Hunt Country Hounds

To hunt fox, you need swift horses, intrepid riders … and hard-working hounds.

Perhaps because hunting season had ended only two weeks earlier, the roughly 70 American foxhounds that reside at the Middleburg Hunt Kennels were nowhere to be seen when I arrived to meet them. And I didn’t hear anything, either. I suspected they were enjoying the first days of spring and summer after chasing foxes across the length and breadth of the fields and forests around the town over the past autumn and winter.

But the quiet did not last long. As soon as I opened the car door, a few hounds sounded the alarm, baying loudly. The males quickly filled the large concrete Dog Yard, which was surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence—and the females, kept in a separate enclosure called the Bitch Yard, gave an even more boisterous welcome.

It was my first sight of American foxhounds, all in a pack, and it was unforgettable—spellbinding. And the sound! It was one that Sir Robert Brooke, who brought a pack of hounds to the Crown Colony from England in 1650, and George Washington, the most famous breeder of foxhounds in Virginia, would have recognized—earthy and airy, rustic and regal. It was hard to put one foot before the other to start down the gravel lane toward them. Such a raucous reception seemed to demand a more quiet approach—not out of fear of the animals, but out of respect for their colonial ancestry and their kind.

Because of their Anglo-colonial ancestral connection, American foxhounds are generally recognized as the first truly American canine breed. But what makes American foxhounds special is their unique character mix. Says Carey Shefte, whipper-in and field secretary for the Middleburg Hunt: “There is nothing quite like the intense drive, fantastic voice and wonderful work ethic of the American foxhound. Combine that with their sweet temperament and loyalty, and you have the ideal foxhunting hound.” Mrs. John Denegre, joint master of the Middleburg Hunt, agrees. “American foxhounds, Middleburg’s in particular, are incredibly dedicated to their job. They have a focused drive and desire to account for foxes. It may be surprising then that they make sweet and devoted companions and adapt easily to home life.” She would know—over the years Denegre has adopted six retired hounds, two of which are now living on her sofa.

Not all foxhunting packs are made up of American foxhounds. Some are comprised of purebred English foxhounds, and others are crossbreeds of American and English. But the American is the predominate breed at hunt clubs in this country—and have a special cachet in this state. “American foxhounds and foxhunting are as old as Virginia,” says Jeffrey Blue, the other joint master of the Middleburg Hunt. “They are woven into our history and the spirit of the Commonwealth. Even during the Civil War there were probably foxhunts going on around here.”

Blue has been riding for thirty-five years, twenty of those as Master, and he says his admiration and respect for the hounds runs deep. But that wasn’t always the case. For years, he says, “I was into the sport for the excitement of the horses and the riding. I rode as fast as I could, jumped over more walls than I could count, drank from a lot of flasks, and attended a lot of parties. Then one day I realized that it’s not all about the horses. It’s really nothing without the hounds. That revelation made me realize that, in spite of all my years in the saddle, I hadn’t known the full experience of foxhunting. I understood it in a whole new way after that.”

The history of the American foxhound is as circuitous as the ground over which they pursue the elusive red fox. Most agree that the first true ancestors of today’s modern foxhounds set their paws upon American soil in the middle of the 17th century with Sir Robert Brooke. Whether there were already a few hounds—brought over as individual companion dogs—residing here at the time, is not known. However, it is thought to be unlikely that any animals of quality, bred for hunting, made the passage before those of Brooke.

Brooke brought a pack of hounds expressly for the purpose of hunting, and they became part of the foundation stock for what would become the several strains of the American foxhound. The descendants of these first hounds remained in the Brooke family for generations before being introduced into other kennels.

Various people stand out in the history, lore, breeding and sometimes intrigue of the making of American foxhounds. George Washington, more than perhaps any other person in Virginia and the emerging nation, can be credited with inspiring future generations to develop an appropriate and specifically American breed standard for foxhounds. Washington kept a large pack of hounds at Mount Vernon. The old kennel was constructed very near the site of the original Washington burial tomb, on the riverside of the mansion house. We get some idea of what it looked like from the recollections—published in American Turf Register in 1829—of his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. The kennel was by no means lavish; in fact, it was spartan compared with the stables and other dependencies. But the enclosure of wooden pale construction with a covered structure for shelter was comfortable—shady in summer, warm in winter, and secure.

Although Washington prized the animals, they were not pampered. They were stout, hardy sporting hounds, “kept in the rough.” From the minutely detailed records Washington kept while at Mount Vernon, which include data on everything from diet to physic for ailments, breeding to a standard and equipage, we know a great deal about his various hounds. Preserved are their pedigrees, colors, conformation, sound of their voices, hunting prowess and their often delightfully whimsical and odd names: Ragman, Vulcan, Mopsey, Doxey, Rattler and Sweetlips.

After the revolution, Washington’s Mount Vernon pack received a gift of French foxhounds—Grand Bleu de Gascoigne—from the Marquis de Lafayette. These hounds bore a close resemblance to modern day American bluetick trail hounds. Washington most likely began to introduce them into his kennel through careful breeding with the stock he had cultivated from the Brooke family and others over the years. Washington also opened Mount Vernon to fellow foxhunters who were constantly traveling and lodging there, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many of these guests kept diaries and saved anecdotes of hunts that lasted from sunup until sundown and covered many miles. They also left a record of sumptuous feasts and prolonged and lively conversations. It is exciting to contemplate that the hounds that take to the fields and woodlands and race through the thickets and coverts, leaping over the stone walls of Middleburg, might retain some of the blood and breeding, barking and baying, of distant Washington ancestors.

The Middleburg Hunt, one of the oldest in America, is not a club. It is more correctly a subscription membership “pack,” run by a decision-making board. The Hunt was formed in 1906 by a group of enthusiasts after a curious foxhunting event took place near the town over a two-week period in 1905. It seems one foxhunting man from Massachusetts, A. Henry Higginson, issued a challenge to a second, Harry Worcester Smith. The vast, unspoiled, open areas of Virginia Piedmont country were known to both men and thought to be ideal for a trial. The men wanted to see if Higginson’s English foxhounds might be found superior to the American foxhounds in Smith’s pack.

The event was held just a stone’s throw from Middleburg. The fortnight was a jaunty mix of fox hunting, picnicking, parties and a bit of betting. Various newspapers covered the event, and by the time it ended the American hounds had been judged superior in performance, both individually and as a pack. Middleburg, which had seen little hunting until then, became a nexus for foxhunting in America in just two short weeks.

The next year the Middleburg hounds chased foxes, with new hunt members in pursuit. John T. Townsend became the first Master of the Middleburg Hunt and was recognized by the national association in 1908. After Townsend stepped down a few years later, Daniel Cox Sands took the reigns in 1915. Sands retired from his position in 1953. Perhaps Sands’ most important contribution to the sport was his founding of the American Foxhound Association in 1912.

Barry Magner is the huntsman of the Middleburg Hunt. The huntsman is in charge of virtually every aspect of the lives of the hounds. He leads a dog’s life, you might say, as just about every day he is on duty at the kennels, which are nestled in a clearing and bordered by venerable hardwoods, understory dogwoods, laurel and ferns along a stream coursing through the property. The buildings, including the large fenced kennel with a feed storage shed, are mostly vintage 1920s, painted dark hunter green with white trim. Decades’ worth of metal Virginia kennel licenses are nailed to the doorframe. The earliest is dated 1927. A new structure houses puppies and nursing bitches. The Puppy Palace was constructed in 2009 with donations by the Board of Governors of the Middleburg Hunt. It is painted the same green and white but is set off at a distance from the main kennel to provide some quiet for the mothers and weaning pups.

Magner takes care of the hounds and the kennels. He must feed, exercise, train, discipline and nurture each individual hound as well as the entire kennel population. He also observes and monitors the health of every hound, administering medications, vitamins and anything that does not require a veterinarian. He is also an accomplished rider, able to follow the fox-chasing hounds and track their pursuit with a keen eye.

With his broad knowledge, experience and passion for foxhounds, Magner has the mien of a seasoned huntsman—although he is not yet 30 years old. His sandy-reddish hair, boyish face and freckles make him look every bit the Irishman he is. One wonders how he would have had enough time to develop the kind of skills and know-how needed to be the huntsman for one of the best foxhunting packs in the country.

In fact, Magner’s resume is extensive. He began hunting and working with hounds in his native Limerick, Ireland, when he was a small boy. He took time out to get a degree in finance and accounting from Limerick University—but even then, he acknowledges, he hunted fox between classes. For most of his life, he has been full-cry into hounds. After university, he served with a couple of top foxhunting organizations in England before coming to America.

Listening to Magner wax enthusiastic about the history of the Middleburg Hunt, past huntsmen, former masters and the various types of hounds that ran in years past is a pleasure. Although he has only been Middleburg’s huntsman since July of 2009, his obvious scholarship and grasp of the particular breed qualities of the kennel’s hounds, and the nuances of American, as opposed to English, hounds is impressive. He speaks about noses and scent ability, stamina, speed, difference in climate and temperature, diet and a range of points regarding the breed’s physical structure. He makes it clear that the breeding of an American strain of hound to hunt the cunning and swift red fox was no accident. Breeding was always, and continues to be, about making a better foxhound.

Not surprisingly, Magner proves as eloquent working with his charges as he is talking about them. The chemistry between the man and the hounds is genuine. They share a remarkable bond that is best seen when they are working together. Magner exercises his duties with an even-handed mixture of gentle discipline and personal attention, meted out to each as if he were a schoolmaster with a strong and personal knowledge of each student. He knows each of the hounds, dogs and bitches, by name—among them, Tulip, Renoir, Bracken, Bar Maid, Napkin and many more. To anyone else, one face in the crowd is as good as another. Not to the huntsman, who recognizes each hound individually.

There are five strains of American foxhound, says the huntsman—Walker, Trigg, Goodman, July and Penn-Marydel. They appear only slightly different from one another. But these small differences are due to breeding and serve a purpose: Each type is bred to suit a particular hunting environment. One type might be more desirable for relative speed and endurance over open ground, while another may be better in a dense overgrown landscape. Most of the Middleburg Hunt hounds are tri-color—black, brown and white. There are some “reds” and at least one, like Napkin, that is nearly all white. Many have a smattering of “ticking,” or black freckling, over them. While the goal is not necessarily to achieve a totally uniform, tri-color kennel, Master Blue clearly seems to prefer that look, and comments that the kennel has a goodly amount of the Walker foxhound strain in it.

The hounds of the Middleburg Hunt receive regular exercise during all four seasons. The kind of exercise and schedule depends on the time of year. Pre-conditioning for hunting season begins in late summer. During this time the hounds will be out by 6 a.m. It is a magical sight. Magner leads them along, often with two assistants taking up the rear to lend a hand should any catch a scent or stray too far afield. The pack and people keep a leisurely pace, which can last as long as an old-fashioned country church meeting, sometimes as much as two or three hours. These excursions can include walking along country roads and lanes, romping in open fields, playing with a ball and “puppy training” on horseback.

During hunting season, which begins in early autumn and runs through the end of winter, the pack is out anytime between 7 a.m. and noon for the hunt, depending on the weather conditions. A good hunt is all the exercise they need on those days. On non-hunting days during hunting season, they revert to their outings with Magner.

After exercise, the hounds are returned to their respective yards to take breakfast. The frenzy of feeding time, which takes place once in the morning, is a sight to see. There is an annex pen off from the two larger Dog and Bitch Yards. It is called the Draw Yard, because the hounds can be drawn out of the two main yards, individually or in groups, for special attention. Feeding is done in the Draw Yard. Magner serves meals with an eye toward the health of individual hounds as well as a certain standard for the pack. Before the feeding of the general population begins, he pulls out those particular hounds into the Draw Yard that are either over or under their desired weight and feeds them singly or in smaller groups. This assures that each hound gets only the amount of food it requires for optimum nutrition and performance.

The rest of the pack has its dry food scooped into five gallon buckets, wetted down, and poured out into long, low, galvanized livestock troughs. The dogs wait, impatiently, and when the gate into the Draw Yard opens the feast begins! The sound of the munching and slurping of kibble by more than two dozen hounds all at once is indescribable.

Magner explains that male dogs have much better table manners than the more high-strung bitches. And indeed their barking and baying drowns out the sound of the dogs eating before them. When the gate flies open, it is mayhem! No fighting, but lots of growling, pushing and shoving. Within a few minutes, the troughs are completely emptied of the last morsel, and suddenly the frenzy is over as quickly as it had begun.

Moments later, the Draw Yard dining room is cleared of patrons and all the dogs are back where they belong, meandering around their yards looking for a shady spot to lie down for a rest, away from the early sun. In the hottest summer months, July and August, cooling fans are placed in their lodges—the hounds’ sleeping quarters. Soon, they will be in training for the next hunting season. Autumn is around the corner, winter not far behind, and the hounds will be doing what they’re hard-wired to do—chasing another red fox through the fields around Middleburg, barking, baying, bawling and brawling in hot pursuit.

Do the hounds have any sense, a sixth sense perhaps, of the approaching season and of the sport in which they play such a crucial part? I got my answer the morning I met Magner at the kennels as he was scooping up feed for their breakfast and I was capturing the sounds of baying with my digital recorder. Magner stopped and said, “You should hear them when I’m down here of a morning during hunting season, before the sun comes up, and we’re getting ‘em ready for a hunt. It’s a different kind of sound they make. Like a choir. They know. Oh, they know.”

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