Fox Hunting Life with Horse and Hound
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FHL WEEK, Dec. 29, 2022

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Sub-zero Foxhunting, Montana-Style

Guest Commentary

Big Sky Hounds Photo by Scott AllsbrookBig Sky Hounds, winter image in relief. Photo by Scott Allsbrook.

Big Sky Hounds, with its pack of Walker Hounds, is the northernmost (latitudinal) cold-country pack in North America. The kennels are also located exactly at the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers that create the Missouri River.  We can hunt through winter because Montana doesn’t have as much snow or lake-effect weather as some Canadian counterparts. However, the extreme seasonal temperatures and conditions of Montana do present unique challenges to maintaining a happy, healthy pack of hounds, fit horses, and a predictable hunting schedule.

Big Sky Hounds Renee Huntsman MFH photo by Brittany Baldwin cropBig Sky Hounds with Renee Daniels, MFH, and Huntsman. Photo by Brittany Baldwin.

A good kennel setup handles all seasons: shelter from rain is essential in spring; summer needs shade and breezes; windbreaks are required in the fall, and winter requirements are maximum sun exposure while also protecting from snow. For weeks now, we’ve experienced abnormal subzero night temps and day temps below freezing. It put a crimp in our season and sped up winter preparations for our kennels.  Below are the typical preparations we undertake each hunting season.

Kennels and Yards

1 Big Sky Hounds Winter Kennels photo by Renee Daniels MFH and HuntsmanBig Sky Hounds kennels show hounds sunning themselves next to the natural windbreaks. Photo by Renee Daniels.

My kennels are simple and functional for a sole handler, but they are labor-intensive. They accommodate ten to thirteen couple. They were designed to open north on the shady side in summer and have southern exposure in winter. Grass (and weeds) grow tall in the summer around the 6’ no-climb fencing to provide shade then are cut in the fall for more sun exposure. Warm, well-insulated sleeping lodges are essential. The hounds must be able to get out of the cold and wind, especially at night. Smaller is warmer. Mine are 8’x8’, with 8’x8’ caged porches under the same roof. Doggie doors have clear, rubbery flaps. Man doors and windows close tight for winter. Benches, floors, and porches are bedded in deep straw. I do not use artificial heat, as this keeps the hounds acclimated to the weather, so they are game to hunt and will encourage dogpiling. Each lodge can comfortably handle twelve hounds, but often one has more than the other.

I have one big outdoor yard and two medium-sized pens, connected to the lodges and caged porches. Gates are opened and hounds can roam wherever they want on non-hunting days. Each outside area has 4’x8’ loafing benches, kept free of snow, dog houses, and windbreaks. The pens, benches, and feeding areas are covered in fresh straw because the ground is frozen with a frost level several feet deep, and the yards are covered in snow and snowpack. Hounds can’t stand, sit, or lay on ice or snow for long without getting cold, but they like to be outside and sun themselves. When it snows, the straw is fluffed or covered over with fresh. This creates a nice bed of insulation over the frozen ground. I use half a bale of new straw a day on average. Once set up for the freeze, it’s more difficult to handle the occasional warm days. When the snow melts, the straw gets wet and must be removed. Yards get muddy, then icy at night.

Poop doesn’t stink when it’s frozen. But it does sink and freeze into the snow. I pick up every piece of poop daily, but when it snows for days, some piles don’t surface for weeks. I’ve become a professional shit kicker, required to dislodge the piles from the snowpack. Each hound usually poops two to three times a day on winter feed. Kennel cleaning is arduous.   

Hounds

23 Big Sky Hounds winter lodges in straw photo by Renee DanielsBig Sky Hounds kennels have lodges bedded in straw. Photo by Renee Daniels.

Because of communal living and dogpiling to keep warm, I don’t keep intact males. I mix boys with girls, and puppies must be old enough to co-mingle and eat with the adults by October. Older hounds have difficulty staying warm and fat in the winter. One incurably grouchy hound will upset a whole lodge. The Walker breed, though hardy and able to hunt in cold climates, is not really a cold-weather hound. They do not have standup hair with a fuzzy undercoat or little pointed, furry ears. They tend to be lean. If it’s below 10 degrees, I usually don’t hunt, unless it’s sunny and calm. Ears lose a lot of heat and are susceptible to frostbite. I try not to make them drag through the snow or go down on the ice in bitter temps for too long. Luckily, their feet are exceptionally tough, designed to protect them from cold. Since hounds sweat through their paws, I had thought they’d be prone to getting cold, but the increased capillaries and blood flow make them penguin-like. However, if the footing is icy it will cut their pads to shreds.

Exercise 

Big Sky Hounds showing the winterline of deep snow after the huntsmans horse plowed a path for the pack Photo by Renee DanielsBig Sky Hounds following the huntsman's horse in the "winterline" of deep snow. Photo by Renee Daniels.

It’s difficult to keep the hounds fit in winter. They get bored, fight, and exhibit weird behavior, so they require a lot of attention.  Most years, we can hunt through winter. Lately, either winter has been harsher, or I’m older and less resilient. Deep snow with icy or windy conditions causes us to cancel hunting. Though I remember years when my horn would stick to my lips, we still rode through genuine *pogonips and had a blast. If the snow is deep, hound exercise is a breeze because they fall in right behind the horse and don’t stray. On those occasions, I don’t need much help. But, if a *chinook comes through and freezes a hard layer over the top of the snow, the hounds can usually stay on top, but horses scrape their legs up and tire fast.

*pogonip: a phenomenon when, in extreme cold, a dense fog turns into tiny, ice particles.
*chinook: a warm wind.

3 Big Sky Hounds after a pogonip that exfoliated all their checks Photo byHuntsman Renee Daniels grinning after a pogonip had exfoliated everyone's cheeks. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Hounds.

6 Big Sky Hounds hunting on hard crust over snow after a chinook photo byBig Sky Hounds hack home over the crusted snow after a chinook. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Hounds.

Food and Water

I feed a quality dog food with a high fat and protein content. Many calories are required to stay warm, but most are easy keepers. It’s a delicate balance, to keep them in shape, not too thin or fat. These hounds don’t have thick fur; they need fat. Bigger-sized hounds are better for proportionate heat loss by radiation. Hounds are fed outside, a daily warm wet mash, and then often a second dry kibble feeding if it’s really cold. Free choice food can’t be left out because of magpies. I like to give the hounds something warm in their bellies every day. I learned not to feed flesh, as it’s too lean and difficult to feed in frozen temps. I also ignore old fryer oil from the local restaurant because it isn’t that healthy or helpful. Water freezes in minutes here. I use heated water buckets, that are emptied and cleaned daily. The hounds are not that fond of warm water unless it’s very fresh. It gets funky fast. Urinary and bowel issues happen if hounds don’t drink enough. Fifteen milliliters of straight cranberry juice can cure a hound of a pee problem as fast as a human. Olive oil helps with constipation. I don’t change food too suddenly because diarrhea during a freeze can be serious. Helpful note: pile chipped ice far from gates and fences. It will accumulate and stay there for months, becoming a monument to winter, well into spring.  

Quarry

Coyotes are prolific here and impervious to the cold. Snow makes it easy to track them and identify their hunting grounds, trails, and dens. Training puppies in the snow is wonderful. You can set them on trash tracks or good lines, without a doubt, letting them learn what to hunt and what not to. The short days are an obstacle to hunting. Oftentimes, the coyotes are out before we are able.

Horses

19 Big Sky Hounds Huntsmans horse showing the heavy draft crosses that make the best freight trains through the snow photo by Renee DanielsRenee Daniel's heavy draft cross that she prefers because they make the best freight trains through the snow. Photo by Renee Daniels.

My horses are shod with snow poppers and aggressive sharp shoes from November to April. Pine tar putty packed under the full pads prevents thrush. Horses are not blanketed, clipped, or stalled. They hair up and handle the elements, just like the hounds. I feed as much dairy-quality straight alfalfa as they can eat, but some stay out on pasture all winter and do well. Thoroughbreds are hard keepers and not suited for this country, however, Appendix crosses do well. I like big-footed, heavy-boned draft crosses for snow hunting. They might be slower, but they’re stronger, stay sounder, hair up heavier, and their skin is tougher, especially on their legs. They can plow through an occasional drift I accidentally fall into and come out the other side ready to continue, like a reliable freight train. During hunting, horses and people get sweated up so we only take short breaks, and back at the trailers we use coolers until the horses are dry. Extremely cold, dry conditions can expose *bleeders. I’ve had a few, but that’s not too serious. Away meets are a challenge, as everywhere is warmer than home.

*bleeders: horses who, after strenuous exercise (especially in extreme cold), have blood trickle from their nostrils, caused by burst capillaries in the lungs or nasal passages.

One year, I went to southern California in February for performance trials. I kept on sharp shoes, which is dangerous when trailering. I’ve *corked a few and recommend hauling nose to tail. I also body clipped for the trip, which I usually don’t do. The temperature was almost 100 degrees different (-20 when we left to almost 80 degrees there). On the two-day trip down, we went through three blanket weights. Then the horses had to stay blanketed for the rest of the season.

*corked: corks, aka caulks or studs, are the sharp parts that are added to a horseshoe for traction, like cleats. To be “corked” is slang for what happens when a horse wearing sharp shoes is stepped on by another horse or itself, causing an injury, usually to the coronary band. 

21 Big Sky Hounds sharp shoes adn poppers Photo by Renee DanielsAn example of sharp shoes with snow poppers and pine tar puddy. Photo by Renee Daniels.

Humans

16 Big Sky Hounds inprompto bonfire built at the check photo byChecks with Big Sky Hounds include impromptu bonfires and hot chocolate. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Hounds.

Warm is our proper attire. Carharts, scotch caps, and insulated boots in oversized stirrups are common. A heavyweight Melton with a couple of layers underneath and a fleecy stock tie is comfortable. Hunt caps or helmets are often covered with ear flaps or a headband underneath, but I avoid them as I can’t hear with them on. We don’t jump because the ground is frozen solid and we’re wearing sharp shoes. Since there is no need to jump, some use western saddles. BSH members are tough. Only subzero temps, concern for the hounds, bad road conditions, deep snow (although getting bucked off in the fluff is better than the dirt), or the dreaded wind causes us to miss hunting. I could write a book on leading a field over frozen, rugged terrain. Normal rules for the hunt field do not apply.

18 Big Sky Hounds the Carhart Field in snow Photo byThe Field hunting in Carhartts. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Hounds.

There are days I question our sanity. But horses, hounds, and humans here seem especially suited to this. It initiates a sort of euphoria that is caused by something other than thin oxygen and near hypothermia. Slipping into a toasty lodge to talk with my hounds reminds me of being in the warming house at the ice-skating rink when I was a kid, sans the hot chocolate window. Sharing a cup of hot coffee from a thermos or lighting a bonfire at a check to warm our toes makes us feel exceptional. We’re a team, in a war against the elements and the mediocrity of normal existence. Hunting in Montana in winter pushes each one of us just a little past where we thought we could go, and we’re exhilarated and proud once we’ve done it. That’s how memories are made. 

 7 Big Sky Hounds by the Missouri Headwaters Photo byBig Sky Hounds taking a check above the riverbank of the Missouri Headwaters. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Hounds.

Originally published on November 29, 2022.

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