Love them or hate them, hound parades are an essential part of a huntsman’s summer.
There is the work involved in finding suitable horses, out of the season, that aren’t going to jettison the staff upon unloading the hounds, plus the polishing and scrubbing required of hounds, horses and human — all for 30mins in the ring.
It could seem tiresome but for the tremendous roar that invariably greets hounds as they enter the arena and the positive PR.
It may be the only time some spectators ever see hounds and often the sole occasion that hunt supporters and farmers see hounds off the hunting field. It is therefore beholden on the huntsman to give a good display and show pride in the hunt.
Horse selection is crucial. My first major parade, during the millennium and riding a borrowed, very smart show hunter, was just before the prize-giving at Burghley horse trials — a highly charged cauldron where support for hunting is never in doubt.
Unfortunately my appearance bore more resemblance to an overseas entry in the Texan rodeo championship. Hounds ignored their rookie master’s impromptu display and performed their duties admirably.
All I could hear were the whooping cheers of the crowd in time with every buck. Mercifully (and miraculously) I didn’t hit the deck on my debut at a four-star event. Ever since I have tried not to let vanity inform my choice of horse.
At the two largest shows in the south-east, up to nine packs converge for the cavalcade of hounds. It is an impressive sight.
There has to be a lead huntsman, a role which Mark Bycroft of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent carries out with his customary humility and not a little showmanship.
Friendly hunt rivalries abound. I plant my most vocal hunt supporters around the ring to cheer our hounds, but Mark always seems to find a veritable opera chorus to greet him.
With Mark, one never quite knows what will happen next. Hedges appear for the gallop-round, a panto “fox” is holloaed away then “hunted” by 300 sprinting children, 120 couple of slightly confused hounds and dozens of bemused hunt staff, all madly encouraged on the tannoy by a running, breathless Mr Bycroft.
With the necessary frivolity over, like the front rank of a cavalry regiment, the huntsmen then remount and present the massed hounds to the show president. No wonder the hound parade is the most popular display.
An engaging commentator is essential. A dry hunt history delivered in stentorian tones is guaranteed to send the crowds running to the shops.
However, after introducing the masters and hunt staff, the commentator’s role is to give a flavour of the excitement of hunting, its place within the fabric of the countryside and what is required to safeguard its future.
The hound show season is now in full swing and the Festival of Hunting, featuring the 126th Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show took place on 16 July.
Over the past decade the Festival has become a mecca for the whole hunting world, combining the premier shows for foxhounds, old English foxhounds, harriers, beagles, basset hounds, bloodhounds and draghounds, with classes too for terriers, the ever-popular inter-hunt relay and showing classes.
Ringside criticism of even the most unbalanced hounds is mild compared to the brick-bats reserved for the judges. Are they too fast, too slow, indecisive or inconsistent?
Worse still, a judge could be slain with many of the above, as illustrated by Captain Ronnie Wallace’s comment to a young judge, now one of the finest in the country: “You took far too long to come to the wrong decision.”
What is certain is that at a show, the only place to judge a hound is in the ring.
It was a privilege to step into the hallowed Fitzwilliam enclosure at Peterborough for my first time as a judge. I hope we got it right.
For full Peterborough report and results, see next week’s issue of H&H, out 24 July.