Although they differ in their choice of towing vehicle, Julie Free ("Ford trucks...is this a serious question?") and Laura Ruskowski ("Chevy all the way!"), honorary whippers-in for the Harvard Foxhounds, share a dedication and love for hunting that finds them not only whipping in, but in kennels, feeding, walking and caring for the beloved pack of American and Crossbred hounds in Glenpool, OK, just south of Tulsa.
Free, who recently celebrated the “20th Anniversary of her 21st birthday”, has a “real job” supervising the sex offender team at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and is a convert from the world of barrel racing. Native Alaskan Ruskowski, 21, is a full-time student studying Medical Laboratory Science at Northeastern State University who plans on attending graduate school and forging a career in forensic anthropology.
They kindly and enthusiastically shared a few moments of their busy lives with e-Covertside.
e-Covertside: How did you become involved in hunting?
Julie: I didn't even know Oklahoma had foxhunting! Our farrier married a girl from North Carolina who hunted. They moved here and she didn't have anybody to hunt with, so her husband mentioned to her that he had seen pictures of me riding in an English saddle, and she asked me to go hunt with her. “It will be just like a quarter horse show”, someone told me. Ha! No one said anything about coops not being on level ground! At the time I was just riding barrel horses, but had previously shown quarter horses in English events so I said I'd try it. I got hooked. I haven't had an actual barrel horse since 2002.
Laura: I was first introduced to foxhunting through the United States Pony Club. I competed in the Quiz competition athampionship and foxhunting was my favorite subject. I met one of our Masters, Barbara Naegler, along with charter member Ann Webber, at a pony club fundraiser. My mother and I were invited to participate in the upcoming roading rides. We were hooked and joined that year. I was 14 years old.
e-Covertside: Barbara Naegler, MFH, whom I contacted to gauge the club’s interest in the piece, said that honorary staff are extremely involved with the pack. To what extent are you involved?
Julie: All the whips in our hunt go out once a week to feed hounds and walk hounds. When I started I actually took pictures of five hounds a week, so I could learn their names. The hounds know and respond to all of us. We also help worm hounds, flea spray, flea and tick dip, show hounds, clean kennels on occasion, you name it we do it or have done it in the past. I have even made a rushed trip to the vet clinic, pulling my horse trailer, with an overheated hound in the front seat of my truck (I am pretty sure that trip traumatized my mare).
Laura: Every Sunday I go out and help feed and walk the hounds. Since I was 16, I have worked and shown hounds at hound shows. I am currently assisting my mother with her research regarding tick borne diseases in hounds, after seeing an increase in ticks and sick hounds during this last tick season. I am always willing to help out the huntsman if anything else comes up.
e-Covertside: Name three things you never hunt without.
Julie: Three things I don't hunt without are dog treats, wire cutters, and honey or glucose gel. My first whip horse got hung in barbwire one day. After that I made sure all of my horses are hobble trained and I have wire cutters, just in case. The Oklahoma summers, and a lot of the fall, get hot. We have one fixture that is very hilly. If a hound gets overheated, the quick sugar will usually bring them around pretty quickly. When we start roading in the summer, I put a breast collar on my mare that has water bottles attached to it. It looks a bit funny, but it's worth it if you can help a hound that gets too hot.
Laura: I have hunted with and without my horse, due to a car wreck, so I can’t say I never hunt without my horse! The three things that I never go without are my hunt whip, radio/cell phone, and hound treats.
e-Covertside: What makes your territory unique?
Julie: We have 3 main fixtures. Two are pretty wooded, and the newest one is very flat and open. In the wooded fixtures, you have to know the borders of the property and make sure a whip is there; we basically set a perimeter for the hounds to hunt in. In the new, open property (which is amazing), we can pretty much form a "moving box" around the huntsman and the hounds.
Laura: I think each fixture is unique in their own right. The Flint Creek fixture is beautiful with water crossing, hills, wooded areas, some open areas, and bald eagles who nest there during the winter. The Wycoff fixture is 50/50, open fields and hills/wooded areas. The owner has beautiful English house that we are allowed to use for breakfast after the hunt. Our newest fixture is Cobb Ranch. We have hunted there a few times so far and it pretty flat and open. So you can see we hunt in all types of terrain.
e-Covertside: What are your goals for the pack?
Julie: By far, to continue to improve. We have some really good hounds and are having a great season. The hounds are working together and usually all on at the end of the day. Long term it would be great if we could continue to develop and add to our new fixture.
Laura: My first goal is to get a better layout of our new fixture, Cobb Ranch. It would also be great if eventually we could have a hound trial there. Also, getting more teenagers and young adults involved in foxhunting is another goal. This is an amazing sport and riders don’t know what they are missing out on.
e-Covertside: Any memorable experiences you’d like to share?
Julie: I have had some really neat experiences hunting, gotten to see some unusual game, but three things really stand out, the most memorable of which was whipping at the Centennial Trials. I had never hunted with 40 hounds before. I was guarding a border and seeing 40 hounds streaming towards me something I'll never forget. What was even more amazing was when I pointed my mare towards them and they all turned and went the direction I wanted them to go.
The experience that has meant the most to me was when my first whip horse, Scotch (my husband's 23-year-old, 15 hand, ex-roping horse), won the 2008 Master's Choice Award for the HFH Field Hunter of the Year. Scotch had never jumped before I started hunting on her. Once she figured out that she could "work" the hounds like she did a calf, she was amazing!
My funniest experience has to be the wild pig. I had to retire Scotch, and was riding my younger mare. The first fall I whipped on her, we were at our fixture in Pershing, OK, which is very wooded. I could hear the hounds opening and was running up a wooded trail trying to cover the border of the property. A pig very casually strolled out of the woods, stopped & looked at us, and then strolled off the trail through the woods.
However, my mare apparently thought the pig was one of those rare horse-eating pigs. As soon as she saw the pig stop and stare, she tried to leave the country. However, there were pretty large trees where she tried to leave, so she wound up partially on her back legs trying to get through the brush. By the time I got her calmed down again, I had hit the middle finger on my right hand against one of the trees. About an hour later, I realized my finger wouldn't move.
We haven't seen the pig since...don't think my doctor believed that I broke my finger trying to climb a tree with my horse because she was trying to get away from a pig! Fortunately, the mare has mellowed out now and nothing seems to psych her out like that anymore!
Laura: There is so many, but I’ll also share three. My first year of riding with the hunt, I got to participate in a hound trial on my Appaloosa mare, Lacey. A Master’s horse was injured so I volunteered to ride back with him. While walking back, I got to Tally-ho my first coyote. Right after that, I got to see the hounds work the coyote’s line.
My next memorable experience was after I got my new horse, an American Paint horse gelding named KC. At one roading, the huntsman asked for me to come up and help him with the hounds. After the ride, I was asked if I wanted to be the junior apprentice Whipper-In.
Finally, at the new fixture this year, I was out trying to redirect one of the hounds. The next thing I knew, KC and I had stepped right in the middle of a nest of coyote pups in the tall grass. There was a “posse of pups” running all around us!
e-Covertside: Do you have time to pursue interests outside of work, school, and hunting? If so, what are they?
Julie: When not hunting, I teach agility classes at a local dog school and compete in agility with my pit bull. I am also on the board of directors for Chouteau Pound Pals, so I spend a lot of time working with dogs at the shelter. Working so much with the hounds taught me a ton of stuff that I can use with the shelter dogs.
Laura: I love reading books, going to movies with friends, and taking trips with my family.