Fox Hunting Life with Horse and Hound
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FHL WEEK, November 7, 2019

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Friendships Through Foxhunting

Our Hunting World

keesee 1Huntsman Johnny and whipper-in Lelani Gray with the Hillsboro Hounds  /   Kevin Keesee photo

Two weeks, 3,700 miles, eight hunting days, six different hunts, too many friends to count, one hellova good time....

What do you do when you are stuck in the cold winter weather of Northern Illinois and have not been hunting for two months? A road trip! Lucky for me, and all of us, foxhunting is a small but welcoming world. While there are a variety of ways to hunt, we all welcome fellow fox hunters to join us, and, as Jorrocks said, "Tell me a man's a fox-hunter, and I loves him at once."

keesee2Johnny Gray and hounds before the well-designed kennels, named for the unforgettable Hillsboro ex-Master, Henry Hooker / Kevin Keesee photo

It took only a few emails and phone calls before I was underway. First stop, the Hillsboro Hounds (TN). Emily and Hill McAlister, MFH provided my first taste of warm temps and even warmer hospitality. Given that I had not been on a horse for two months, the Hillsboro country offered the same hills and pastures of our country in Massbach. Their hounds are bred similarly to our Crossbred hounds, and the style of hunting is similar as well. For those of you who have not had the privilege of seeing the Hillsboro kennels, make it a point. The most basic of natural forces combined with the benefits of modern technology have delivered a design that is both extremely functional and beautiful. I don't know if the hounds know it, but they all looked happy and active.

The fact that people will open up their homes and stables to you, just because we share a common passion only adds to my love of the sport. Our hunting world is so truly small; riding out from the kennels to the meet, a Hillsboro member and I were discussing our hunting backgrounds when we discovered that I had hunted many seasons with her grandmother in Michigan some thirty years before.

Dinner that night was a treat as I listened in to a review of the hunting operations between Hill and the wonderful team of huntsman Johnnie and whipper-in Leilani Gray, the personalities within the pack, and the challenges of the countryside. No matter where you go, it's always the same and always different.

keesee3Huntsman Lincoln Sadler and the Moore County Penn-Marydels  /  Kevin Keesee photo

The next stop was Moore County Hounds in Southern Pines, North Carolina. This is the prime example of how open and accommodating our sport can be. Having never meet Master Cameron or huntsman Lincoln Sadler, I emailed asking permission to hunt with them during my stopover. Not only did they acquiesce, but they found a horse for me, gave me a thorough kennel review, and even let me in on some "super-secret huntsman stuff." As fate would have it, Cameron was on a trip, but Lincoln made a point of including me in his dining plans for the next couple of days.

Having never hunted behind Penn-Marydels, I was excited to see this pack in action and they did not disappoint. They found a coyote within five hundred yards of the meet and we were off. The roar of this pack and the speed with which they pressured the coyote were amazing. The run lasted forty-five minutes when the coyote finally slipped away. How that pack can follow on sand is beyond me.

At the meet, I met Mike Russell who, in another small world story, started out riding and hunting with the Oakbrook Hounds, based in Oakbrook, Illinois, but due to Chicago sprawl, Oakbrook was forced to move during the 1970s. They moved to Elizabeth, Illinois and are now known as the Massbach Hounds, my home pack! Mike and his lovely wife were kind enough to invite Lincoln and me for dinner that night, and what a wonderful way to finish off a Southern Pines stop.

belle meade.reflected gloryMaster and huntsman Epp Wilson with the Belle Meade hounds / Reflected Glory photo

The next day was to be spent with the Belle Meade Hunt in Thomson, Georgia. I had the opportunity to work with Epp Wilson and Judith Craw on the Massbach/Fox River Valley Hunt portion of the Hark Forward tour. They had made preparations for both me and my daughter to enjoy their hunt country and hospitality. Unfortunately, the meet was canceled by Mother Nature, so my daughter stayed at school in Atlanta. I made it to Thomson for lunch, but noticed that Epp kept looking at his phone.

About halfway through lunch he said, "Looks like all the rain will be done by 3:00 PM and we could hunt at 4:30." With that, he started to call his troops and put the day back on! On we went and on went the coyote. We left the kennels at 4:30, found around 5:45, got dark at 6:15, and finished collecting the hounds around 10:00 PM. Epp said, "This only happens about once a year, but the damn coyote just headed straight out of the country." Luckily GPS collars made the nocturnal collecting a little easier and provided a magical lightshow as the hounds came back through the woods with their lights a-twinkling.

Hospitality is not the reserve of solely Masters, huntsmen, or staff. As I sat at a dark crossroads in the middle of the Georgia woods, people just started appearing. Everyone knew that this is where they would be bringing the hounds out and people wanted to be there to greet them. A couple members of the hunt, a few of the local boys, but most importantly for this thirsty hunter, a friend of the hunt with a bar in the back of his F150! You can learn a lot about life on a dark backwoods corner with a cold drink in your hand.

spencer allen.and staff.leslie ballengerLive Oak huntsman Spencer Allen and hounds / Leslie Ballenger photo

Next stop was Live Oak Hounds in Monticello, Florida. Daphne and Marty Wood have been so involved with the sport of foxhunting that it was no surprise to me that they were wonderfully accommodating and had everything set up for me. Since Marty was just coming off back surgery, Daphne made sure that huntsman Spencer Allen and kennel huntsman Sam Andrews got me out for dinner after a visit to their kennels―a breezy layout that provides cover from the summer heat. An issue we rarely have to address in Illinois.

The day was fast. These English hounds were on it from the get go. Having never hunted grey fox, the twists and turns were something new to follow, but the hounds had no problem as they accounted for the grey after twenty minutes. The second run was a fifty-minute back-and-forth loop and figure-eight which ended in a huge brush pile. Back at the meet, a BYO breakfast appeared and stories were told. Live Oak goes so far as to have a very nice gentleman wait until all the guests have left before he gets on his way. I had to assure him that I would be fine and would be on my way after a quick change.

After stopping at the Publix for supplies, I made my way north to the Fox River Valley (IL) winter hunting grounds in south-west Georgia and my friend, Master and huntsman Tony Leahy, president of the MFHA. Having hunted with Tony for the last eighteen years in Illinois, the Georgia country is quite a change. Flat and fast is the easiest way to describe it. Over the next four days, we hunted three times. Each day involved a find and then a run to the end of horse, hound, and coyote. It was nice to have Piper Parrish, Sam, and Tiffany come up from Live Oak on their days off to lend a hand, as it was just the three or four of us out each day. My daughter was able to come down from Atlanta along with Miss Laura to join us on the Saturday. Again, hounds found and were gone. By the end, the horses were toast, but the hounds had done their job and accounted for the second coyote of the week.

Hospitality with Tony is like a moveable feast where members of the hunting world keep coming and going. You're never quite sure who's going to show up on any given day, and my arrival day was no different. Walking into the barn area I met two women whose names sounded familiar, but whose faces I did not recognize. As I walked behind their trailers, I saw the New York license plates. Before I could ask, around came Marion Thorne to say, "I recognize that voice," and indeed she did. Before moving to Illinois, we had spent three fantastic seasons with the Genesee Valley Hunt, me doing most of the hunting and my dear wife bearing both of our daughters. 

Tony, his ever-changing cast of characters, and I hunted like banshees for a few days in the warm Georgia spring. While I felt right at home and had no desire to return to the frozen tundra, I knew I had to start heading home at some point.

Along the way, there was one last stop, Midland Fox Hounds (GA). Here again hospitality knows no bounds. Mason and Mary Lu Lampton are the epitome of southern hospitality. Gracious to a fault and welcoming to the weary, they put my daughter and me up with David Twiggs, whom I had not seen since the Massbach/Fox River Valley Performance Trial, and then refused to let us find our own meals or beverages. Both nights were a mélange of the foxhunting world―people from Illinois, New York, the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, and all across Georgia. We received so many invitations to visit other hunts that I ran out of fingers.

As it happened, Marion and the Genesee Valley hounds were there as well, so the day's hunting involved a combined pack from Midland and GVH. Given all the recent rain, the meet was relocated to Midland's Fitzpatrick home farm in Alabama. It was a tough day, but hounds worked hard and gave us a good day's sport. Great to finish with so many new friends, and nothing beats hunting with the next generation.

On my last night in Fitzpatrick, the Genesee Valley hounds, who were kenneled at our house, serenaded me with beautiful music. After a fun day's hunting, I found myself sitting on the back porch, beer in hand, listening to their music. Doesn't get much better than that.

It was great to get back home with so many fond memories of wonderful days in the field, but it is the welcoming nature of our foxhunting world that really stood out. Random meetings that span the years. New friends to enjoy. Our foxhunting life is a true blessing that we all share.

Posted October 30, 2019