Editor's Note: Jean Derrick of Belle Meade Hunt (GA) has worked tirelessly through the past year as the Honorary Secretary of the Hark Forward Hound Performance Trials, chaired by Belle Meade Master Epp Wilson. One month ago, she and nearly a dozen friends set off from Georgia for a celebratory tour of Plains and Western hunts. In this report, she describes the sport, scenery, and socializing in Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
At this moment, I and two friends, with a fully loaded four-horse trailer, are speeding down arrow-straight roads over the prairie, caravanning with two other big rigs. We have 12 people and 18 horses in all. It’s snowing, and the ground is lightly dusted.
There are flakes blowing horizontally over the highway. But the biggest sensory event happening right now is the wind, making both the truck and trailer shudder with each gust. The thermometer says it’s 37 degrees, but I know with the wind chill, it probably feels like 10. This is the fifth day of our Hark Forward Western Tour, celebrating the 110th anniversary of the founding of the MFHA, and it’s our second travel day. We’re headed to New Mexico today - Santa Fe more precisely, to ride out with Caza Ladron.
Our travels began on March 15th, when we struck out from Thomson, Georgia at 5 a.m. for a 16-hour, 1000-mile trek to Paola, Kansas for the Mission Valley Hunt Club's Foxhound Performance Trial. We arrived about 8 p.m., slept soundly, and spent the next day straightening tack rooms and cleaning out trucks and trailers. The day concluded with a judges’ meeting and, of course, a party at the Mission Valley clubhouse.
Hounds competing at Mission Valley. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
Five hunts entered, including our host hunt, so over the two-day trial, we hunted with the best hounds from Mission Valley along with Fort Leavenworth Hunt (KS), North Hills Hunt (NE), Mill Creek Hunt (IL), and Bridlespur Hunt (MO). I must admit, it was an enjoyable party, and I might have been a tad bleary the next morning, but the 38-degree temperature, with a very brisk wind, shook me wide awake. I quickly abandoned the idea of wearing my splendid red coat and dug out of the corner of the trailer tack room a heavy, very warm and plain black melton coat. Dixie and I trotted and cantered briskly around the field of the meet, stopping every two circuits or so to snag a thimble full of port at the stirrup cup.
We moved off from the Mission Valley Clubhouse with 12 couple of hounds. Dramatically, immediately after they were cast, the pack opened in full cry, and we galloped for half an hour over the rolling piedmont of the prairie hills covered with thick sod. Surprisingly, there is no mud here - just rich black damp dirt. Very good footing, not slick at all, with occasional rocks. Jumps are “tiger trap” coops, with wide gaps between the boards, about 3’3”. After a good, classic coyote hunting day, the field returned to the clubhouse for a hot lunch of fresh turkey, ham and vegetables, with homemade desserts. That night, there was another entertainment in the rambling, massive home of a hunt member, with scattered islands of fresh, appetizing meats, cheese and pastries.
Day two was at the famous Flint Hills, the original prairie that has never been farmed. We drove two hours to the Mashed O Ranch, 14,000 acres of openness. When we pulled past the ranch house, a cowboy in his duster and hat, riding his bay quarter horse, joined the procession. He’s a range man, the real deal. This is open country. Nothing but endless rolling turf, ringed by blue hills. Despite the name, there was little rock in this area, and the footing was perfect. No mud, no holes, just the occasional erosion ditch which is easily jumped in a stride. When my mare got off the trailer, I swear she pulled herself up, took a deep breath, and sighed at the openness. You feel like you can run forever. The only barriers are the occasional barbed wire fences that enclose a square mile. The grass was still winter brown, but there are hints of spring green. The wind was ever present, but it was comfortable riding with a heavy coat.
The performance trials pack heads out into the inviting Kansas country. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
Our field master kept us to the hillsides, where the hounds snaked in a long line, in full cry early in the day. We cantered to keep alongside of the pack. While generally the going was smooth, there were occasionally eroded gullies which usually could be jumped easily. Descending a steep bank jutting about eight feet from the hillside, Rosie’s Irish blood showed as she jumped (down) the bank. The pack today was even more cohesive than the day before. Once, when the hounds took off over the corner of a pasture inaccessible to riders (no gate in sight, and none of these barbed wire fences were paneled), huntsman Angela Murray of Red Rock Hounds (NV) requested they be stopped. A whip shot once in the air, and the whole pack, as one, stopped, and turned back to the huntsman. These were really good hounds. After several hours of steady hunting, trailing and full cry, Belle Meade Master Epp Wilson called for his second horse, and one of our crew drove the big six-horse trailer out onto this trackless prairie to deliver the steed. It was surreal to see the that familiar Foxboro trailer, silhouetted against the skyline. This day ended after the allotted performance trial hunt time of three hours. My mare and I could have hunted happily another three hours. The hills were dreamlike and endless. To view results from this event, please click here.
The next day, our westward trek to Caza Ladron started at 5 a.m. and took 13 hours to reach Santa Fe, passing through Oklahoma. Tumbleweeds blew across the road and the only trees demark a homestead. We started out in a violent thunderstorm, and as we gained elevation and went further west, it changed to snow. It’s spring by the calendar, but the West is several months behind our Georgia home. We enjoyed exercising Caza Ladron's hounds the next day. Their kennel is at Hipico, a large equine facility, and surrounded by desert hills covered with scrub, sage, tall cacti, and small junipers. Our horses figured out the cactus really quick. The ground this time of year is dry and dusty, but the sky and surrounding mountains make for a beautiful view.
The next day was an easy drive to Albuquerque, where we hunted with Juan Tomas Hounds. The land was just beautiful, desert ringed by mountains. John Allen, our field master, said, “It’s like living in a painting.” The territory is shot through with arroyos, ravines of natural erosion. Little arroyos, two or three feet across and a foot deep, can be negotiated with a jump of a stride. Big arroyos are more challenging. They’re three or four feet deep, and of course have banks of corresponding size. As the field jumps, horse by horse, the sandy banks wear down, and you either pick another spot, or plough on through deep footing. There are no jumps, but the natural landscape is enough. It’s a lot like Ireland.
Hark Forward Performance Trials Hon. Secretary Jean Derrick on a run. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
I was interested in the techniques this hunt uses when the game gets up. The first run, I was paying attention to where Dixie was putting her feet, looking down. Then glancing up, I saw the coyote bounding and bouncing through the sage. I looped the reins, stood up in the stirrups, let my mare take care of us, and watched. The field master used the field to turn (or attempt to turn) the quarry, as well as compress the pack to put more pressure on the coyote. However, today scent was poor. On his last bounce of the run, the coyote just vanished. We chased three coyotes in this fashion, with our field master’s mare sending a steady stream of sand as she zipped along, jumping the arroyos. We jumped our single jump of the day, a stack of four pallets, resting vertically against the barbed wire fence. Master Adren Nance explained that the hunt had tried using traditional boards for coops, but those jumps disappeared, being converted into fencing (or firewood) for the locals, but these pallets seemed to stay in place.
On the way in, from stage left, we saw a herd of wild horses galloping toward our trailer encampment. The herd swerved at the last minute, passing by our trucks and trailers and galloping toward the only other artificial feature I could see in the landscape - a squatter’s encampment. There they watered at tin metal troughs. As we left after breakfast, they lined up by the road, curiously watching us pass. Nance had explained earlier that we literally were in no man’s land. No one has title to this property. There were squatters (this is where the series Breaking Bad was shot). He seriously asked the assembled riders who was packing heat, and there was a substantial show of hands. “Good," he said. “Don’t pick up any hitchhikers, and if a stranger drives up to our trailers, be sure you know where your gun is.” Now, I’m a lawyer, as is he, and I know the New Mexico legislature could pass a law clearing title to this property. But I don’t think they want to. These Westerners want some things to remain wild and unattainable.
The night before our hunt, we drove out into the wilderness to the Nance family''s Field Ranch, located on 40 square miles of desert bordered by a Navajo Reservation. In 1910, it was the Town of Field, and there remain three old stone and log beam buildings. Adren's father Jim was our host and showed us around, and I asked him how many acres comprised the ranch. Drawing himself up, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You’re from the East, so you don’t know any better in asking that question, so I’ll answer it, but around here, this question is like asking someone what the balance in their checking account is.” The answer is 25,000. At the ranch, their annual rainfall is 14” a year, as opposed to 8” in nearby Albuquerque, which is a huge difference. I saw cattle and horses grazing on green grass. Water is probably the most precious commodity here. And this is a place of strong people.
Lurchers work the high desert country outside Flagstaff. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
We headed next to Flagstaff, Arizona, home to Grand Canyon Hounds. We took a supposed day of rest after we drove to Flagstaff, but the members of the Grand Canyon made sure things stayed lively, inviting us to lurcher coursing. Lurchers are lovely mixed breed dogs, mostly like greyhounds, bred to hunt silently and efficiently by English poachers hunting the King’s land. Out West, they chase jack rabbits. Master Paul Delaney led our group from the heights of Flagstaff to the lower elevations of the high desert. We trekked out on foot into the sand, skirting the sagebrush, and jumping up rabbits that our five lurchers keyed in on like lightning. The score was rabbits 3, lurchers 0, after our four-mile excursion. Those jacks are fast.
Walking back to the trucks, our hosts told us they’d also like to show us a nearby site. Chevelon, a canyon of petroglyphs, lay next to where we’d parked the trucks. Estimated to be 1,200 years old, the petroglyphs show very recognizable deer, elk, horses, cattle, and men and women. We ate a picnic lunch and headed back to Flagstaff to freshen up and prepare for the kennel tour and welcome party. A few hours later, we drove 20 minutes from our hotel to the Grand Canyon Hounds Kennels and Clubhouse. I have never seen such a lovely location for a hunt headquarters. I have never seen such an impressive group of functional, architecturally attractive buildings housing a hunt. The colors are all shades of brown, which match the land. Grand Canyon’s home is on 85 acres of meadows, surrounded by mountains of federal parks. There are houses for staff, barns for horses, and the central building is the kennels, with heated concrete benches, artful ironwork, and windows with cathedral ceilings, braced by mellow colored fir beams. The sunlight warms and brightens the whole building. And the adjacent Clubhouse is above the biggest, prettiest, most inviting indoor area I’ve ever seen. That evening there was a running slide show of desert hunt scenes, building anticipation for the next day.
The 1,200-year-old petroglyphs of Chevelon Canyon. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
In the morning, Delaney led us to the meet, where we parked in a beautiful, seemingly endless level desert, covered with grass, surrounded by hills, with several snow-covered mountains in the background, the San Francisco Peaks. Huntsman Peter Wilson unboxed the hounds, who make up an interesting pack. Wilson and Tyce Mothershead, huntsman of Tejon Hounds (CA), are creating a Western Hound, which is a cross between a foxhound and a sight hound, usually a Saluki. A foxhound normally isn’t fast enough to catch a coyote, but a sight hound is. A sight hound normally doesn’t have the stamina or biddability to hunt in a pack, but a foxhound, of course, does. The cross has it all. As Delany says, “A hound to hunt foxes has been perfected. A hound to catch coyotes has not as yet been perfected, but we’re working on it.”
Grand Canyon has about 40 couple in the kennels, and half are foxhounds and half are Western Hounds. The pack drawn for today shows that proportion. As Delaney and I were quietly chatting, I looked up and saw the huntsman and his horse at a full gallop, with clumps of dust puffing, and the pack fanning out in front of him. He was up in his saddle, pointing forward with his cap. Looking further, I saw the coyote. It was time to ride. Delaney and I galloped forward furiously over the level desert. The soft sand had some grass, but no cactus and little rock. Then, almost as abruptly as I perceived the run had begun, it was over, pack and huntsman and field crowded around. Later I learned that this is calving season, and coyotes are a particular problem at his time. A whip had earlier seen a pack of eight coyotes crowding around a cow about to calve, and we had chased and caught one of them. Peter cast on, and soon again rose in this saddle and pointed forward, harking the hounds, who sped away. This time I stayed with the field, during the mad dash which lasted about two minutes. Another quarry taken with machine-like precision.
Steep hillsides of ancient volcanic rock are no problem for this handy mount and rider. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell Images.
The hounds were watered, and we cast again, toward the hills. I fanned out alongside Delaney, and we rode halfway up a hill, behind the huntsman and a whipper-in. Word came that there had been a view on the other side of the hill. I turned to ask the best way around. “Over the top,” he said, “but I’m going around. You can follow the huntsman, if you wish.” I turned Rosie, who cantered lightly to the crest of the hill, weaving around the clumps of scrub. From the top, there was the pack, and here was the coyote, framed against the soft colors of the Painted Desert. I followed huntsman and whip diagonally down the steep far side of the hill. This side was covered in pebbles of ancient volcanic rock, tough footing but the horses moved confidently down, and I enjoyed the view. Rosie and I were the first of the field to arrive as hounds swiftly accounted for this coyote. Getting the hang of this exhilarating pattern. The hounds were watered again, and we cast on, hunting back to the trailers. There was one more run, but with the rising heat of the morning, no luck. Back at the trailers, we enjoyed a breakfast of ham, biscuits, and fruit salad with mimosas against the stunning natural backdrop.
Editor's Note: We'll be posting more installments from this epic trip soon, so check our website for updates.