All photos by Gretchen Pelham.
By Gretchen Pelham, ex-MFH, Tennessee Valley Hunt.
Spring in Southern California comes in February. California poppies, lupin and daisies are just a few of the wildflowers that carpet the huge, rolling hills that make up the historic Tejon Ranch, the site of the 2022 Western States Performance Trials held Feb. 19-20. The Tejon Ranch lies 65 miles northeast of Los Angeles and is the largest ranch in California at 270,000 acres. The views on this ranch are simply epic.
Four hunts from “out West” brought hounds to compete in the performance trials: Big Sky Hounds (Montana), Juan Tomas Hounds (New Mexico), Red Rock Hounds (Nevada) and the host of the event, Santa Fe West Hills Hunt (California). The combined pack was made up of 40 hounds, 10 from each hunt. In true foxhunter fashion, there was a hound number-painting party at the Tejon kennels. The result ended with more paint slung to the four corners of the wind than on fur, but enough made its mark for the judges to score them later that weekend.
Four judges from the East Coast traveled to the event to score the hounds in several categories. The hunting score is for hounds that actively look for a scent. Trailing scores are awarded for hounds that speak as they work a track. Scores for full cry are reserved for hounds that run fast, speak loudly and strive to head to the front of the pack. The hounds earn higher full-cry scores by their order, with more points awarded for those in front than the back. Finally, marking scores are those rare points given to hounds that put game to ground.
The country is so vast and open in the West that marking scores are viewed easily. That is, if the judges can keep up! No performance trial last year scored any marking points until the Western Trials.
Tejon Ranch has a large equestrian center in the middle of the property where the horses are boarded. However, to drive to each fixture (while never really leaving the Ranch) was about 45 minutes each day. The ranch is that large. We drove past enormous groves of organic almonds in full blossom, grapevines by the mile destined to be the famed California Raisins, large rows of vegetables and greenhouse after greenhouse with tables covered in who-knows-what. Every 100 feet were stacks of bee boxes. It would be an impressive number just how many honeybees call Tejon home.
Both days’ hunts were past all the organic groves on the flats, over the open 850 Canal, a water source for Los Angeles, to the foothills where the hounds were cast. A drop in elevation of 1,100 feet from the equestrian center to the edge of the foothills was significant, especially if your sinuses were rebelling from all the wildflowers. The entire range of elevation on the ranch is from Tejon Pass in the Tehachapi Mountains at over 4,000 feet down to the flats at about 400 feet above sea level. The country was covered in green grass, wildflowers and dotted with Pacific Live Oaks. Glorious.
John Harrison from Deep Run Hunt (Virginia) was the appointed huntsman for the trials. This was John’s first trip out West, and he couldn’t stop taking in the view. It reminded him of the openness of the Scottish Highlands. Only, one suspects, California is warmer.
John gave some insight into hunting a combined pack of hounds with no connection to their huntsman. He expected the hounds from Western packs to feel comfortable in that big, open country with very little covert. But that lack of covert gave him a bit of a challenge. In this situation, John usually tries to bond with his new pack as they settle into drawing the first covert. The pack is focused as it searches for that first whiff of scent among the trees and such, and in that quiet moment is when John is accustomed to tying the age-old invisible tethers that connect a huntsman to his hounds. But at Tejon, there are no thick coverts like back East that naturally slow the pack down to give John this quiet time. None of this stumped a pro like John. He adjusted his usual methods, handled the pack less than he would a pack back East and after the first hour had the hounds listening to him without much effort.
On the first day’s hunting, the pack hit on quarry for a high-speed run that ended up in hills too steep to follow. The temperature had risen dramatically and horses, hounds and riders were all cooked.
The second day, John had a much easier time bonding with his pack. The country was higher up in the foothills with more rolling terrain than the day before. Hounds drew off speedily from the meet, and the judges flanking the pack had to either fall back or help stop the pack when John wanted to change the direction of the draw. Usually, John would not have the other horses as close to his pack as they worked, but not many countries are as open as Tejon. Again, John adjusted his usual style to fit the country.
After several short runs, John drew in an anticlockwise sweep in a river valley back towards the meet. The pack chased down a ridge, past a water tank and along the river’s banks.
Coats were waived with the temperatures rising higher than the first day. Earlier that week, the informal hunt pre-trials left everyone frozen and frostbitten. Crazy, unpredictable weather is standard for the West.
Fred Berry from Sedgefield Hunt (North Carolina) came to run the performance trials, with MFHA Director of Hunting Andrew Barclay, also in attendance. Each day, there were about 80 riders from hunts all over the country. Old friends greeted each other and new friendships were forged.
The big winner of the Western States Performance Trials was Big Sky Hounds from Montana. Renee Mantle, MFH and huntsman for Big Sky Hounds, won the Best Overall Pack. Big Sky Hounds’ Lincoln was scored as the Best Overall Hound.
At the end of March, there will be a long caravan of horse trailers and hound trucks driving from Reno, Nevada, to Hoffman, North Carolina. That’s about 2,600 miles to travel for the West to descend upon the MFHA Performance Trials Grand Championships. We look forward to seeing how the Western hounds fare against the qualifying foxhounds from the rest of North America. Expect a large time to be had in North Carolina, so arrange your plans soon to attend!