Hounds on the flags: all you need to know about hound shows *H&H Plus*

  • The hound showing season is underway; Alastair Jackson explains the process that culminates at the Festival of Hunting in July

    ANYONE who has attended Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show will have memories of seeing the judges weighing-up hounds. Apart from the sense of occasion created by this greatest of all hound shows, there is the impression of the hounds themselves. The aristocrats of their breed, standing like statues, held in the thrall of their huntsman; then flying across the ring with effortless strides before racing back to stand foursquare again, neck outstretched, head slightly cocked, with eyes only for the man who is their friend and handler.

    Later, the ring is a sea of colour, with the hunt servants’ liveries and gleaming boots mingling with the tans, pyes and mottles of the hounds. Soon the judges have dismissed all but the prizewinners. Perhaps a final loosing-off of two or three entries to compare their movement, and then the results are announced. Polite clapping if the winners come from one of the more fashionable kennels, but occasionally wild cheering if they hail from a more modest establishment.

    Doghounds in the morning (the enticing smell of bitches beforehand might interfere with that vital concentration), starting with unentered hounds, through the various entered classes to the stallion hounds, before culminating in the vital doghound championship.

    A change of judges for the afternoon bitch classes, when the same format is followed. The aficionados of the foxhound – there are plenty and they are not all masters of hounds – will sit with full concentration throughout the day. Others will undoubtedly find time for a refreshing glass or two and an exchange of gossip, but nearly all will wish to be present for the electric atmosphere of the championship classes.

    The all-important qualities of a great hound

    WHAT, then, do the judges see? How much can they tell about a foxhound in the artificial atmosphere of this great show?

    Hounds are, of course, judged on their conformation throughout their lives. Their breeders and huntsmen will look at them critically “on the flags” from an early age and then it will be time for the puppy show, when they will be formally judged by visiting experts. If they are good enough, they may well be shown at one of the other regional hound shows around the country.

    Later in life their make and shape will be a factor, along with their all-important working qualities, to be considered before they may be bred from. Nose, voice, character and brains cannot be judged at a show, but make no mistake, a well-put-together hound, which can cross the country with ease and run up late in life, has far more chance of becoming a really good foxhound than one which is handicapped by lack of pace or lameness.

    At the Festival of Hunting the hounds are only seen on the hard surface of the ring and one sometimes hears some knowledgeable onlooker say, as a class leaves the ring, “I wonder if they would have been placed the same way if we had seen them on grass?” They are probably right, as hounds will generally only gallop really freely on turf, and one of the most important points when judging a hound is movement and stride.

    The ring at Peterborough is large enough and of a smooth enough surface that hounds will generally give a pretty good performance and, being under cover, there is no question of grass there. Harrogate is also undercover with a concrete ring, but Builth Wells, Ardingly and Honiton are able to provide the best of both worlds, being grass rings with stone flags in the middle for hounds to stand on when they are not galloping.

    At puppy shows, where the ring is often much smaller, it is quite common for the last few hounds to be taken out on to a more spacious area of grass to be galloped against each other. It is then that the judges often find that a particular hound, which they previously liked, does not move as well as the others – or vice versa.
    However, when judging a puppy show it is just as well to ask the huntsman if he is happy to do this. If he has not put the time in on his young hounds beforehand, it is not unheard of for one of the potential prizewinners to go absent without leave.

    Grass also has its drawbacks, particularly when hounds relieve themselves in the ring. On a concrete surface the mess can quickly be picked up and the area mopped with disinfectant. On grass this treatment is not so effective and, as discarded biscuits also accumulate, hounds are more likely to investigate these smells than give full attention to their huntsman.

    Grass can also hide faults in toes and feet, and the consummate showman is not beyond pretending that he is trying very hard to get his hound to leave the grass and stand on the flags, when he has not the slightest intention of baring his charges’ faults to the judges. Grass in the ring must also be well cut. There was a time, many years ago, at Honiton when the beagles almost disappeared from view!

    A level playing field

    OF COURSE it must be true that hounds, and any other canines, can only be judged properly for conformation on flags or a similar hard surface. On flags the mechanics of bone and muscle can be compared exactly, like against like. The all-important balance of a hound is undistorted by variations in standing; legs and feet can be seen for what they are, with a clean background to view.

    However, there is no doubt that a large ring and a galloping surface will tell a judge more about movement and balance. This is why English foxhounds should be loosed as soon as they enter the ring and not be judged straining at their leads.

    A further vital consideration in this day and age, when public relations must be the priority, is easy access for the public to watch the hound judging. Honiton, with its four separate rings for hounds of all breeds and situated among the busy agricultural show, is a perfect example. The public here take full advantage of their free viewing, apart from the grandstand side, as they do also at Ardingly.

    Peterborough, as the premier hound show, used to be very exclusive, with most of the seating allocated beforehand. Even when part of the East of England Agricultural Show, the public had to pay to enter the hound show area. Nowadays, thankfully, as part of the Festival of Hunting, anyone attending the larger event can come into what used to be termed “the Holy of Holies” and watch the foxhounds being judged – and quite right too.


    This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 17 June

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