As the huntsman of a nearly 100-year-old drag pack in the Pacific Northwest, Woodbrook Hunt Club (WA), I was honored to have the chance to hunt with Belle Meade Hunt (GA) and judge the Drag Performance Trials organized by Aiken Hounds (SC) in Belle Meade's hunt country. Traveling from Seattle-Tacoma International airport to Augusta, Georgia took up an entire day, but the journey was eased when we settled in with our very welcoming hosts, Epp Wilson, MFH, Belle Meade, Judith Craw, and the farm dogs Marty, Gracie, and Dusty at Wilson's Foxboro Farm.
Performance Trial huntsman, Kami Wolk, confers on foot as Barbara Lee of Belle Meade, John Tabachka of Sewickley, and Kathrine Gunter of Aiken Hounds discuss. Photo by Jennifer Hansen.
The afternoon of January 10th, we met at Belle Meade kennels to hunt with their live pack. I was invited to ride with Wilson, who is huntsman in addition to Master, and my companion and Woodbrook Master, Tami Masters, was invited to ride with Belle Meade whipper-in Barbara Lee. Wilson cast in a forest of pine on a gentle hillside, and hounds traversed and worked to find a coyote. From the moment hounds struck, we were on the move, except the few times we held hard to listen for hounds. Hounds hunted the coyote (who was viewed multiple times and reported to be a large black coyote) for over 80 minutes! The coyote led hounds across a freshly logged area, Po' Boys Deer Camp, through creeks, across many bridges, and eventually through Foxboro.
I couldn't say how many miles we had logged at this point - enough that Wilson sent me to back for his fresh horse. He asked me to return with the horse in case he needed it, but I don’t honestly think he expected to see me again. I didn’t know the country, and hounds were still on the move. I made it to Foxboro and then headed back out on Wilson's fresh horse, Stoli. Venturing through country I was barely acquainted with, boy was I happy when I came upon a couple of hounds - me, hoping they would show me the way, and they, quickly realizing I was on their huntsman’s horse. Together we found our way to staff and the hound truck. From there I continued on with a whip to guide me, and soon found Wilson, who had begun collecting hounds. By now we were beginning to lose light and it was time to head in. What a day! I counted 15 couple of beautiful hounds who all seemed to do their part; the bitch Paisley was particularly devoted to holding the line. Even after an hour and 20 minutes she had to be talked into going home.
That evening, all were treated to barbecued pork and Jungle Juice, a popular cocktail at BMH's Boots Hall. We met members of various hunts participating in the Drag Performance Trial to commence the next morning. I attended a judges' meeting and learned about the judging process and what would be expected of me. Judges included guest huntsman Kami Wolk, De La Brooke Foxhounds (MD); Tony Gammell, former huntsman at Keswick (VA); Jean Derrick, Belle Meade; Gina Salatino, Belle Meade Hounds, and me.
Drag packs exist for a multitude of reasons - tight country, historical precedent, and state laws that put strict limitations on hunting with hounds.The MFHA has a sophisticated scoring system for live hunting, but trying to picture how the drag trial would differ from a live trial was intriguing for all. Live hounds are scored for hunting, trailing, full cry, marking, and endurance. Aiken huntsman Katherine Gunter organized the Drag Trial, and made clear that voice was to be an important component of the scoring. We agreed that instead of receiving a score for marking, a score would be given for voice. So, if you look at the results and wonder how these drag hounds could have been marking, those scores are actually for their tremendous voices.
Belle Meade’s country was a beautiful canvas for the Trial. Dragman Michael McCarthy laid lines of red fox scent both in the woods and in the open, so judges could have very viewable judging opportunities. Belle Meade's hilltopping field master, Leonard Loudermilk, guided McCarthy, and Woodbrook's Masters rode along to observe the laying of lines and how accurately hounds followed.
Before the start, as with other performance trials, the 6½ couple of hounds competing were mixed so they could learn each other and become acquainted with Wolk. Hounds included 2½ Aiken Hounds, 1½ Middleton Place (SC), and 2½ Sewickley Hunt (PA). In the spirit of the Hark Forward initiative, the Drag Trial brought together many foxhunters who drag hunt, live hunt, or enjoy both. The conversations and camaraderie between all the hunts involved was wonderful. Great questions were asked. Those who had only ever live hunted were trying to picture how a drag hunt works. Hunts who brought hounds were focused on how to showcase sport and give all the competing hounds an opportunity to shine.
My guide, Barbara Lee, took me to a point where we hoped to get a good view of the hounds. Waiting to hear and see hounds, we felt the strong breeze coming toward us across the pasture and wondered how far scent had moved between being laid and hounds moving onto it. That first pasture proved a challenge, and ultimately staff had to help hounds move back across because of landowner permissions for the day.
Once the hounds found near a coop at the corner of the pasture, though, they were off, and we judges were in a flurry of activity alongside and behind. My recorder came loose from my neck, so I had double reins, a recorder, and a whip to juggle. Reciting the order of hounds, and remembering to include the exact time with each recording, proved challenging for this new hound trial judge. Thankfully, I was mounted on a wonderful Irish hunter named Thor, kindly shared by Michael McCarthy. Thor was the perfect judge's horse, I didn’t have to give the slightest thought to riding or jumping - Thor took care of that.
The first line ended at a lake; concluding at a body of water is apparently how most of the drag packs attending end their lines. Wolk dismounted and reassured hounds of a job well done. With that first line complete, staff, judges, and field all seemed to relax, having a better idea of how the day's sport might go.
Hounds ran three lines before heading in. The judges were ushered next door to Jean Derrick’s hunt box to record the day’s scores. Day One results were not exactly what I expected, and we realized that the challenges of scoring a drag trial were larger than we'd anticipated. #12 Lacrosse (Aiken) led in trailing and took the overall top honors, while #42 Euro (Aiken) led in hunting, full cry, marking (voice), and endurance.
Huntsman Kami Wolk with hounds at the Rock Dam, with top hounds #42 Euro (Aiken Hounds) and #12 Lacrosse (Aiken Hounds) in the foreground. Jennifer Hansen photo.
I’m sure many of you have heard by now that #42 Euro, gave us all a lesson in just how consistent a hound can be. She was truly the talk of the trial for both her hunting ability and her biddability; she was coveted by all. The most-asked question of Aiken's huntsman, Katherine Gunter, was “When are you going to breed that bitch?” followed by “...and how do I get in line for a puppy?” It was interesting that as much as Euro was the talk of the trial, she did not win the overall award on Day One. This was because while ten hounds had received scores for hunting, full cry, marking (voice), and endurance, only three hounds received scores for trailing, which is a more heavily weighted category in the scoring system - and Euro was not one of those three.
The MFHA hound trial scoring system is really impressive. This was my first opportunity to learn how the scores are recorded and figured. Wilson patiently explained to me how and why the program was created and while it did take a little tweaking for the drag trial, the challenges were easily worked out. The program allows judges' reports to be entered quickly by multiple computers so results can be announced soon after the day's sport. I understand Belle Meade members Jeb Blount and Bud Eichel have donated countless hours and worked with programmers to create a program as near perfect as possible and they continue to assist in fine-tuning it.
[Editor's Note: The second part of Jennifer Hansen's report will appear in March 2018 eCovertside and on eCovertside.net.]
To see full results of the Drag Performance Trial, click here.
To read Green Mountain Hounds (VT) MFH Terry Hook's account of the riding and social sides of the weekend, click here.
For more about the outstanding hound, Euro, click here.