BY CARRIE WIRTH | PHOTOS COURTESY OF LEILANI GRAY, KAREN KENDRA, DORRIE FLETCHER, EQ MEDIA & SCOTT ROSSI
After the final hunt of the season, there is not much time to take a breath. For hunt staff, summer vacation is not in the cards. At hunts like Hillsboro Hounds and Midland Fox Hounds, summer is the time for getting hounds and horses fit in preparation for the next season.
The Work Never Stops at Hillsboro Hounds
At Hillsboro Hounds in Lynnville, Tennessee, John Gray is the professional huntsman and Leilani Gray serves as huntsman and kennelman. They have a long season that runs from the end of August through the end of March. Hillsboro Hounds keeps English and Crossbred Foxhounds and has an active breeding program, entering 10-12 couples of puppies each year.
“Once we finish up in March, most of our puppies for the next season are already off the couples and walking out with us daily,” Leilani Gray said. “We either walk out about 3 miles a day or we take them out on bicycles for 5 to 8 miles. Then, at the end of July, we start riding the horses with the hounds.”
Gray explained that they start in April on the bicycles because they can drop the bike and take care of anything on foot if there is an issue. They wouldn’t be able to respond on horseback. So, they spend a lot of time on the bikes during the summer getting the hounds used to the whips and teaching important lessons, like how to get back to the kennel.
“We keep the hounds going all summer,” she said. “The young entries start to get comfortable with the pack and go out with the hounds on the bikes in April. We go two or three times a week and it just keeps everybody happier.”
In the middle of July, the Grays start to bring the horses back, combining their work with hound exercising. They take them out for the same distances, 5 to 10 miles mounted.
“There are so many aspects to going down the road– getting the puppies used to house dogs, joggers, cars and trucks and teaching them to move over,” she said.
The Hillsboro Hounds country is very rocky and hilly and poses its challenges for keeping horses and hounds fit and comfortable. The Grays typically keep about eight horses. That way, if there is an incident or an injury, the horse can lay off and have enough time to recover. The horses get shod with pads and Borium (a metal product welded to the shoes) to prevent injury and keep them from getting foot-sore.
At the end of August, the Hillsboro Hounds begin cub hunting or what they call fall hunting. “It’s very hot at the end of August and September,” she said. “We start very early, at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and we are not out for more than 1 ½ hours. We’ll go 8 to 12 miles.”
Gray says they have all of September and October to get ready for the opening meet at the end of October or the beginning of November.
“They’ve got two months under their belts and then they’re ready to go,” she said.
They feed the Hillsboro Hounds in groups of about seven couples in each of their kennels, and if certain hounds don’t need to eat as much or need a bit more, they switch them around. At the end of the hunting season, they let all the hounds gain a little extra weight. As they move into the end of July and August, they tend to drop weight. During July, August, and September, the heat climbs into the 90s. If hounds are carrying too much weight and they have a lively run, they tend to struggle. Watching their weight is a significant concern.
Of their eight mounts, the Grays bring on two to four new horses a year. They keep Thoroughbreds exclusively. Throughout the season they pick and choose which horses to keep and which go on to another job. Some horses can go all day long and some are just not hardy enough.
“They have to have the heart,” she said. “It’s the exact same thing with a hound. If they have the heart, then they’re amazing.”
The Summer Routine at Midland Fox Hounds
Ken George is the huntsman at Midland Fox Hounds in Midland, Georgia. Along with his son, kennelman JT George, they manage 72 couples of Crossbred Foxhounds.
“For me, the most important thing in the summer is to put the condition back on the hounds that they lost during the season before,” George said. “We stop hunting in March. In April and May, they’re resting and putting some weight back over the top of their backs. We’re watching their BMI –– body mass index. We start slowly in June and July, and we just walk out on foot. It’s very relaxing.”
George keeps the hounds’ work reasonably easy as they heal up from the previous season. Then, with their feed program, they start to trim them back a bit. In June and July, the temperatures climb and he says that the heat helps the cause. In July, they begin working the hounds two days a week with the horses at a light jog for 3 to 4 miles. George says that it helps to get them level, get them jogging and get them organized. Midland Fox Hounds also has an active breeding program. In the summer, the unentered hounds are starting their more serious road work.
“We used to use bicycles, but we don’t use them anymore,” George said. “We include the horses in it. Our fitness program is very routine.”
As they start exercising them, George says it goes quickly. First, they go two or three days a week on horses. Then, the first week in August, depending on the weather, they slowly start hunting two to three days a week. With the sweltering Georgia heat, they cub hunt early in the morning for only about 1 ½ hours.
“It doesn’t work for everyone to hunt them into shape,” George said. “If you’re sharp and you can take a pack out and stop them and handle them and bring them back – when it’s neat, it works. We don’t do too much too early and we ease them into a rhythm.”
The hounds need to be vibrant, smart and keen. If George notices individuals that seem off, they address any issues.
All of their hounds hunt at least two days a week. George says he likes to keep the dog and bitch packs equal in fitness. “The heavier ones don’t last and the ones that are too light, they fall apart early on,” he said. “The conditioning, the exercise and the nutrition go hand in hand and I micro-manage each individual to make them level. You’re building a good foundation for the season to come, slowly but surely. We want to have our fat trimmed and our hounds running, full peak by Oct. 15.”
Like the Grays, George and Midland Fox Hounds’ first whipper-in Glen Westmoreland also keep around eight horses between them, with two new horses coming along. Westmoreland focuses on the horses.
“Glenn sees those horses three times a day on his day off,” George said. “On our day off, we’re looking at our hounds and horses.”
The horses need to be properly shod, clipped and fed for what George calls “to put a good bottom on them.” He says a lot of horses in the field are sugar-fed. They are hot at the beginning of the hunt and after the first 15 minutes, they burn out. They have anaerobic fitness meant more for the short sprint than the long-distance, required for mounted hunting with hounds. The staff horses need to be steeplechase fit.
“I stress, slow and steady early on and then build a good base and bottom to your routine,” George said. “By the time you get to October, it’s just easy. Then, everything’s caught up and it’s maintaining it and taking care of both hounds and horses throughout the season.”