Fox Hunting Life with Horse and Hound
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FHL WEEK, January 9, 2020

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The Education of a Wheel Whip

Guest Commentary

wheel whip laura fullerTyler Johnson, Laura Fuller, and a "somewhat-official" hound truck

My daughter, Savannah, started riding with Belle Meade Hunt (GA) eight years ago at the age of twelve. I am not a rider. Yes, I have ridden (slowly, on a trail). Riding is her passion, not mine.

However, I am not a mom that wanted to just drop her kid off with a hug and a kiss and a “Have fun and be careful!” So, I started hitching rides with the kennelman in the old hound truck, or in the back of Unit One (another old pickup truck with not very comfortable tally-ho benches in the truck bed), or with pretty much anyone that would take pity and let me ride along.

I eventually landed with Master Charlie Lewis who, upon his physician-mandated forced retirement from foxhunting, became a force-to-be-reckoned-with wheel whipper-in. Charlie is a true Master, long-time mounted whipper-in, and a staff member who knew every inch of his country. I rode shotgun with Master Charlie for a number of years, opening an untold number of gates, wrestling wayward hounds into the bed of his truck, and learning the ways of the road and the off road. We had many an adventure together, some involving trees that appear out of nowhere, coyotes that appear out of nowhere (one that ran smack into the side of the truck!), debates over which direction to go and exactly what animal was that we just viewed?

I bought myself a handheld radio and some good muck boots and settled in for a few years as Master Charlie’s sidekick...learning landmarks and radio etiquette, how to fix a proper bourbon drink, and when to open a gate or let ’em jump.

A couple of years ago I started thinking about venturing out on my own. Master Charlie’s truck was getting crowded (his escort services are in high demand), and there were days that I gave up my seat to a visitor and had to find an alternate vehicle. And having an additional road support vehicle with someone that kinda knows what they’re doing can’t be a bad thing, right?

So my wonderfully supportive husband offered to get his old Chevy work-truck running for me to use as a hunt truck...and even after languishing in the backyard for a few years, it’s a great truck! All the basic necessities: four-wheel drive and a good heater! He then outfitted it with a custom made dog cage (thanks to a welder friend of ours), a radio and antenna, and an attention getting (slightly obnoxious) flashing light on top. I added magnetic signs on the sides and back so I’d look somewhat official and not just some crazy lady on the side of the road. (I mean, that’s not completely inaccurate, but at least I’m an official looking crazy lady). And with that, I was ready to roll.

As fate would have it, my lovely daughter met and started dating a young man, who, in a weak moment of young love, decided that he’d like to ride shotgun with her mother! Fast-forward a year later, and Tyler has a permanent seat in my truck. He is quickly learning landmarks and is a fantastic gate opener. He only occasionally grumbles about my driving. He has even driven the truck on a few occasions when I was sidelined with shoulder surgery or had a work commitment that kept me from the hunt. He’s learning to not wear “good” clothes; hounds are stinky and dirty when you have to load them in the truck. We’ve had a few adventures of our own:

Stuck, badly, as in had to get pulled out by a FORD-bad. Chevy owners know that’s always a last resort but in my defense the four-wheel drive was not working that day. My husband quickly remedied that upon learning of the indignity that we suffered.

I-20 escapades that may or may not have been legal that we will not speak of nor wish to repeat

A tree of our very own that came out of nowhere. Tyler is now clear on his role of watching for trees.

And some amazing views including a couple of What the heck was that animal?

We are learning Radio Etiquette 101: what, where, and direction of the quarry's travel are the basics. Also important are trying hard to keep the hounds safe, get the horses and riders safely across roads and through gates, and have fun doing it. By the way, one of the perks of wheel whippin’ versus horse riding is the ability to have a cooler of liquid refreshments and a stash of not-so-healthy snacks to sustain us through the many hours of truck sittin’.

We’ve been hot, cold, wet, muddy, stuck, bored, stressed, mad, exhilarated, and amused, but at the end of the day, when all of the hounds, horses and riders are in, hopefully relatively well and unscathed, we head for Boots Hall and a good meal and look forward to what adventures will come our way next hunt.

Interested in being a wheel whip? Here’s what you need to know:

  • First Priority is the hounds. Watch for hounds at all times. They do not look for you and will dart out in front of traffic in pursuit of the quarry. It is the job of the wheel whip to try to keep the hounds safe at all times, whether this means stopping traffic or stopping hounds, if so instructed by the Hunt Master. If you must stop traffic, always be courteous, say thank you and, if possible, hold up the field (after the hounds and Master have crossed) to allow the cars to proceed.
  • Try to stay out of the way of the hunt. Don’t block gates, jumps, or trails. Give the riders the right of way unless they move aside and motion you ahead. Do not ride up too closely on the rear of horses. Open gates if you can, especially those gates that require a jump towards the road. Remember that not all riders are jumpers and they either need a gate open or have to find an alternate route. If you open a gate, close it! Do not leave an open gate unattended. Cows have a way of knowing if a gate has been left open. If certain gates may be left open for the duration of the hunt, they must be closed at the conclusion of the hunt. If you’re in doubt of where to go, yield the right of way to those wheel whips that think they know where to go, because I will pass you if you’re in my way.
  • A radio and a map of the hunt country are helpful. If you have a “view” (see the quarry) that you want to call in, you’ll need to know where you are. The proper way to announce a view is to remember to speak calmly and slowly and tell what, where, and what direction. Example: “Tally-ho black coyote, crossing Wrightsboro Road at the Puppy Crossing, heading north.” Do not yell into the radio! A tally-ho is exciting but even more so when people can hear and understand you. Once you have called in a view, stay near the line if hounds and Hunt Master are harking to you. Do not cross the line on foot or in a vehicle, and in so doing, as Master Epp says, “Put his horse’s hoof in the paw print of the coyote.” Depending on what else is happening, the huntsman may not hark to your view right away, but may come back to it if the action slows down. In this case, it’s okay to resume normal wheel whip activity and go about your way.
  • No unnecessary radio chatter. Use the radio to tally-ho or to confirm a planned crossing or gate opening or to report on hounds if necessary. If you want to check on your loved one, use their cell phone, not the radio.
  • If you are stationary, whether on the side of the road (safely off the roadway) or in the field or woods, turn off your vehicle. An idling vehicle can be a noxious interruption to the hounds’ scenting ability, can often interfere with the ability of other road whips or horse mounted whips to hear hounds, or can cause the quarry to change direction. The Hunt Master may occasionally instruct wheel whips to “hold hard,” meaning pull off the road and stop where you are, turn off your vehicle and sit quietly in order to allow the quarry to travel in the desired direction (i.e., cross the road into more desirable hunt country). Also on occasion the wheel whips will be asked to make some noise, yell, blow your vehicle horn to try to prevent the quarry from crossing the road into undesirable territory.
  • If there is a refreshment break, be helpful. Pass out beer and water. Collect trash. Hold a horse if someone needs a potty break. Then help yourself to a cold drink. And if you brought yummy snacks, offer to share with your fellow road whips.
  • If you take any cool pictures, share them with the hunt! They may make it into the annual hunt book! But please do not take photos that could compromise the hunt, even for your personal collection.

Posted January 4, 2020