I met Boo Montgomery, professional whipper-in at Bull Run Hunt (VA) and one of the weekend's judges, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and we checked out each other’s season-opening bumps and bruises. I am sporting a ridiculous black eye from a tree branch lashing yesterday and her fingers are orange from working on sore hooves. We will be right at home with the foxhunters from Fox River Valley and Massbach Hounds (IL), which is where we are headed for the first stop of the MFHA Hark Forward celebration. Tony Leahy, the current MFHA president, is hosting the kick-off for the tour with a Performance Trial in Elizabeth, Illinois. As a diehard Virginian-Marylander I was thinking, “Who hunts in Illinois?” but I have been assured it is God’s country, so Boo is here to judge and I am helping with the Hark Forward team. Epp Wilson, Master and huntsman of Belle Meade Hunt  (GA), and Jean Derrick, first flight fieldmaster, who had driven 16 hours from Georgia yesterday with 10 horses, were already settled at Massbach’s kennels. The adventure begins.

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MFHA Executive Director David Twiggs and one of the weekend's judges, Boo Montgomery of Bull Run Hunt. Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

Friday night was a Mexican fiesta under the stars on John Novak and Marie Henrich’s porch, as all the hunts were welcomed. Six hunts had come to Leahy’s Fox River Valley and Massbach country to participate in the performance trial: Fox River Valley, Midland (GA), Mill Creek (IL), Shawnee (IL), Hillsboro (TN), Bridlespur (MO) and Elkridge-Harford (MD). When hunts get together for Performance Trials, friendships are renewed and good-natured insults abound between huntsmen that truly admire one another. A mariachi band wandered among guests, the margaritas flowed freely and the Mexican buffet was thoroughly enjoyed by all participants and guests. Fireworks ended the evening as the last party-goers were leaving. It was a fabulous party.

On Saturday we hunted two contiguous properties for three hours, and I admit it is God’s country. Each hunt entered five hounds, and the pack of 17½ couple was blended together in the morning. They soon harked to guest huntsman, Ashley Hubbard, the new huntsman at Green Spring valley (MD). He had previously been Tony Leahy’s right–hand man here at Fox River Valley and Massbach. Starting at our host, John Novak’s beautiful farm, we moved from one cornfield to another, skirting the occasional soybean field as hounds worked on coyote lines. It was hot and dry, but still green and beautiful. The green fields actually reminded me of Ireland. The next farm was Bryan and Christy Cressey’s 5000-acre property and we were proudly told it boasted 120 miles of mowed paths! There were endless views of fields and woods and coverts that would be the envy of any foxhunter.

The hounds found three coyote Saturday and, regardless of the heat, they were hunting as hard after three hours as they did in first covert. Liz McKnight of Elkridge-Harford tally-hoed the first coyote and hounds quickly harked to Fox River Valley’s Daffodil and Bracket, Hillsboro’s Bridget and Mill Creek’s Dallas. Judges were right there and all scored these hounds as the lead on the first Full Cry. I am noting this first run because three of these hounds were Top 5 overall. Bracket, Dallas and Bridget were 2,3,4 of top five hounds. Hillsboro‘s Dagwood took the top honor and Midland’s Caper was fifth. These hounds hunted hard from start of day to end and it is gratifying to see them rewarded for their endurance and overall hunting ability. This is why we have Performance Trials. Hounds can be judged objectively from different vantage points over several days and the true stars of a hunt stand out.

The fields were treated to some great views and even the road followers enjoyed watching across the hills. Riders were able to stand on the hillside and watch as hounds worked hard, doubling back on themselves as the coyote ducked through the cornrows below. After giving hounds a final drink and cool off in a pond, we roaded back to Novak’s farm.

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Performance Trial huntsman Ashley Hubbard of Green Spring Valley (MD). Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

Scores were tallied for the day and we drove with results of the day to Bill and Ellen Hunt’s farm, where an enormous white tent had been erected on the old airfield. Prime rib and scalloped potatoes followed a delicious salad and nobody missed the dessert cupcakes. During dinner Epp Wilson and Jean Derrick made opening remarks and thanked all participants. David Twiggs, the Executive Director of the MFHA, warmly greeted everyone and spoke enthusiastically about the new headquarters in Middleburg. He encouraged everyone to get involved and to come and make use of the MFHA resources. Boo Montgomery then assisted Epp with the awards. There are five individual categories with an overall, cumulative award for top scores. “Hunting, Trailing, Full Cry, Marking and Endurance” are the areas that the judges are critiquing. The top ten scorers in each category are calculated and ribbons given to these top ten. The top ten hounds and top three hunts with the most points are noted and at the end of both days, Champion ribbons are given to these.

Sunday morning started with a beautiful sunrise over the Massbach kennels, as we met Tony Leahy and 12 riders to hack to the meet at Bill Hunt’s farm. Again it was warm and dry, which made scenting difficult. A coyote was viewed early and hounds were off. The runs were short but exhibited diligent work from hounds. After scoring it was clear that the same hard working hounds were there for every run. Tony kept the pack and fields out for an additional hour to ensure that every effort was made for the judges to see hounds work. Riders had many great opportunities to watch hounds. There were lots of coops to jump and riders had big dusty smiles when they finally came back to the trailers. John Novak had returned with food and drink as we waited for Tony and hounds to return.

Sunday night, we went to Sunny Beaulieu’s home for another great dinner of chicken cacciatore. Epp Wilson again thanked all, as the final ribbons were handed out. As earlier mentioned, the top five hounds were rewarded for hard work on both days. Hillsboro’s Dagwood was awarded top hound, which made Leilani Gray smile. He had been her pick for the Trial and had not disappointed. Fox River Valley’s Bracket was next. These two hunts were a mere 2½ points apart for Championship Honors, and Tony Leahy graciously tipped his hat to John Gray as he won overall. Midland Foxhounds took third place. Tony then very sincerely thanked all the hunts individually for coming. He had high praise for his fellow huntsmen and was generous in his compliments for specific hounds. Stories were told about the lineage of two top hounds, Hillsboro’s Bridget and Fox River Valley’s Bracket, as he remembered a hound that John Gray’s father hunted named Swimmer, whose descendants impressed today.

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Glen Westmoreland of Midland Fox Hounds (GA) whipping-in.Photo courtesy of Barbara Smith.

Bracket was the Huntsman’s Choice for top hound overall. Ashley Hubbard picked her because she "was very accurate up front speaking. She kept everything going. When hounds checked she‘d be the one to hit off and keep it going.” Johnny Gray then later told me the story of Hillsboro’s Dagwood, who with littermates, Fox River Valley's Daffodil and Mill Creek’s Dallas, all in the top ten, have an interesting history with Fox River Valley. Their mother, Warwickshire Daylight, was bred herself in England by Warwickshire’s Joint Master Charmaine Green, who was Master and huntsman at Fox River Valley 35 years ago. Of special note here is the extraordinary fact that Hillsboro hounds whelped six of the top ten overall hounds.

Everyone took home a renewed appreciation for the hard work it takes to make a great hunt. It takes a team. Boo Montgomery told me she especially enjoyed judging, as she was able to watch Glen Westmoreland whip. Said he is one of the best ever and now she knows why. I know from scoring that Eleanor Hartwell is extremely dedicated and doesn’t miss a thing. She caught on average ten hound numbers at every opportunity.  Her judging was excellent. Everyone brought something to the table and this is why these hound trials are important to the next generation. Excellence is noted and explained, histories are repeated, and we learn why some hounds shine. It paints a bigger picture and captures our interest to watch and keep hunting, to keep learning and ensure that our sport continues.

For full results and to learn more about the entire Hark Forward schedule, visit mfha.com.

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