For The Love of Hounds: A Foxhunter’s Tale
I hear the steady buzzing of the alarm at my phone, and unlike most mornings, I turn it off and roll out of bed without hitting snooze a few (or more) times. My three dogs look groggy as I quietly feed them, kiss a sleeping Russell goodbye, and lock the door behind me. As I pull out of my dark, chilly neighborhood and head towards the barn, I glance at my clock: 4 a.m. Right on time.
Arriving to the stables, our team is greeted with persistent, hungry nickering and pawing at the stall doors. The barn lights glow against the black sky as horses are fed, tacked, and loaded on the trailer. They know where we’re headed. Chasing the sun to the day’s fixture, we’re met by dozens of trailers lining the misty driveway, flanked by horses and riders making last minute adjustments, polishing boots, tucking stray hairs under a hairnet or helmet. Now mounted, riders gather, toast the day with port, and chatter rolls through the group. Looking around, I spot Ryan Johnsey, our Huntsman and Master of Hounds, near the rear of the parking lot with his wife, Casey, preparing to open the hound trailer. As the door opens, 30-some-odd number of hounds leap from the trailer and scatter nearby. A blast of the horn pierces the quiet. Everyone comes to attention, and the hounds gather around Ryan. The anticipation builds as each mounted group moves out after him. Riding back, I hear the first cry a few minutes later as we head towards a treeline through the field. First one, then two, and finally the entire pack breaks out in a joyous cry – honoring the lead hound – raising the hair on my arms, making my throat tight with emotion. The hunt is on.
When I see the pack move in unison and hear their cries, it awakens a spot within my soul that lies dormant during the warmer months of the year. I don’t know what it is that sparks such a response; but, the field of riders around me reflect that same feeling in their giddy expressions, misty eyes, and raw emotion in their hushed whispers as the pack moves out. A sport that first drew me in by my love for horses, foxhunting is truly an expression of the love and trust between human and hound. Far from the barbaric portrayals made by extreme groups, it is the oldest sport in America – loved by young and old alike – and, highlights a relationship often missed by many that love sporting hounds. Stewards of the land and on the forefront of conservation, foxhunters are often misunderstood and questioned on the sustainability of such an ancient sport. So where does foxhunting fit into the modern world?
Eyes On The Inside
This past summer, I had an opportunity to catch up with our Huntsman, Ryan Johnsey, to spend some time with him and the pack of foxhounds he trains and maintains for the local Tennessee Valley Hunt Club. I was looking for an informal education on hunting with hounds and the intimate relationship we have with them, more so than I would experience while mounted. Thus, I was invited to spend the morning with him for a hound walk, which is commonly done during the warmer months to maintain the physical and mental health of the foxhounds. Jumping at the opportunity, I had no idea what was in store for me that morning.
I showed up at the kennels in Mascot at 8:30 a.m., but the mercury was already steadily rising. As I got out of my car, I was rushed by the Johnsey’s pack of house dogs, and promptly licked and covered in dirty paw prints. Ryan stepped out of the stables behind the house, and the dogs promptly forgot their new victim and bounded towards him. The adoration his family dogs have for him and Casey are only the first signs of many of how closely their life revolves around hounds.
I was assuming we would get right to business; however, Casey diverts me and asks if I want to meet the new foxhound puppies. My duties abandoned (who says no to puppies?) I apologize to Ryan and follow Casey to the stables to meet our newest pack members. A pretty female named Kegstand (more about the naming process later) looks up with doe eyes as we walk up to the stall door and open it to greet her. She lovingly noses Casey and happily shows off her tiny two week old pups, who have just opened their eyes and are stumbling around on wobbly legs. One of the bigger pups, wondering where his mother is, throws back his little head and emits the tiniest, squeaking, howl – a promise of his voice in the pack down the road. Casey laughs and tells me they just started “speaking” like that only the day before. We tuck the pups back in and visit a few of the bigger liters, which Ryan lets out of their stalls. Before I know it, hound puppies are racing up and down the barn aisle, tugging on hanging lead ropes, and spilling out into the grass around the barn. One horse, Blue, sticks his head out of his stall, wondering what the fuss is all about. Seeing the puppies, I can almost imagine him rolling his eyes, as he turns back to his hay after he allows me the obligatory scratch on his neck.
“You ready?” Ryan asks as we put the puppies up. As we approach the whitewashed kennel beside the barn, the hounds it houses sense their master’s presence. The cries become deafening once we step inside the cool, concrete walls. Separated into different runs, Ryan calls out hounds by name and affixes radio collars to them before letting them out into the center aisle. They dance around him and I can feel the excitement as he tucks the hunt horn into his front pocket and lays the lash of his hunt whip across his neck. They greet me with licks and jump around me, but their attention always goes back to Ryan. We take about twenty hounds out of the kennel and begin our walk as the cicadas scream and sweat rolls down our back. The hounds stick to the side of the road with Ryan, and rarely does he have to use his horn or a subtle whip crack to bring their attention back to him. It’s more like watching water run behind him as the hounds move in near unison. A few troublemakers have their names called out – particularly a big, dark cross-bred hound named Hagrid, who can’t help but sniff everything and try to pick up cans from the side of the road. I’ve already decided he’s my favorite.
Walking and talking, Ryan tells me about his introduction to foxhunting as a young boy growing up in Virginia – the spiritual home of foxhunting for nearly 300 years. Always drawn to the hounds, Ryan found himself approaching his 19th birthday and was offered a position in the Loudoun County Hunt as a whipper-in, an assistant position in the hunt. This position eventually brought him to becoming their Professional Huntsman, which he kept for two seasons, and eventually brought with him to Tennessee. Currently in his seventh season with the Tennessee Valley Hunt Club, as the Hunstman and now one of the Masters, Ryan has implemented his ideas on breeding a crossbred hound more suited for our difficult territory. Additionally, he works with educating others on the ethics and preservation of the sport of foxhunting. His concern about the ethics of the sport and how it can survive in a time when old traditions are being buried, and even looked down upon makes us ask — where does foxhunting fit in, and how will it continue to survive and flourish?
Conservation and Public Relationships
From the time I’ve spent with Ryan Johnsey, Casey, joint master Ryan Broyles, and my own boss, former Master of Foxhounds Carla Hawkinson, their passion for conservation, both of land and the animals we pursue, is evident. For one, I will state upfront that the hunt pursues a fox or coyote without the intention of a kill. When our quarry goes to ground, the hounds are called off. We celebrate the fox or coyote with a toast of champagne or port, praising his speed, cleverness, and agility, and ask him to give us another day of fun in the future. Without him, our sport is nothing. It’s not uncommon for a huntsman or his staff noticing a sickly looking fox within their hunting territory to stealthily fill a chicken carcass with antibiotics and leave it nearby in hopes the animal will eat it.
Land conservation is close to heart and mind as well, as farms and larger tracts of open land are steadily disappearing, being replaced by commercial businesses and taking away the land these animals need to survive. Hunts regularly purchase conservation easements, not only for the enjoyment of our sport, but others as well. The serenity and peace of open land is something every American values, but often the thought of what makes that open land possible is dismissed or forgotten. Many hunt clubs strive to maintain these public lands, easements, and rural areas through donations and the labor of the club itself. Hunt clubs form relationships with local farmers that allow hunting, often maintaining the land, fixing fencelines, and helping out if the landowner needs repairs done. Our local hunt club does regular clean-up days on the public land we hunt on – often clearing trails and roads with chainsaws, if necessary. These efforts are often unseen by the unknowing public that cast a negative eye.
From Old World To New World
As an old, traditional sport, foxhunting is embracing aspects of modern technology in an effort to keep its relevance in a fast-paced world. Ryan uses GPS collars to track hounds during a hunt, making his job easier and safer. Cell phones also have their place in a hunt. If we’re hunting a big territory, it’s not uncommon for Ryan to call one of his whippers in or a field master to relay his location or share news as the hunt progresses. Safety for horses and riders has also drastically improved, mainly with helmets. Risk comes with the reward, and many hunters now ride with helmets, although not traditional, with many hunts now requiring them. This is especially important as we raise the next generation of foxhunters, leading by example. Our hunt club has a fabulous array of young riders, many under the instruction of Casey, who is a local instructor. She teaches young riders not only about proper horsemanship and safety, but also the joy of hounds, conservation, and ethics, is the bloodline of our sport. Especially with children so reliant on technology and social media, teaching them to disconnect from that world and to connect with the horses and hounds is vital. The entire goal of the hunt is to have fun. When I ask Ryan what he hopes our members, young or old, take away from a hunt, he smiles.
“I feel like foxhunting is an escape for most people, and it’s not worth all the time and hard work if you’re not having fun. I hope our members and subscribers walk away from a hunt with a better understanding of hound work, pack dynamics, and scenting conditions when they’re out with me. Having a smaller club and smaller fields up close to the action makes this possible. After the hunt, hearing our members recall the events of the day, play by play, naming the hounds, who was up front and when, is really rewarding. Our subscribers notice and appreciate hound work and are very educated, for which I am grateful.”
The gratefulness is returned tenfold to Ryan as I thank him as I leave that morning, filled with knowledge and appreciation for his, among others, dedication to the sport and the hounds that make up it’s life force. You can see it in their eyes too, after a long day running, tongues lolling and sprawled out on the cool floor of the kennels. Even as he passes on his horse after the hunt, a hound will ride to meet his hand for a comforting touch. Those little moments, when noticed, are all a part of the full heart feeling we take home.
For years, I thought foxhunting was a horse sport, and under Ryan’s guidance as a huntsman and friend, I have become focused on hounds. Whether you are a dog lover yourself, or just want to learn more about foxhunting, information is available through The Masters of Foxhounds Association (www.mfha.com), which works tirelessly to make sure the future of our sport is protected, along with educating the general public. For our local Knoxville residents, we hope you reach out to one of our Masters, as we offer several opportunities for guests to come check us out!
Visit www.tvhfox.com for more information.