It’s a considerable honour to be invited to the hunt kennels to see the hounds, but what are you looking for? What does a well-made hound look like? Frank Houghton Brown explains the basics
People hunt for all sorts of reasons, but even if you hunt to ride or just for the social aspects, there is no escaping the fact that the hounds are at the core of it all.
Invitations to puppy shows are at the behest of the masters, but subscribers are included along with farmers and puppy walkers. If someone shows an interest, they may get asked to a special viewing of the hounds at the kennels. It’s an honour to be invited to either, but what exactly are you looking for when you get there?
The Duke of Beaufort’s hounds get more summer visits than any other pack. During the months of May and June, there are parties of visitors to their Badminton kennels every week, which range from local hunt staff to hunt stalwarts, puppy walkers and car-followers who love the hounds. The Friday afternoon of the Badminton Horse Trials is always kept open to show people around the kennels. The Countryside Foundation runs estate days at Badminton in early June each year and roughly 500 urban and local children get a tour of the kennels during these valuable educational experiences.
Joint-master and huntsman of the Beaufort Matt Ramsden is a dab hand at hosting these tours and has some tips for any would-be experts.
“The first and most important thing to look out for is the hound’s movement,” he explains. “It’s quite difficult to tell someone how to recognise a ‘good shoulder’ but if a hound moves easily, with grace and balance, then it must be well put together.”
Matt also says that it can be easier for a beginner, once you have looked at movement and balance, to spot things that are obvious faults, or “howlers” as he calls them, like crooked elbows or feet that turn either in or out.
There is more to looking at hounds than just details about conformation and Matt is the first to acknowledge this: “general well-being” is how he describes it. Their coats should be glowing and unentered hounds should be blemish-free, as they have never been hunting.
“The real joy of looking at hounds is in seeing how incredibly well looked after they are,” Matt says. “You can soon see how good the rapport is between the hunt staff and his hounds. The huntsman and whipper-in should be able to get the hounds to show without too much noise or chasing and their hounds should be confident and not shy, mischievous but not unruly.”
“Choose the type you like”
If you want to see the hounds from packs in the north of England, you are unlikely to be asked to the kennels. The puppy shows are at small local shows and there are open classes where any pack may show its hounds.
There is no one with a better understanding of hill hounds and fell hounds than Peter Wybergh, who hunted the Cumberland Farmers for 33 seasons, and for five of those years he also hunted the North Tyne. Peter now walks hounds for both the Coniston and Melbreak fell packs and hunts all over the north.
“Everyone has their own opinions at a hound show in Cumbria,” says Peter. “Spectators are not there for the beer, but to judge the hounds themselves. They may have their own opinions, but they don’t mind if you don’t agree with them. They just love hounds and are pleased to meet other people of a similar mind.”
Peter has his own views on what type of hound he likes and of course he prefers hill hounds and fell hounds to what he refers to as “South country hounds”, but his advice to anyone looking at hounds is to “choose the type you like and stick to it”.
Peter points out the difficulty in wanting a hound with plenty of substance without it being too common. “I like depth, width and plenty of spring in the ribs, but they mustn’t be too strong or heavy.”
He brings up one of the biggest faults in a hound as being too narrow and quotes Johnny Richardson, one of the greatest fell huntsmen, who called narrow hounds “slab sided”.
One of the most successful packs in the show ring is the Grove and Rufford and much of that is down to their experienced huntsman and hound breeder, Paul Larby. He is an expert showman, adept at producing top-class hounds, and is always keen to show them off at home to anyone who is interested.
“We have five or six practice puppy shows during a normal summer,” Paul says, “which is so helpful in getting the young hounds used to seeing people.”
There is no one better at dissecting the detail that makes a hound a show winner or at showing them on the flags, but when asked what someone should look for when visiting a hunt kennels, Paul doesn’t expect any great knowledge of a hound’s conformation points.
“You should look to see how well the hounds look. The hounds should be happy and their coats gleaming with good health. They should bounce around and be pleased to see people.”
Pressed on those details that the untrained eye should watch for, Paul sticks to his line and won’t be drawn on what makes a hound a winner. He is pleased if people take an interest in the hounds and thrilled if they are prepared to give up a few hours to see them in their home environment. There is no favour or hierarchy in who can appreciate hounds, and an interested foot-follower is just as welcome as a hard-riding subscriber.
It is no surprise that when the Grove and Rufford win a prize at a hound show, there is usually a roar of approval from a band of interested supporters whom Paul has encouraged to become involved and to payan interest in his beloved charges.
If you get the opportunity, go to the kennels of your hunt or to the puppy show, and show an interest in the hounds and appreciate the efforts made to keep them happy and healthy – no knowledge is necessary.
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 July 2020