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Belle Meade Hunt Performance Trial: February 25 & 26, 2011

As riders emerged from the woods onto Quaker road, so much steam was rising from their horses it was as if a dense fog had suddenly fallen on the crisp Georgia morning. Just moments before, the hounds had crossed the same road at full cry heading southeast. Quaker Road is a sunken through-way built by original Quaker settlers in the 18th century and today serves as a main north-south artery that connects much of the vast Belle Meade hunt country to a spider web of trails that crisscross pine groves, hay fields, creeks (that sometimes seem more like rivers) and even a daunting ravine known as the “Grand Canyon” that would be more familiar to those living in the Appalachians than in East Central Georgia.

We galloped north on Quaker Road then east onto the shoulder of paved Wrightsboro Road and finally ran parallel to the line on the north flank. Through the woods, in the distance, we could see and hear the hounds working. The music was beautiful and the energy in the air was palpable. Then suddenly a call came over the radio to pull the hounds up. Once again deer had been spotted on the line and the Huntsman  (Charles Montgomery of Live Oak) and Performance Trial president (Nelson Gunnell of Middleburg, Virgina) made the call to stop the hounds, re-group and cast again. It was a frustrating moment that illustrated the challenge of managing a fair and competitive performance trial.

Frustration

The day before (Friday, February 25th) had been even more frustrating. Early morning thunderstorms pushed the first cast to 3:00 pm. In temperatures that hovered in the low to mid-70s with 15 to 20 MPH winds, scenting conditions were less that than ideal. Hounds from six different packs following a neutral but unknown huntsman were cast into an unfamiliar covert. Drawing along Tally Ho Lake, a traditional Belle Meade honey hole, the hounds struck early but were quickly called off when the quarry was viewed running amongst deer. Because points (and pride) are at stake, it is critical that hounds are scored fairly. So when in doubt that the hounds are being true to legal quarry, the hounds are stopped and judging ceased.

Deer were the story on the first day of the performance trial. One Whipper-in commented that he had “never seen as many deer in one outing.” The hounds struck often but were unable to carry through. Many hounds were suspected of riot and several were caught outright. Two hounds were eliminated for consistently giving voice on deer. A visiting huntsman commented that deer smell different from territory to territory and this can be confusing to hounds.

What became clearly obvious was just how difficult it is to build a cohesive pack from a disparate grouping of hounds in poor scenting conditions. The hounds seemed disengaged and were scattered everywhere. Since hounds were being judged it was important that they operated with minimal interference, so whippers-in had their hands tied and were limited in their ability to push the pack back together. “Sometimes when hounds are brought to strange country and they look up and see a strange huntsman, they may think it is an opportunity to ‘head to the beach and have some vacation time,’” said Epp Wilson, MFH, Belle Meade Hunt. “Some of the hounds may feel that the rules from home no longer apply.

At a late afternoon check, during which the eliminated hounds were picked up, a vote was taken and a decision made to hunt for an additional thirty minutes. For the judges, scoring opportunities had been scarce, and there was hope that a final push would yield more scores. Huntsman Charles Montgomery, who later said that the day had been among the most difficult he had experienced at a performance trial, rallied the pack and struck 15 minutes later in a swampy area east of Quaker Road near Foxboro House. Finally, the hounds stayed true to the line and ran southwest in pursuit. Twenty-five minutes later, with dusk coming on fast and satisfied that the judges had good scores, the hounds were stopped and brought home with hope for better on Saturday.

Full Cry

So as frustration took the place of elation on early Saturday morning and the whippers-in struggled to pull the pack back together, there was doubt that the day would be any different than the day before.  Undaunted, Montgomery moved out drawing along the rim of “Grand Canyon” near Major Kindersley’s coop. With temperatures in the low 40s and virtually no breeze, scenting conditions had improved greatly from the previous day.

At Orange Gap, just east of Grand Canyon, everything came together. The pack unified, the quarry cooperated, and the chase was on. The woods exploded in sound as the pack struck in unison. The air was electric. Horses and riders became immediately alert. On the radio excited voices turned out a stream of reports:  “they’re running to the west behind Dove Field. . . they’re in Race Track Field turning towards the pipeline . . . Tally-ho! . . . the coyote has turned northwest along the pipeline . . . now crossing Quaker Road towards Po-Boy’s . . . now north .  . . we need road whips out on Ridge Road . . .”

It was a classic Belle Meade coyote chase – wide-open speed, with plenty of room to run across some of the most challenging terrain in American foxhunting. For a rider, it is an all out assault on the senses.

Amid the thundering hoofs came shouts from the mounted judges guides ordering, “Staff to the right, staff to the right, move over!” The guides had a single (and sometimes dangerous) mission: Position the judges for scoring. Scoring hounds was the reason for being there, and no scores were more important than Full Cry (speed and drive). The guides and judges weaved through the field and navigated the network of trails to get in the right place at the right time to score the hounds fairly.

As the hounds neared Mt. Zion church, which rests on Ridge Road (a paved road that bisects Belle Meade’s east and west hunt country) they turned north and then southeast. At the church a mobile “pit stop” was arranged that could not have been choreographed better by NASCAR.  Staff and judges were given the opportunity to switch to fresh horses. Switching to a fresh horse is a common practice at Belle Meade where the immense hunt country and blazing fast speed quickly tire even the fittest mount. The transition took just seconds, with fresh horse and rider quickly underway and right back into the action.

The coyote turned south, running parallel to Wrightboro road. Back on Quaker Road, the forward judges held their breath in anticipation. The pack was now running as a single voice that echoed through the woods. Closer and closer it came until suddenly the lead hounds burst from the woods on the west of the road followed by whippers-in, more judges and the huntsman who were all in close pursuit. The hounds then turned slightly to the southeast into the “Valley of the Spleen”, an impassable wetland that lies adjacent to the Grand Canyon. On Quaker Road there was a clamor of activity as whips and guides were given orders and made decisions about where the pack would go next and how best to get there.

On the radio a whip cried out “he’s heading east at Larry Knox’s towards Wrightsboro Road.” Vehicles carrying road judges sped down the paved road in an attempt to get a view. But the noise on the road turned the coyote north and then west again. The hounds raced across Orange Gap (where the chase originally started) and back towards the west following their previous footsteps across Race Track Field and onto the pipeline. The chase continued west to southern most reaches of Quaker Road before finally losing steam and checking. It was 10:30 – nearly an hour and a half, and twenty miles after the chase began. An amazing day!

The Performance Trial Moves Into the Twenty-first Century

The judges were quickly ushered back to the Derrick cottage, near the BMH clubhouse, which served as the Performance Trial Headquarters. Along with the judges were the scorers (responsible for entering the judges’ scores into the online scoring program) and the GPS operators who would upload all of the dog tracks onto a topographical map of hunt country that includes timestamps and waypoints. Welcome to Performance Trial scoring in the twenty-first century!

Performance Trials evolved from competitions called “field trials” that were first staged by night hunters. In 1996, Ben Hardaway, MFH of the Midland Fox Hounds, hosted the first field trial at his Fitzpatrick fixture. The entered hunts bring a team of their best hounds. As these trials became more popular with mounted foxhunting, it was apparent there was a need to change the way hounds were scored and the name from “field trial,” which judges an individual hound’s performance, to incorporate a hunting “pack” of hounds so that while individual hounds may be recognized for stellar performance the emphasis was on judging the pack with hounds hunting as a pack. Thus the term “performance trail” came about and a new set of rules were developed incorporate the performance of the pack.

Performance Trials are held over a two-day period, hunting for three hours each day. By the time of the Centennial celebration in 2006, the performance trial was a recognized event supported by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which also approved and promulgated uniform rules. At Belle Meade’s Performance Trial this year, the six entered hunts brought their six best hounds for a massed pack of eighteen couple. Stenciled numbers are dyed on both sides of each hound, so that the mounted judges know only the number, and not the hound’s name or pack.

The scoring and score calculation process is straight forward. The judges utilize digital recorders to mark individual hound activity as hunting, trailing, full cry, and marking. The digital recorders time stamp each entry to ensure accuracy. Following the hunt the judges listen to the recording and enter their final scores on scoring sheets which are handed to the scorers. Although individual judges could enter their scores into the online scoring program, experienced scorers are used to ensure accuracy of data entry. Judges and scorers confer with the GPS operator and judge in the event that there are questions or disputes with hound numbers.

The online scoring system is the heart of the modern performance trial. The online program was developed (and is managed) by Chris Towt of the Arapahoe Hunt. The program allows for scores to be entered in a matter of minutes versus the five to eight hours required for manual calculation. The program is easy to use and once all of the scores are entered, results may be calculated for a single day or the entire event in a matter of seconds.

No matter how good a judge’s eye sight, mistakes will be made in recording hound numbers. Just consider what it is like for a judge to be galloping on a one lane trail, in thick woods and unfamiliar terrain while scoring hounds. In one hand are reins and in the other is a digital recorder. The judge is moving and the hounds are moving. The judge must exercise incredible horsemanship while at the same time be absolutely accurate in calling hound activity and numbers. Given the complexities of the task, perfection is impossible.

GPS collars have greatly increased the accuracy of scores. Prior to the meet each hound is fitted with a numbered GPS collar. The movement of every hound is tracked and recorded throughout the entire hunt. Following the hunt, the hound tracks are uploaded into a mapping program and judges are provided with the data. Judges and scorers utilize the GPS data in two ways. Judges, who are unsure of a particular call, reference the hound number, track and waypoint to confirm the accuracy of a call. Scorers use the data to help the judges correct inaccurate or disputed hound numbers. [Of course the GPS collars also play a crucial role in helping the staff bring every hound safely home.]

“This is the second year that the Belle Meade Performance Trials have utilized the online scoring system in conjunction with the GPS collars,” said Gunnell. “I can tell you, hands-down, this system has made us better. Our scores are more accurate, giving us a fairer competition, and we get results much faster  which means we can celebrate our winners as close to real time as possible.”

Performance Trials Make Fox Hunting Better

Primarily, performance trials give Masters and huntsmen an opportunity to evaluate hounds and improving breeding. In other words, the Performance Trial will help you build a stronger, more talented pack. Secondly, Performance Trials create connections between hunts, and more importantly, the individuals in those hunts. These connections are critical in helping preserve our sport and traditions. When multiple hunts come together for a performance trial, members become a real part of a larger community rather than viewing fox hunting through the myopic lens of their home hunt.  Much as the MFHA has worked to connect and empower the fox hunting community at the top level, these informal connections empower our sport at its grass roots helping individuals see the “bigger picture.”

Technology is playing a key role in taking the performance trial to a new level. Technology not only improves the accuracy of scores and adds to the fairness of competition, it also makes it easier for Hunts to hold performance trials because it reduces the resources needed for manual scoring along with the frustration that comes with manual methodology. Bottom line: Technology takes the pain out of managing performance trials. At the same time technology can be used to create an ongoing, online database of hound performance that has the potential to elevate and enhance the quality of packs and fox hunting in North America.

Jeb Blount is the bestselling author of People Buy You: The Real Secret to What Matters Most in Business. He has been hunting at Belle Meade since childhood, along with his parents, siblings and most recently, his son.

 

 

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