunting with Santa Ynez a sensory experience unlike any other in the country.
Scenting was challenging on this day, as it was almost 80 degrees, and the hounds only picked up on a brace of hare. Some western hunts do not let their hounds run hare, but Claire trains her puppies on running hare before putting the first-year entries in with the rest of the pack to run coyotes. At the hunt breakfast Claire brought out three chubby and completely adorable French puppies to auction off the right to name them. Opal, Olivier and Ohmygod are now the three newest members of the Santa Ynez pack. And I wanted to steal all of them away in my pocket. There is nothing better than fat hound puppies with puppy-breath. If only I could bottle it up to sell…
The other masters of Santa Ynez, Paul McEnroe and Bonnie Hayden, met us for dinner at the Wine Merchant Cafe in nearby Los Olivos. We drank wine from the grapes that the masters had grown and traded tall tales about hunting, that may or may not have all been true.
So our traveling southern circus loaded up again and left on Thursday for Reno, Nevada, aka “The Biggest Little City in the World.” To get there, we first had to drive up Donner Summit, where the infamous Donner Pass is located. Our transmission kept wanting to overheat despite the 4-foot snow drifts on the side of the interstate, so we climbed about 7,000 feet in one long, 25 mile-per-hour slow drag. So far, that has been the slowest day yet on this trip.
We finally arrived at Ross Creek Ranch, where the Red Rock kennels are located in a spring-fed valley, to much fanfare. We had a banner welcoming the Hark Forward Western Tour. These ladies at Red Rock are the best!
We hunted the next day in what I call Red Rock attire—jeans, tall western boots, blinged-out belts and neck scarves—since we arrived after their closing meet. We rode up and up and up. “Steep” now has a whole new meaning to this southerner who lives at the base of the Smoky Mountains. There wasn’t a single tree—just sage on sand footing of eroded granite. My Phillip did great with moving through the sage; I just let him have his head and tried to never trail another horse directly behind. That way he could pick his own way. We chased a coyote up and over the “Whine Hills,” so named because everyone whines “Noooo!” when they have to crest those steep ridges, to eventually put him to ground very high up.
Up next is the two-day haul to Burwell, Nebraska, to hunt with North Hills. So far the count is 3,500 miles traveled with about 63 hours in the truck. Whew!
Gretchen Pelham has joined the MFHA’s Hark Forward Western Tour for a once-in-a-lifetime trip across the western United States. About a dozen hunt members from all over the southeast converged at Belle Meade Hunt in Georgia to begin a month-long caravan that will cover about 7,000 miles and travel to Mission Valley Hunt Club in Kansas, Caza Ladron and Juan Tomas Hounds in New Mexico, Grand Canyon Hounds in Arizona, Tejon Hounds and Santa Ynez Valley Hounds in California, Red Rock Hounds in Nevada, North Hills Hunt in Nebraska, Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado, and finally, Bridlespur Hunt in Missouri. The Hark Forward initiative consists of friendly competitions and events nationwide to connect foxhunters, celebrate all aspects of the sport, and to raise funds for the renovations of the MFHA’s new national headquarters in Middleburg, Virginia. You can read previous installments here.