A hunting horn often carries a deeper significance than merely a tool to hunt hounds, finds Polly Portwin
As far as inspirational gift ideas go, not only as retirement presents for masters or hunt staff, but for a significant birthday or perhaps even as a christening present from a godparent, a hunting horn can rarely be beaten. Whether it’s brand new or it has been used by a huntsman before, a hunting horn is something to be treasured.
“If my house was on fire it would be one of the first things I would grab on the way out,” exclaims Daniel Cherriman, huntsman of the Pytchley with Woodland, in a sentiment echoed by many.
“While in monetary terms it is of little value, it holds so many memories and every dink and dent tells a different story.”
Hours of endless pleasure for the recipient of a horn can ensue, and it may even inspire a career in hunt service, although not everyone living under the same roof may share the same enthusiasm when the novice horn-blower starts practising at home.
Retired professional huntsman Patrick Martin, former winner of the prestigious Horse & Hound horn-blowing competition recommends “sitting under the stairs or practising in the car”. Alternatively, if you have two hunting horns and want to practise at home, Patrick advises: “Put the two horns bell to bell [end to end] and you can blow at full pressure without upsetting the neighbours or the dog.”
“I used to ride out to a small quarry on the Western Beacon on Dartmoor,” explains Claire Bellamy, former huntsman of the Spooners and West Dartmoor who now hunts the Lauderdale hounds. “I only had the odd interruption from a Dartmoor pony or a walker who wondered what was happening!”
Aside from upsetting those you live with or the neighbours, finding a suitable spot to hone your horn-blowing skills has to be considered quite carefully. Anyone living within earshot of a pack of hounds daren’t launch into Gone Away without fear of causing a stir in kennels, and the effect the sound of the horn can have on horses or ponies must be taken into account. After all, nobody wishes to see the usually docile lead-rein pony bolting through the village with an empty saddle or a small child gripping on tightly because the pony believes hounds must be in the vicinity.
Steeped in history
Carrying the hunting horn to hunt a pack of hounds is rightly seen as a privilege and naturally carries with it a huge responsibility in itself, yet alone for those who have been given the honour of using a horn steeped in history or one that was gifted to them by a renowned huntsman.
The most coveted horns are probably those handed down by former eminent huntsmen of their time. Nigel Cox, recently retired former professional huntsman, was given a horn by Elsie Morgan when he was hunting the Waterford hounds in Ireland. Not only had the late Elsie hunted hounds with it, but it had been given to her by Ikey Bell, who was instrumental in the breeding of the modern foxhound.
“After retiring from hunting the West Waterford hounds, Elsie Morgan would come to the Waterford where I was hunting hounds,” says Nigel. “We became very good friends and she gave me her horn in 1993 which I have used right up until I retired from hunting hounds at the end of the 2019/20 season.”
Now that Nigel has retired, what will happen next with a horn with so much history? Will it remain on his mantelpiece or will it be passed on to somebody deserving – who knows?
Andrew Osborne, a former master of the Cottesmore who will become chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) at the start of the 2020/21 season, hunted hounds using a horn that had been used in the World War I trenches by Brigadier General James Lochhead Jack.
Engraved with the brigadier’s name, Andrew used it 100 years to the day after it was used at Ypres in November 1917. He recalls once losing it in the fens and having to enlist the help of the Pony Club who “spread out and walked like ducks” until they located it, whereupon it was swiftly retired to his desk.
For those who aren’t fortunate to be given a horn, either used or secondhand, finding the right horn is critical.
“Horns aren’t a one-size fits all,” explains Ian Compton from Henry Keat, makers and repairers of handmade hunting horns. “We recommend any perspective buyer tries a number of horns to ensure they mouthpiece suits them and, most importantly, that they can get a note out of it.”
The Royal Artillery’s new master huntsman, Charles Carter, emphasises the importance of getting the right horn for the right country. He remembers wanting a rare Cottesmore horn made by Köhler and Sons which he subsequently found after a long search and “at vast expense”. On using it for the first time in the Norfolk fens, his then kennel-huntsman is reported to have exclaimed: “That new hunting horn of yours is useless, sir.”
Charles admits: “I was so disappointed, and I haven’t used it since!”
The Flint and Denbigh’s new huntsman Robert Medcalf has gathered a collection of horns during his career in hunt service, but one with the greatest sentimental value was given to him on his 21st birthday by the late Griff Hughes, former huntsman the Eryri where Robert’s passion for hunting was founded.
“It’s a Köhler and Son horn with a Goodall-style bell,” says Robert. “I’ve never carried it previously but we have a seasonal joint meet with the Eryri so I fully intend to hunt hounds with Griff’s horn and return it to its old stomping ground.”
When things go wrong
While juggling a hunting whip, a fresh horse and various other paraphernalia, most people will have lost something on the hunting field, perhaps a glove or money that was supposed to be field money. However, generally members of the field can either manage without said item, or go home if they can’t go on without it. The same can’t be said for a huntsman hunting hounds when he loses his horn, something which isn’t uncommon.
“I have lost every hunting horn I ever had, even the banded horn that was given to me as a leaving present at the Middleton,” reveals Frank Houghton Brown.
“I followed the practice of my teacher, Captain Ian Farquhar, and often kept mine in between my coat buttons, but I should have taken the advice of Captain Wallace who told me in no uncertain terms that was wrong and it should stay in its horn case.”
It’s been said that when carried in between the buttons a horn tends to fall out if you fall off or your horse suddenly refuses, which is bad enough, however, former huntsman and director of the MFHA Alastair Jackson recalls one huntsman who was “killed when he landed on his horn which was stuck between his buttons”.
Matthew Higgs MH, chairman of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB), carries a horn that he bought in a sale that was presented to Pete Wardill, a longstanding South Herts master back in the 1950s.
After admitting to losing it a few times, Matthew recalls its longest disappearance was after a wonderful day near Great Gaddesden in the old Hertfordshire country.
“After a probably too enthusiastic celebration of a good day’s hunting in the pub I realised it was adrift. Some months later I embarked on a spot of spring cleaning, an admittedly rare enough event in a then-bachelor’s household,” confessed Matthew. “Moving the bed there was a metallic tinkle and there was the hunting horn. I had slept in my hunting clothes that night…”
Aside from getting lost, horns are often casualties of a day’s hunting. Most have a variety of war wounds that arise from being dropped, trodden on or squashed, but being “held hostage” isn’t, thankfully, typical for the huntsman’s vital communication tool.
Richard Tyacke, director of the AMHB, recalls how, during a fairly rough encounter with a difficult landowner who objected to the hunt riding along a bridlepath while he was hunting the Wynnstay hounds, the farmer seized his horse with his horn in its case.
“The field came to support and completely surrounded the farmer and my horse while I quietly extracted myself and rode off on my wife Alice’s horse,” explained Richard.
Alice, meanwhile, had to remove the horse from a delicate situation and return the horse – and horn – to the huntsman.
Not a dry eye in the house
There can be few sounds that evoke such emotion as a hunting horn. When blown properly and heard in conjunction with the cry of a pack of hounds, it can make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
When blown at a funeral it can also generate a tear from the most hardened souls. While an honour to blow a hunting personality away at their funeral, there is huge pressure on the person responsible for such a crucial part of the service and it’s unlikely that such tasks are included in any huntsman’s job description.
James Finney, huntsman of the Zetland, recalls being given a Köhler hunting horn by the late Jack Batterbee who, himself, had been given it when he was huntsman of the Enfield Chace, by a man called “Terry”. The horn was subsequently nicknamed Terry and Jack blew the horn to win the H&H horn-blowing competition in 1983.
James remembers fondly: “When Jack died he wanted me to have the horn and said to me, ‘You had bloody well better use it to hunt hounds with because I don’t want it stuck on the mantlepiece to look at, and use it to blow at the horn and hound ball competition.’”
Having blown Jack away at his funeral using “Terry”, in 2019 James went on to blow it to win the national horn-blowing championship. Promise kept.
Although not technically a competitive activity, many of those who hunt have a competitive streak. During the weekly clap for carers during lockdown, those in rural areas developed the initiative to include holloaing and horn-blowing to ensure their appreciation could be clearly heard far and wide.
With videos being posted on social media, it soon became a contest to demonstrate the finest horn-blowing abilities with the number of “likes” and “shares” being seen as an unofficial modern day voting procedure.
Reaching an audience of over 100,000 people on social media is quite an achievement, but it still doesn’t compare to the prestige of being crowned H&H’s national horn-blowing champion.
“This competition is the pinnacle of what can be done with a hunting horn,” revealed Patrick Martin, three-time winner of the Dorian Williams Challenge Trophy which was first awarded in 1952 at the Horse & Hound Ball. “As well as maintaining high standards in kennels and on the hunting field, it’s vital that we maintain a high standard of horn-blowing too because it’s such an important part of the hunting day.”
“We always ask contestants to blow Gone Away and Going Home,” explains Patrick, who has been coordinating the competition since its revival.
“We try to involve huntsmen from all across the country and include a mixture of those representing foxhound, beagle and harrier packs.”
The hotly contested event was resurrected as part of the Horn & Hound Ball in April 2015, and has been a key feature of the fundraising event ever since, with the current reigning champion being James Finney, huntsman of the Zetland.
Ref Horse & Hound; 3 September 2020