Journal Entry: Today marked the first of a two-day performance trials held here at Belle Meade. Guest huntsman Joe Cassidy came in from Pennsylvania to hunt the hounds from five different hunts: Belle Meade, Snickersville, Rappahannock, Hillsboro, and Metamora. He has never hunted any of these hounds before, they have never worked as a pack together before, and Joe has never hunted coyote before. Needless to say, we were in for a heck of a day. Over the last two days the different hunts have moved in and worked on bleaching out their dark hounds, gotten horses settled, and been a part of the festivities going on here at Belle Meade.
Thursday evening was the judge’s meeting, which I was lucky enough to sneak in on. They went over safety guidelines, about road whips picking up hounds and bringing them up to the pack if they get separated, guidelines for hounds who lag behind or run deer, if a hound gets hurt, etc. They went over what happens if a coyote is put to ground or killed, about where the huntsmen should ride, and stressed that only one horn would be used throughout the next two days. We had some rain that was supposed to move it, and the trials hunt needs to last at least three hours, so we were trying to find a good window to get out there.
The masters decided to go ahead and leave at 8 a.m. like planned, and we had a lovely stirrup cup before the hunt. We moved out and away from the kennels, taking a couple of extra minutes to help a couple of lagging hounds quit looking for their huntsman and move up with Joe. We moved out and across a couple of big fields when someone hollered that a coyote had been viewed. Immediately the hounds were picked up and taken to the line and away we went. Around we went and through the woods, jumping a few big logs and weaving through the trees. We ended up coming out in a field where one of the judges who was riding in a vehicle was standing on the line. Due to the wind the scenting was a little rough, so the hounds took a minute to pick up the line. But then away we were again until we came to a gate with no coop. At this point I jumped off to get the gate for everyone, and I want to say thank you to all who offered to stay with me as first and second fields moved through the gate, as well as to those who stayed while I got back on. I joined second field and continued on with the run until I could rejoin first field. While I was with second field the hounds were hot on a coyote, but heading out towards the airport and so whippers-in were said to pull them off the line. I was able to rejoin first field as we were hacking to our next destination to cast the hounds.
We I got back up there I was able to really watch the hounds work. By now they were all worked up and ready to roll, but a little discouraged because they had been pulled off of a good line. So the hounds, especially the hounds from visiting packs, tried to mix in with the field and look for their huntsman. Todd Kern, the huntsman from Snickersville, was riding in front of me and I was able to watch him silently give his hounds permission to continue on. Todd had told me the day before that because they are still ripe with foxes in his part of VA that they do not allow their hounds to run coyote. This made it even more difficult for his hounds, as now they had not only run game they were essentially not allowed to run, but they had been pulled off of a hot line. But they continued to work diligently and I was extremely impressed.
The hunt continued on for another hour or so and I think a lot of people were beginning to get a bit discouraged. We knew that this heavy rain was about to move in and we knew that something needed to happen. We moved on for a while, the hounds hitting and missing on the scent as we went, and finally they went ahead and called for fresh horses for the huntsman and judges. We took a few minutes up at a spot called Quaker Cemetery (it actually is an old cemetery) and they had a very efficient team of trucks, trailers, and helpers, who got everyone switched out and we got some water, or other beverages, and off we were again. By this time the rain was coming down pretty steadily and everyone was beginning to actually feel wet. But we continued on as we are tough fox hunters.
After another forty-five minutes or so we had made our way back within about a mile of the kennels, and there was talk of going in, when all of a sudden a whipper-in viewed about a quarter mile away from us. We moved to the line and were there within just a couple of minutes. The rain was coming down in sheets and the hounds were having a ton of trouble with the line even with being mere minutes behind the coyote. Epp even turned to the field and commented about how difficult the scenting was on a day like today. About the time he said that an older, unmarked hound that was put in with the pack because of being true along with a hound from a visiting pack were voicing. Before long the hounds had crossed in front of the huntsman and were voicing as a pack. The chase was back on!
As far as what happened with the run from this point on it is a bit of a blur for me. The hounds were moving at a coyotes pace in woods where horses had to travel slower than a fox. We ducked, dived, weaved, bobbed, slipped, slid, scrambled, and clawed our way along behind them. At times it was raining so hard that all I could see was the hazy red outline of the coat in front of me, and I was just hoping that I was following the correct coat! We crossed a road at one point in time almost ahead of the hounds and we got to hear them in full cry, and to any true hunter there is no sweeter sound.
We continued along on the run, galloping through pine forests and jumping ditches and creeks, pretty much anything that got in our way. As for how long the run actually lasted, that I could not tell you either. Near the end of the run the field master pulled up and said he was out of horse, but encouraged anyone with horse left who wished to continue with the hunt to do so. I ended up being the only one who went on, but at the time I did not know that. I was just determined to catch up so as not to get left in the woods all alone! After about another ten minutes or so from splitting with the field the hounds checked, and we decided to call it a day. All of the hounds and humans had to hunt again the next day, along with some of the horses. There was a small split, but most of those hounds were retrieved and rejoined with the pack. Joe got down and praised all of the hounds for their hard work.
This being my first performance trials I was not sure what to expect. But I must say that I was extremely impressed with the huntsman’s ability to come out and hunt this pack of hounds as well as he did. I was also impressed with the caliber of hounds that were present on this hunt today. They went out in the worst possible conditions with a bunch of other hounds they did not know, and made it probably one of the best hunts I have ever been on in thirteen seasons of hunting. It was truly amazing to watch those hounds in that valley, in the pouring down rain, noses to the ground and tails going ninety miles an hour just before opening up on the line. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. After the hunt there was a lovely breakfast at the clubhouse and then that evening there was a wonderful award ceremony, dinner, and party.