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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

An epic fox-hunting tour of the United States, part I: Tejon Hunt Week, California

<script async src="//"></script> <script> (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({ google_ad_client: "ca-pub-9056490289876710", enable_page_level_ads: truWhat would you say was the perfect fox-hunting country? Rolling grassland and perfectly tended coops? Open prairie and hard-running quarry? Frosty desert or humid cotton fields? I have seen them all over the past two months, on an 8,000-mile adventure from California to Maryland and back, and I still could not give you an answer. There are swift hounds and skilled huntsmen across America, hand-in-hand with unparalleled hospitality. Now back in England, and (almost) over the jet-lag, I am flicking through the pages of my hunting diary and scrolling through hundreds of photographs to tell the tale.

Setting off from San Francisco

It all began at the Tejon Ranch in California, where vast open countryside and superlative hound work drew fox-hunters from all over to the 2018 Hunt Week, showcasing no fewer than seven packs. Encompassing 270,000 acres of billiard-table-flat farmland, rolling cattle pasture, mountains, valleys and wildflower-strewn desert, the Tejon Ranch once hosted a meet of the West Hills hunt of Los Angeles, home pack of Spencer Tracy and Walt Disney. When the West Hills lost country to the LA sprawl, it amalgamated with the Santa Fe further south, and Tejon Ranch seized the opportunity to add fox-hunting to its growing equestrian portfolio. Today, the hunt is flourishing in the hands of Tyce and Hilary Mothershead, ably assisted by their four-year-old daughter Finlay. After hunting the North Hills of Iowa for eight seasons, Tyce left freezing winters behind to take on Tejon, then using mainly Penn-Marydel and crossbred American hounds. Now, together with Peter Wilson of the Grand Canyon Hounds in Arizona, he is fulfilling the principal of breeding for your country by crossing sight hounds with foxhounds to produce a pack undaunted by the dry, scentless grass of California. The sight hounds negate the need for good scenting conditions by viewing the quarry, and the foxhounds bring the necessary drive, determination and stamina to give a run, backing up the sight hounds’ initial view. Purists may be sceptical, but it only takes half an hour behind Tyce or Peter to see that it works.

Tejon Ranch, with the I-5, the main interstate 
through California, to the left

Setting the bar high
After a night catching up on the gossip at the Mothersheads’ house, the Tejon hounds started off the week on a day on which formal clothing was discarded for whatever was comfortable in the heat. The meet, or fixture in American parlance, was in gently sloping foothills beyond almond orchards, the vast agricultural plain to the west hidden in the heat haze. Thankfully, the whoopie wagon, a truck fully stocked with beer, Coke and water, was on hand all week. Views of coyotes here are frequent and superb, with staff and field often able to see the whole pageant of quarry, pack and followers at once, and such was the case with the last run of the day. Just as some of the field had made the peculiar suggestion of turning for the trailers visible in the near distance, a coyote was viewed just ahead of a herd of cattle and we were off without a second glance at the boxes, flat out across the turf. My magnificent draft x Thoroughbred Dutch responded to my excitement with enthusiasm; we took a coop and thundered in pursuit, to catch up after a breathless gallop with a very happy group of hounds and huntsman. Tyce squeezed frosting into panting mouths to restore the hounds’ blood sugar, and one sensible chap even claimed the icebox as his private pool as the rest of us watched in envy. As always, Chink, mainly Saluki and the red-coated flag-bearer for the sight-hound cross, was at the forefront of the action. 

Me and Dutch, in casual attire
Courtesy of Cathy Evans

A much-needed splash!
Courtesy of Cathy Evans

Happy hound: the great hunter and sire Chink stretched out in the shade
Courtesy of Cathy Evans

Hilary and Tyce returning home
Courtesy of Cathy Evans

Three more excellent days followed courtesy of Red Rock of Reno, Nevada, Juan Tomas of New Mexico and Grand Canyon. With Red Rock and Grand Canyon, we hunted the Globes to the north of the Tejon country, a paradise of steep rolling pastures and canyons interspersed with water troughs vital to cattle, horses and hounds alike. You need a horse with stamina for these long inclines, a horse such as my chestnut Leo, kindly lent, as Dutch was, by the Mothersheads. He was described by Hilary as ‘obnoxious’ and Tyce as ‘aggravating’, and I admit his habit of tossing his head to both sides whilst galloping downhill was a little disconcerting, but we stayed together and he certainly never ran out of steam!

Leo's ears

Tejon hunt country. Otherwise known as paradise

Both packs of hounds proved their quality on those long grassy hills. On the Sunday, Red Rock responded to a holloa by whip Hilary on a distant ridge and swooped like a flock of birds in tight formation up and over and along a ridgeline, in full view of the field. Despite temperatures being a lot higher than their native high desert near Lake Tahoe, they refused to give up and left most of the field far behind as we slid down near vertical slopes, plunged across dry creek beds and negotiated narrow ravines. A pause at a cattle trough was extremely welcome for hounds and horses alike, and Angela Murray MFH, who has recently begun to take over hunting hounds from Red Rock founder Lynn Lloyd MFH, was thrilled with their performance, as she should be.

Red Rock flag flying proudly at the meet

If you zoom in, you can see Angela and hounds in the distance...

Tyce, Finlay, briefly eschewing her father's quad for her mother's horse, and Hilary, 
with Mike Campeau MFH snatching a brief nap in the background

First flight field master Carolyn Colson on the handsome
quarter horse Tomahawk, whom readers may recall
from an earlier blog entry!

Angela Murray MFH and Lynn Lloyd MFH of Red Rock, 
with Finlay (hiding), Hilary and Tyce Mothershead

A nasty moment
On Wednesday, after a slightly quiet start, Grand Canyon were on a strong line when they passed a water trough, and Peter seized the opportunity to water hounds, after which he simply laid them back on and they swept on in full cry. Water helps scent, rehydrating the hounds’ noses (airport sniffer dogs in hot countries have benefitted from the regular application of wet cloths), but to pick up a trail again so smoothly was extremely impressive. Sadly, only Peter, Tyce and Hilary were witnesses, as the rest of us were forced to take the long route after an unexpected and horrible accident. Grand Canyon whip Jimmy Boyle, who would be embarrassed to hear me say that he is one of the best in the business, suffered a rotational fall when his horse misjudged a coop and somersaulted over, breaking his clavicle. It could have been far far worse, and although he was swept off in an ambulance, he was defying the doctors to walk out hounds the next day. Knowing he would not want anyone to give up their day for him, I and a few others seized the opportunity to continue, as more civic-minded types took Jimmy’s horse home. A long gallop ensued, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of hounds and staff. Eventually, we spotted them far ahead, silhouetted against a bank of mist and the mountains in centre of the ranch. They had given their pilot best, but all were well pleased with their work. Unusually, no new customers were spotted on the two-hour ride home; given the heat, they were probably snacking on grapes in the orchards and chewing the irrigation pipes, a habit that renders them jolly unpopular with the farmers. We were swift to echo their example in seeking sustenance, feasting on delicious beef provided by Grand Canyon back at the ranch and relishing a seat in the shade. In February!

Lynn Lloyd MFH leads Adren Nance MFH up a bit of a hill

Spot the whip! Whipping-in here is akin to being in the crow's nest
on board ship, scanning the sea of grass for the enemy

Tyce (left) and Peter Wilson of Grand Canyon plot their next move
Keep going? Okay!

Spotted! Staff on the horizon

Heading in with a job well done

Hearing-aid fail
In between, Juan Tomas took a turn on the gently rolling fields leading up from the orchards of the plain. Despite it being far hotter than the high desert from which these hounds hail, the pack proved its quality under its relaxed yet determined huntsman Adren Nance, with unrelenting work and a couple of good runs, one of which surprised a group of Mexican farm workers with its proximity. Surely the highlight of their week. Leo was far better behaved with the addition of a standing martingale, although he could never be described as boring. The day had an extra dimension for me when the warning bleep of low batteries sounded in my hearing aids. Just before we jumped a coop, they failed altogether, leaving me reliant on sight and the good nature of my fellow followers. Fortunately, I had both elements in abundance, although, naturally, few could resist the odd tease. I would repeat the jokes, if I knew what they had been… Remarkably, the question of how deaf people should alert people to their presence in the hunting field was posed in a Facebook group that very day, with some people suggesting a tail ribbon or armband to mark out the affected party. Personally, I would abhor any distinguishing tag. Simply tell people: if necessary, the master could make an announcement at the meet, and any good field master will take note without being either dismissive or patronising. Hunting people are nothing if not helpful, and I have always found it far less embarrassing or awkward for all concerned to be upfront and honest about my deafness – with a smile!

Adren Nance MFH, huntsman of Juan Tomas from New Mexico

Setting off. No adjustment has been made to the colours in this shot!

Contemplating a Man from Snowy River descent. Moments before,
two bald eagles had been swooping below us

Hilary in her happy place, the far horizon

Wil. E. Coyote, beware! A record-breaking trial

Roping demonstrations from the multi-talented Tyce, Superbowl Sunday at the Red Rock house, melt-in-the-mouth ribs at the home of Shari and Tony Hopkinson and an afternoon at the Tejon outlet stores, ridiculously clean and urban after the ranch, filled up our rest days, and we were all ready to go when the first day of the Performance Trial dawned. Part of the American Master of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) Hark Forward tour, which encompasses the whole of the US and strengthens the ties of friendship that bind the hunting community together, performance trials see a small number of hounds from each visiting pack, in this case five from five, hunt as one group under the host huntsman, who will not enter his own pack. Each hound is identified by a number on its flank and judges, drawn from staff and the MFHA, ride alongside the pack and note the deeds of individual hounds into a voice recorder. Marks are given for Hunting (finding the scent), Trailing (working the line), Full Cry (self-explanatory), Marking (telling the huntsman where the quarry has gone to ground or, occasionally, the kill) and Endurance (look it up). Over two days, the top hounds for each category are worked out, and finally the best overall hound and best overall pack are revealed.

Lynn makes the acquaintance of a bear at the Hopkinsons' home. As you do.

Thank you Shari! Delicious lunch

Tyce (left) and his roping partner Art, aged 83

At Tejon, Tyce carried the horn and the visiting packs were: Santa Ynez Valley Hounds (huntsman, Claire Buchy), Red Rock Hounds (Angela Murray), Santa Fe West Hills (Terrel Paine), Big Sky Hounds (Renee Daniels-Mantle) and Grand Canyon (Peter Wilson). Sadly, Adren had to dash home to New Mexico for work (he’s a lawyer in real life; imagine, a proper job!). Fred Berry MFH of the Sedgefield in North Carolina flew in to represent the MFHA, and, to combat the effect of the blistering temperatures on hounds more used to snow, a caravan time of 6am was set. Accordingly, we rose at 4am to reach the barn, groom and tack up, and were ready to leave at 6am at the head of the procession of some 18 rigs that wound down the Grapevine Pass to the plain and through the orchards to the fixture. It must have been quite a sight for the drivers of the many giant semis (lorries) that thunder along the interstate every day.

The pioneering method of stencilling numbers on hounds 
initiated by Renee Daniels-Mantle MFH (right). 
They stayed on even after a dip in a pond

I had originally intended to move on to Colorado before the trial, but I was forbidden to leave and took little persuading to stay longer. One consequence was that there were no horses left, but I had an excellent alternative: clinging onto the back of Mike Campeau’s quad bike. As master of Tejon Hounds and vice-president of Ranch Operations, he knows every ditch and rock, and proved to give me a ride every bit as thrilling as the four-legged version. I did hint that my parents might not be very pleased if I didn’t come home, but it turns out to be true that quads can storm up vertical slopes…

My view, on four wheels rather than four legs. Equally exciting!

A stylish pair, I think you'll agree!
Courtesy of Diane Antisdel

The sun rose over the Tejon mountains as we mounted up at Alamo Solo, but there was a pleasant freshness to the early morning air. We set off south, Mike and I taking the westerly flank. Almost immediately, we saw one coyote scarpering into the orchards, followed by another that ran through a herd of cows in front of the pack, covering his scent and threading a fenceline to the safety of the almond trees. Hounds spoke on that trail, but ran north, on what we feared was the heel line (backwards), but Tyce trusted them enough to let them work it out and, sure enough, another coyote got up. No doubt, it had relied on us assuming hounds were running heel and leaving it alone, but it had left it too late and all three mounted fields had a splendid view of full cry. I, meanwhile, found out just how fast a quad can go at the behest of Mike’s capable thumb.

Fred Berry MFH admires the pack after the first action of the weekend, 
with Grand Canyon Clint to the right

Claire Buchy, huntsman of Santa Ynez, was resplendent,
although surely warm, in her formal French coat

Shari Hopkinson on the sometimes excitable Simon, 
formerly a stunt horse. Western attire is welcome out here

The ever cheerful Jill Christensen and Annie Bradfield, visitors from the 
sadly disbanded Los Altos Hounds and, perhaps, new members of Tejon...

Many marks were garnered in the Hunting category as we drew on southwards, but it wasn’t until we turned back along the edge of the steeper hills that things hotted up. Unfortunately, Mike and I were tracing the western fenceline and cut off from the action by a stony field. Anyone who has ever hit a boulder at speed on a quadbike knows why we stayed slow, but it meant that by the time we made it into the hills it was all over. Apparently, they had put up a coyote on the flat and chased it uphill, leaving the field behind. The first riders to arrive had a glorious view of the coyote swinging in a large circle, hounds hard on its heels, and diving into a canyon. Almost at the finish, another coyote got up and led off half the pack on a hunt made brief by the fact that one of its forelegs had been all but shot off by a bullet. (Those who think shooting is a kinder way of killing foxes or coyotes than with a pack of hounds should have seen him. He must have been lying in shelter, unable to hunt with three legs, and waiting to die. The hounds gave him his wish.) It had been a spectacular run, ending in an enchanted kingdom of lush green grass, hidden from the dusty plain by a fold of the land, and with a pond laid on for the tired hounds. If it weren’t for the steepness of the hills, we would hunt here more often, but even Leo would have struggled further in. All hounds worked exceptionally hard, with Grand Canyon Kobalt and Lolo, Red Rock Yelp and Santa Ynez Lautrec and Easy receiving commendations. Two couple preferred to travel back in the whoopie wagon for a rest with Troy, vet and Santa Ynez member; all four were revived and out again the next day. If I see an empty saddle, I grab it, so I took Troy's lovely coloured Charlie back. Mike, apologies again for deserting you!

Another world: the lush green foothills of Tejon's mountain backbone

An oasis, thankfully not a mirage

Troy and his tired charges travel home in style

Partying and well-earned praise
What makes a hunt ball? It certainly isn’t tailcoats and diamonds: the Blue Jean Ball that night was held in the covered arena and cowboy hats and warm cashmere jumpers were de rigeur. At sundown, we were reminded that it was still February. Fred thanked Tyce and Hilary and praised the stand-out hounds of the day, then a few dedicated souls took to the dancefloor. It was a gathering that encompassed the spirit of hunting and Hark Forward, offering the chance to shoot the breeze with visitors from Virginia, New Jersey, Iowa, Virginia - including Jake J. Carle II, revered and always amusing former huntsman of the Keswick - and even Wiltshire, UK. 

Prize-giving under the heaters

Jimmy Boyle, up and about despite his crashing fall, and
Ed Magor, visiting with Hen Hine from the Tedworth in England

Good friends: me with my wonderful host Shari; 
Angela Murray and Renee Daniels-Mantle

Fred Berry and Tyce Mothershead flank the award-winning huntsmen
of the day, Claire Buchy, Peter Wilson and Angela Murray

Finlay likes to add her own kind of energy to photographs!

Sadly, the prospect of a second 4am start put the kibosh on a late night (we should just have stayed at the barn), but we were rewarded by a beautifully cool morning a few hours later. A touch of cloud cover thwarted the sun and the haze had dissipated to yield spectacular views. Hounds worked their way up a creek to the lush, green foothills, earning marks for Trailing, but unable to open up to Full Cry. Grand Canyon Clint and Lolo did a sterling job of finding the faint line, with Santa Ynez Eager and Hubert taking it on. After a brief whoopie wagon break, as the sun cleared the cloud, we drew west towards the plain and put up a young coyote that streaked past us, the leading hounds on its heels and the whole pack showing what Full Cry really means. Mike spun the quad at full speed in pursuit, and I don’t think I breathed for the next few minutes. Another superb day. More coyotes had been hunted and marked than at any trial the participants had attended, testament to the richness of the land and the quality of the hounds.

Dawn over the mountains. The Moon stayed out to watch, too

All those lights are hunt vehicles, and there were many more!

Cracking on

A touch of Irish green amid the drought

I could never tire of this landscape

The ever-elegant and capable Hilary Mothershead, 
the kind of whipper-in every huntsman dreams of

A satisfied huntsman

The most wonderful thing about these trials is that a bunch of hounds who have never met before can work so well together; humans, watch and learn. That evening, huntsmen and masters paid tribute to their canine colleagues, Tyce reading the scores that had been so painstakingly compiled by Amy Lessinger of Red Rock and Hilary. Several hounds garnered special mentions: Big Sky Baritone, who never gave up; Red Rock Yelp, who showed great ability to control the line when trailing; Grand Canyon Kobalt, involved in everything; and Santa Ynez Hubert, whose voice you couldn’t fail to hear.

Crowned overall winners after the two days were:
Hunting: 1st, Grand Canyon Kobalt, 2nd, GC Lolo, 3rd, GC Clint, 4th Red Rock Yelp
Trailing: 1st, Santa Ynez Valley Hounds Hubert, 2nd SYVH Eager, 3rd, SYVH Éclair, 4th SYVH Easy
Full Cry: 1st, Grand Canyon Kobalt, 2nd GC Clint, 3rd GC Lolo, 4th GC Komet
Marking: 1st, Grand Canyon Lolo, 2nd, GC Kobalt, 3rd, GC Clint, 4th Red Rock Yelp
Endurance: 1st, Grand Canyon Lolo, 2nd, GC Kobalt, 3rd, GC Clint, 4th, GC Komet

Grand Canyon Lolo took the overall prize, followed by her pack mates Clint and Kobalt, and, to no one’s surprise and everyone’s delight, Grand Canyon won the pack title.

Full results, with ranks 1-10, can be found on the MFHA website

Champion hound Grand Canyon Lolo

Grand Canyon Clint, second overall. Apologies for the quality of the photograph,
the only shot I could discover of him was in a corner, far away!

Fred Berry MFH with Grand Canyon Kobalt, third overall

Santa Ynez Valley Hound (Sir) Hubert, winner of the Trailing category
and huntsman Claire Buchy's favourite

Grand Canyon Lolo, also Huntsman's Choice: 
"Consistency is key, and Lolo never stopped. She was always there, 
and made the whole run up and down the mountain on the first day"

Looking at those scores, the Arizona pack seems to dominate, and there is no doubt that Peter Wilson has done a superb job in his vast open desert where stamina and drive is crucial. But it should take nothing away from the other packs. All should be proud of how their hounds had performed for a strange huntsman in a strange country, and it brought a lump to my throat to see Claire moved to tears at the praise for her beloved Sir Hubert and Renee so thrilled at how her fledgling pack, founded only five years ago, held its own. Peter, when invited to speak, noted his pleasure in attending and deflected compliments with typical modesty onto Lynn Lloyd, founder of Red Rock, who was the leader of the drive to widen the pool of stud-book registered hounds. Red Rock is all running walker hound - Lolo herself is ¾ walker - but there was resistance to listing them next to the established English, America, Penn-Marydel and crossbred types. Next stop: to register the sight-hound crosses. After all, everything was new once!

Living legends: Lynn Lloyd, founder of Red Rock Hounds, and Claire Buchy,
who had never hunted, let alone carried a horn, before she took on Santa Ynez

The new kids on the block: Renee Daniels-Mantle, first huntsman 
of Big Sky Hounds, and Lynn with Angela Murray, 
to whom she has passed the horn

Leading the way: Tyce Mothershead of Tejon and
Peter Wilson of Grand Canyon

Four female huntsmen and a couple of blokes. 
What had Tyce said to Lynn?!

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Up next: across the mountains to Colorado