How to blow a hunting horn: you need teeth, but no raspberries, please *H&H Plus*

  • Knowing how to blow a hunting horn is a skill that will win you admirers and teach you more about what is happening on a hunting day, says Rory Knight Bruce. Just warn your neighbours first…

    It could be a hunting supper or dinner party anywhere in the land, and the master and huntsman is sitting after a fine day’s sport in the glow of praise at the best seat at the table. In front of him, as the port is passed round, sits a silver presentation hunting horn, perhaps an ancient heirloom belonging to the hosts.

    In one of the few heart-sinking situations of hunting, it too will soon be passed round to the guests, and woe betide the diner who can only blow a raspberry.

    “An ability to blow a hunting horn is not the be-all-and-end-all of hunting or following a pack of hounds, but everyone who hunts should know the basic commands and what they mean,” says Jacky Thomas, a senior master and huntsman of more than 30 seasons and nine-time winner of the Dorian Williams horn-blowing trophy at the Horse & Hound Ball. Starting off his hunting life, Jacky would take his horn everywhere.

    “I would carry it in my car and van. The first command to learn, and perhaps the easiest, is ‘Gone Away’,” he says.

    He stresses that accuracy of commands is not just important to the hounds and field master, but to the followers as well.

    “They should know the calls,” he continues, “so they are alert to what’s going on. When I play ‘Gone Away’ with a rattle at the end, I want to give the followers a good stir.”

    Of the 50 or so silver presentation horns in his collection, he says that only one of them is any good to blow in the hunting field.

    “In all my hunting, be it blowing out hunting, in competitions or at funerals, I have my trusted copper Lonsdale. It’s a bit battered and bruised, but it does me fine.”

    Time was when the more technical horn commands were captured, alongside two 78 vinyl records, in Berry and Brock’s 1930s Hunting By Ear: The Sound-book of Fox-Hunting.

    Here are such commands as “Crossing the Ride”, “Doubling Back”, “Doubling the Horn” or the three vital notes to the whipper-in, “All On” and “Whip to Me”. Then there is the mournful “Blowing for Home”, or “Going Home”, much favoured at hunting funerals.

    “Teeth are important”

    Everyone has different techniques in learning how to blow a hunting horn. First, the horn itself should have a sympathetic mouthpiece.

    I was once at the Eglinton and invited by their master Bobby Corbett at Caprington to blow what is believed to be “the oldest hunting horn in Scotland”. Had there been a cat present, it would have climbed the curtains.

    Some people learn in the bath, in the car, or by making a small sixpence with the side of their lips. My own early attempts on a mountain top in Greece had all the local dogs for miles around joining in.

    Former director of the Masters of Foxhounds’ Association Alastair Jackson learned his horn blowing as huntsman of the Marlborough College Beagles.

    “I found it a lot easier blowing a horn off a horse than running along in a ploughed field,” he recalls.

    Three-time winner of the Dorian Williams trophy, he also remembers the informality of entering this competition in the 1970s at the Dorchester hotel in London.

    “You would be at a table and fellow guests would encourage you to have a go,” he says.

    The most useful call he perfected from Captain Ronnie Wallace was the sharp-noted “Doubling the Horn”. This was to get the hounds to come quickly to the line of a fox.

    Alastair advises the one call for any hunting person to learn is “Going Home”.

    “It is a test of puff and keeping your lips wobbling,” he says.

    By the 1990s, the competition took on a more formal footing, with qualifying rounds for professional hunt staff. Tony Holdsworth, professional huntsman of the Tiverton and later at the Duke of Beaufort’s, won in 1994.

    “As you walked into the spotlight, you had to think only that you were having the best hunt of your life,” he recalls.

    Shortly afterwards, he lost two teeth in a hunting accident.

    “Teeth are very important in horn blowing,” he says.

    Despite having refixed his own dentures with superglue, he was only the runner-up the next year.

    The master’s voice

    It is not just huntsmen who can take a joy in the horn. Former Mid Sussex MP and president of the South of England Hound Show at Ardingly, Sir Nicholas Soames was brought up with that great horn-blower and huntsman of the Eridge, Major Bob Field-Marsham. It was not unknown for Soames to enter the House of Commons car park with Berry and Brock’s hound and horn commands playing on his car cassette player.

    Perhaps the most unorthodox horn-blowing I ever heard was at a pro-hunting rally in Brighton for a Labour Party conference in 2001. The blower had the dexterity to make the horn sound like a klaxon from the New York Police Department.

    When I did get to hunt the hounds myself I did so with my father’s old hunting horn. It was the horn that would call me home for tea from my primary school, clearly audible from two miles away. The other trick he had was to make the sound of hounds leaving covert, the doubling of the horn, but with his voice.

    A couple of years ago I was sitting in a beaters’ hut after shooting and a regarded local farmer made this call in my ear.

    “I learned it from your father when I was hunting on my pony as a child,” he told me.

    It was as if my father’s voice was alive again, cheering on his hounds and me. So this is another tip. If, at the hunt supper, blowing the horn seems too much, just learn to sing a command instead. That should get some ego-boosting praise and a flicker of envy from the master.

    Ref: 21 January 2021

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