The brainchild of MFH and huntsman Susan Gentry, Cloudline Hounds (TX) hosts special monthly hunt meets specifically for newcomers and those who need extra guidance out in the field. Dubbed "Hounds 4 Hilltoppers," the supervised, steady-paced day gives riders who are very new or simply prefer a little extra attention the opportunity to experience the thrill and pageantry of following hounds. Last weekend, even temperatures in the mid-20's (with gusty winds) didn't deter a hardy group from coming out.
A hardy group across the age spectrum turned out for last Saturday's Hounds 4 Hilltoppers event.
Recognizing interest in following hounds and the demand for a very controlled outing, Gentry organized the first Hounds 4 Hilltoppers last season. Describing the requested attire as "As Close As You Can" to formal, with lots of loaned items, she makes sure the day begins with each participant having a photo taken with the Master. Setting out right behind the huntsman, the group - including newcomers and riding instructors, along with seasoned members and green horses at the very back - pause frequently to learn about etiquette, scenting, hunting terms and traditions. The pace is generally held to walk/trot, although cantering or popping over occasional logs is offered as appropriate.
The first day was such a success that Hounds 4 Hilltoppers has become a scheduled event the second Saturday of each month. To include more regular members of the field, the second Sunday of each month became "Ratcatcher Sunday," as informal attire is not often offered at Cloudline. Gentry notes that some new riders will come out for the slow-paced Saturday ride, and, emboldened, stay to participate in the normal hunt meet the next day. Western as well as English tack is welcome.
Gentry reports that last Saturday, "We had a group of young riders from Stone River Farms in Weatherford, Texas join us. Lauren Stone is the trainer and they drove 2.5 hours to do their first hunt with temps in the 20’s and 25 mph wind gusts. Since they only had very light weight jackets for the hunter ring, we just let them wear whatever was warm enough. They came in really bright puffy jackets with fur trimmed hoods and colored ribbons in their hair and they even had matching warm helmet covers - with smiles a mile wide and “Miss Susan’s” on their lips, how could you not love it!"
Other guests included Dr. Sylvia Rothenburg from Hamburg, Germany, who was visiting her longtime friend and Cloudline member, Dr. Petra Collyer. "It was her first time out with hounds as well, and was such a special treat for us. She was positively beaming when we came in." Pam Donahue Rominski, from Wayne-DuPage Hunt in Illinois, also joined the field.
Following a stirrup cup - complete with sparkling grape juice from a silver tray for the young entry - Gentry reports the day unfolded as follows: "I gave a brief talk on casting hounds, everyone picked a favorite hound - using the colored tracking collars as a helpful identifier - very brief as it was so cold and windy. I decided to get to the woods and out of the wind.... The first ditch was a bit trappy and we all took time to get all the youngsters through. One pony gave a little jump and unseated a young rider. No foul in fox hunting and on we went!
"As we entered the woods, I put that young lady right in my pocket and we got her though the next ditch with all smiles. EVERY ditch was trappy and a lot of adult and seasoned hunters would have ridden more carefully. We went through a couple more crossings for the fun of it, and soon all agreed that 'ditches and water' were their favorite part (even the earlier casualty, who rebounded admirably). We did a strong trot through a passage that was under water, splashing our way along. Next, we started up the hill and I saw a coyote cross in front of us into an open pasture. I turned and told everyone that a coyote had crossed in front of us and that we were going to trot up together in a group to get a view. We rode up and there he was - he even stopped and waited as if to make sure everyone saw him. We all yelled 'tally ho' for the fun of it."
Jack Russell Terrier puppies are the best hand warmers after a chilly day in the field!
The ride home included more opportunities to watch hounds work, a review of etiquette, and a carefully-selected route that allowed waiting parents to get photos as the young charges returned. After tending to hounds and horses back at the kennels, Gentry welcomed the group into her home for a warming breakfast and - a treat for the children - Jack Russell terrier puppies to hold. Hopefully, a number of future foxhunters, and friends of the hunt, have been created.
For more information on Cloudline Hounds, visit their website here.