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Be the Huntsman

Huntsman on a horse. By kind permission of jsbee Photography


Be the Huntsman

Organized foxhunts have been around for hundreds of years. Not much has changed over the last few centuries and, since success is the easiest route to continuity, the hunts have actually multiplied. At least to some degree they follow the time-honored traditions in breeding, training, and hunting hounds (and terriers) that may number in the hundreds.

While most of us are familiar with the red coats (never “pink”) and well-trained hounds, there’s actually a bit more value in learning how it actually goes. Hunt organizations are always managed by one or more superhuman personages known as Master of Foxhounds or MFH. They have overall responsibility for everything that goes on. Sometimes they answer to the hunt committee and sometimes they are the sole supreme being. They are responsible for hiring and paying the hunt servants.

Whether in hot pursuit or more leisurely downtime, it is the Hunstman that stands above all else in the eyes of the pack. (Gordon Bottomley photo)

Hunt service is a proud profession. There is the Kennel Huntsman who may, of course, be either male or female. The Kennel Huntsman is tasked with the day-to-day care of the pack of hounds, including feeding, doctoring, exercising, and the 1,001 other things that animal husbandry requires. The KH may even assist in whelping and be a puppy’s first human contact. Hounds are often kept in traditional lodging rooms, and just the daily routine takes up 150 percent of the time available on any given day. They know every hound by name and the personality traits of each.

Many of the hunt’s puppies begin their lives “on walk” where they go out and live with a family for six months or so before returning to the kennels to begin their formal training. Of course, a lifelong bond is formed between the hound and the puppy walker. It’s not uncommon to see a hound work its way to the edge of the pack and take a naughty minute to greet its never forgotten first friend.

There are the Whippers-In (never “Whips”) that serve as outriders while the pack is hunting. They turn back wandering hounds, move along stragglers, pick up and rescue the injured, and assist in keeping the pack together. They know their hounds well and their superb horsemanship enables them to ward off trouble before it happens.

And then there is the Huntsman, again a person of either sex. Whether amateur or professional, it is the Huntsman who loads up the hounds three days or more a week, gets them to the venue, directs their efforts in finding quarry and sees them away when they run. It’s a job that is both thankless and rewarding and it is indeed a life’s calling. It is the Huntsman in his red coat (with one extra button to secure the horn) who is seen at the center of the pack. Huntsmen have a language all their own with which they communicate with their hounds. It’s unintelligible to mere mortals but it represents the bond between the Huntsman and the pack (and indeed almost every hound in it). That bond has been called “The Golden Thread.” Perhaps it should be called “The Golden Chain” since it’s virtually unbreakable.

Now here’s the thing. Hounds, like most dogs, are amiable and naturally friendly. They love their puppy walker and the Kennel Huntsman, but the largest portion of love and respect is reserved for the Hunstman. The mere arrival of the Hunstman in the kennels is cause for great celebration. Why? Because it is the Huntsman who provides the hounds with their very reason for being; the fulfillment, if you will, of their hard-wired destiny. No matter what the chosen vocation, whether hunting, herding, detection, carting, or any of the million and one things that dogs can be bred to do, a dog that is given ample opportunity to prove its usefulness often is going to be happier, healthier, and a better all-around dog.

By kind permission of jsbee Photography

I’ve talked mostly about foxhounds in a pack because that’s what I know best, but we see the “Huntsman Syndrome” every day. My terriers when they are going to work, almost by osmosis. The hunting leads come out, packing the truck, clothes that still smell from the last hunt. When honest work is at hand, I’ve become the Hunstman. The dogs in the R.A.T.S. pack like me too, but I’m not sure whether they see me as their Huntsman or if I just smell of rats.

In every other canine pursuit as well, the same thing happens. My friend JT has a “pack” of two Border Terriers. While they certainly do hunt, and hunt very, very well both above and below ground, the opportunity to work carries over to Scent Work, Tracking, and many other canine pursuits that JT uses to fill the time between hunts. You don’t have to be an animal behaviorist to see the excitement, love, and respect from the dogs when it’s time to go to work—even at the “off label” jobs.

Lots of times you can see the same thing in our own world. You raise the pup. Train it. Nurture and groom it. Feed it and love it, and one day ship it off to a professional handler for just a short while or for an extended campaign. If the dog likes the show ring as most do, it doesn’t take long before that once strange handler has assumed the role of the Huntsman and receives their just due from your loving canine. Having a job works every time.

Many dogs, like their owners, have personality issues. It’s true in foxhound packs just like the show ring or the (ugh) dog park. Giving a dog a job or a sport and the chance to pursue it has saved many a canine from a dire fate. Not all dogs can achieve redemption, but the overwhelming majority can lose their bad habits and excel at their work if only given the chance.

Most of us own dogs that are bred for a specific purpose. Those genes run deep, but the axiom of “Use It or Lose It!” never applied more. Given half a chance, most dogs will embrace their heritage and repay the enabler with unmatched love, respect, and biddability that others can only wish for. When it’s your “pack” and you can be anything you want, be the Huntsman and put them to work. Your dogs will love you for it.