One day, back in the 1930s, a certain sound echoed across a certain valley in Georgia. A certain young man heard those July foxhounds and his life, along with many of ours, would never be the same.
Ben Hardaway is the father of modern foxhunting. He and his Midland hounds are inspirations to foxhunters all over the world.
Ben was always eager to try something new: hard hats with harnesses, radios, tracking collars, new and different strains of hounds. If it worked, he continued, and if it didn’t, he quit. Without a doubt, his greatest contribution was deer-proofing hounds. He was the first person I know who recognized the deer problem, faced it head on, and wrestled it until he won. He did this by searching the world over for the perfect cross – the perfect bloodline to blend with his beloved July hounds to create a “biddable” pack.
Through the years my father had seen to it that I hunted with dozens of the finest packs on the east coast. The Hardaway hounds consistently showed sport head and shoulders above any other packs I had seen. Hardaway took the sport to a whole new level. I will always cherish the many Sunday afternoons I spent at Midland, riding in Mr. Hardaway’s pocket, listening to him talk about his hounds and watching them work.
It was on one of those Sunday afternoons that I, for the first time in my life, experienced “The Pure Joy of Foxhunting.” The cry of the hounds sent chills up my spine and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Galloping and trying to keep up with Hardaway and his hounds – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes - my horse and I were getting tired. A full hour passed and neither Hardaway nor his horse showed any sign of tiring. They were in the zone and so were the hounds. After another 20 minutes I thought my horse was going to die. Then I thought I was going to die. Hardaway was still going strong, taking every coop with ease.
Hounds ran two grey foxes to ground that day and then ran a red fox for two solid hours without a check. The only reason they stopped was because it was getting dark and Hardaway stopped them. We started with 77 hounds. We had 76 at roll call at the end of the run. The last hound joined us shortly. They did everything right and nothing wrong the whole afternoon. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. “Lord, if this ain’t heaven, I don’t want to go.”
I knew I had to have hounds like those and hunt them like Hardaway hunted them. He gave us a couple of good, steady, deer-broke hounds, then five more, then eight more. He gave us more than 60 hounds over the years. He shared the wealth of his bloodlines his whole hunting career by giving away over one thousand hounds to hunts all over the world. Not sold. Given away. Priceless Hounds. Skilled athletes.
Fast-forward to 1996, when Mr. Hardaway and Mason Lampton, his son-in-law and Joint Master, were discussing new ideas with their good friend, Ed Bacon, who was an official and judge with the July National Field Trial organization. Ed was an old-time foxhunter who didn’t ride horses but rather a 6-wheel drive Polaris. He had a 160-acre fox pen with safe pens within the larger pen where a fox could get away from the hounds. Ed was so passionate about foxhunting, that he built his home inside his fox pen. He could turn his hounds out any time and hear them run and never have to worry about them getting out of the territory or run over on a road. The Midland hounds went to Ed’s pen regularly for training, especially the puppies. It was a great way to start puppies running the right thing and to know that they were not running deer.
I am not exactly sure how the subject came up. I expect there was a campfire and some good brown liquor involved. Ed got to telling Mr. Hardaway and Mason about how the July Hound Field Trials worked: numbers painted onto the hounds and how the hounds were scored in categories.
Mason was the one who wanted to try it with mounted fox hunting. He thought it would be fun. He also saw it as a better way to compare the hunting abilities of hounds in the field. According to Mason, “Ben had hunted in state performance trials as a young man. Individuals entered hounds in addition to packs. Those events had over 100 hounds entered. They started at dawn with 200 people attending. It was a sight. I went to my first trial at 6 years old with my father and grandfather, Mason Houghland, who, like Ben, was very involved with those events. Ben used his experience as a template for the rules. In addition, we were interested in hounds in other packs with Midland bloodlines, so we proposed for the first Performance Trial that only hounds with at least 25% Midland bloodlines could compete.”
Mr. Hardaway liked the concept, but he was not as convinced that it would work. He helped with everything, but it was Mason who drove the project to success.
Prior to that time, about the only way hunts could compare their hounds was to have a multi-day joint meet. Hunt A would hunt their hounds one day and Hunt B would hunt theirs the next day. Then they would compare the performance of each pack. The obvious problem with this is that the conditions are different each day: different quarry, different weather, different scenting conditions, and on and on. So, while such events can be a lot of fun, they do not compare apples to apples. It was not a fair way to compare hounds or packs.
Performance Trials changed all that. Performance Trials put all the hounds in the field on the same day: same scenting conditions, same weather, same quarry, same challenges, same terrain, etc. For the first time in the history of mounted foxhunting, we had a format for a fair comparison of hounds. It wasn’t perfect, but it was light years ahead of anything we had had before.
The stage was set. They invited 10 packs to bring their 10 best hounds and enter the first Performance Trial. That would have been 100 hounds. With some cancellations and scratches, we cast 73 hounds both days. The location was Midland Hunt’s largest territory in Fitzpatrick, Alabama where Mr. Hardaway had stables, kennels, and at least 2 houses in Fitzpatrick. His home was called “Foxpatrick” and the rambling country home next door was referred to as the “Staff House.”
Fitzpatrick has a population of about 89 people when it is not hunt season. During the Performance Trials, it was probably triple that number. Foxhunting was and is a big deal to the local economy. Much of the catering was done by the Fitzpatrick Volunteer Fire Department. They were great cooks and great sports. Everyone we met was full of Southern Hospitality. We were well fed and “well-watered” each day.
The Performance Trial format was pretty simple: hunt 2 days, hound show on the 3rd day, then hunt again the 4th day. Judging was done by Ed Bacon and his team of judges from the July Nationals. Ribbons were given for each day as well as overall ribbons combining the scores from all 3 days of hunting plus points from the hound show. Scoring was done in the Sunday School Room of the Fitzpatrick Baptist Church, just down the street from Foxpatrick. Mr. Hardaway chose that spot for the judging room “in an attempt to keep all the judges honest,” he said with his head cocked and a twinkle in his eye.
The scoring process was exhausting. All the judges sat around the room and the head judge would call out each hound’s number. Any judge who had a score on that hound would give it aloud. The head judge wrote it on his score sheet and go on to the next hound number. The process was repeated for each category (hunting, trailing, full cry and marking). If we were lucky, we could complete the process in 3 hours. Then it took another 2 or 3 hours for the scoring team to tabulate the scores by hand.
The wait for the scores was exhausting as well. On the last day, many folks headed home before the results were announced. That robbed the finale of a lot of its fun. Another problem was having the event last for 4 days. Add a travel day before and after the event and it was a 6-day commitment. It really was not practical for most foxhunters. The catering expenses added up fast, too.
In spite of the challenges, the event was a big success, as was the 2nd one a year later. There were one or two smaller Performance Trials at Fitzpatrick, then nothing for a few years. In 2002 Belle Meade hosted its first Performance Trial. It went so well we have done Performance Trials annually ever since. Fred Berry, MFH at Sedgefield, attended with his fine hounds and did very well. A couple of years later, he and Sedgefield began hosting annual Performance Trials as well. We shortened the format to make it a 2-day deal, which was much more practical. The earlier Performance Trials taught us a lot, including that the 3rd day of hunting was not necessary. Scores changed a lot from day one to day two, but they changed very little when the third day was added.
Back to the early years: The biggest problem was the time it took to finish the scores. We realized that we needed a faster way to tabulate scores. Max Naegler, MFH, Harvard Fox Hounds headed the committee that updated the rules. With the help of MFHA Executive Director, Dennis Foster, he developed a computerized scoring system using an Excel spreadsheet with macros. That cut the time in half, but it still took a long time.
Then came the MFHA Centennial. Planning ahead, Dennis pointed out to Mason that the MFHA would be 100 years old in 2006. Dennis told Mason that he would be the President of the MFHA during the Centennial. Mason had not realized that he was signing up for such a monumental task when he had agreed to be next in line for the MFHA President. The more we talked about it, the more excited we all got. It would be a lot of work, but worth every minute of it.
Mason was the perfect person to rally the troops around the Centennial celebration. He and Dennis began organizing committees around each of the planned activities:
• Regional Joint Meets chaired by Daphne Wood, MFH, Live Oak Hounds.
• Regional Field Hunter Championships chaired Penny Denegre, MFH, Middleburg Hunt.
• Regional Performance Trials chaired by Epp Wilson, MFH, Belle Meade Hunt.
• Centennial Art Exhibit chaired by Gregg Ladd, Cross Gate Gallery, Lexington, Kentucky.
• Centennial Merchandise chaired by Liz McKnight, MFH, Elkridge Harford Hunt.
• Centennial Book chaired by John Harris Anderson.
Since only Midland, Sedgefield and Belle Meade had experience hosting Performance Trials, we needed to spread the knowledge. So we did practice Performance Trials at the Tejon Ranch, CA and at Arapahoe near Denver, Colorado. Both events went very well. Marvin Beeman, DVM and MFH at Arapahoe introduced us to Chris Towt. Chris was an honorary whipper-in at Arapahoe. He was also a computer expert. Chris, Dennis Foster and I got to talking about the time it took to process the scores. Chris honed in on the problem and subsequently developed our very first scoring program. It was a quantum leap forward, cutting the scoring time in half again and improving the accuracy.
We used that system for the entire Centennial Tour of 13 Performance Trials around the US and Canada. We continued to use that system for about 9 years. Then the host computer crashed and the backup program failed, too, so we had to start again from scratch - urgently – as the Hark Forward series of another dozen Performance Trials around the country was about to start.
Fred Berry and I formed a committee to tackle the project and get it done in record time. Jeb Blount is a long time Belle Meade member and Performance Trial judge. He is also a computer whiz and a great organizer. Jean Derrick is another fine member of Belle Meade, who served as the Honorary Secretary for the Centennial Performance Trials and travelled with us as we helped put on Performance Trials all over the US and Canada. Belle Meade member, Bud Eichel, is a retired military leader who loves hunting and horses and also happens to be another computer whiz. Jeb, Jean, Bud and I met at Jeb’s office on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon and brainstormed the entire scoring system process. We broke it down into all of its components and designed the new scoring program conceptually from the ground up. Bud took the lead on the details and dealt with Jeb’s computer programmers in India for months. Most calls were around 4 AM due to time zone differences. Imagine trying to explain to programmers in India about scoring foxhounds that are running a coyote – it was arduous!
Long story short: they produced the current scoring program that works so well and so quickly. Now it takes less time to input the scores and generate the results than it does for the judges to transcribe their scores from the recorders to the score sheets. This means that we usually have the scores done about an hour after the post hunt meal is done, which keeps everyone around for the results and the celebration.
The Hark Forward Performance Trial Series went swimmingly, in part due to the better and faster scoring system. The top ten hounds from each event were invited to the first-ever National Championship in Fitzpatrick, Alabama, the site of the original Performance Trial in 1996. The hunting was outstanding both days in that big, wide open, galloping country. The fellowship was even better. Midland did their usual incredible job with the hospitality. Those who attended will never forget it.
At every Performance Trial, following each day’s hunt, the inevitable banter on the porch is amazing to witness. Huntsmen and staff of nearly every hunt end up congregating all in one place and sharing the various stories of the day. “Did y’all see Johnnie’s hound pick the line up at the loss by the paved road and get it back going for the whole pack? She saved the day…” And another, “The big black coyote crossed the road right in front of us. Richard’s hound, Middleburg Rosie, was the first one out on the line – sight chasing. That bugger was lucky to get away!”
The stories are endless. So are the fun and energy and enthusiasm for our great sport, especially the hounds. Everyone is cheering for everyone’s hounds to do well - there is none of the jealousy that one might expect. Best of all, everyone gets to see which hounds did well and consider who they want to breed.
When you hunt at home all the time and you never compare your hounds to other hounds, you may be missing something. In any organization, you can drink your own Kool Aid so long that your outfit may be left behind and you don’t realize it until it is too late.
Performance Trials give us a better way to compare our hounds. This is certainly much better than the hound shows. Hound shows are great in their own right, but there is no way at a hound show to know how an individual hound performs in the field. The old saying, “Pretty is and pretty does,” holds true for hounds, too.
Mr. Hardaway said about Performance Trials, “The system works. A bad hound can’t win or even be in the top ten. The Performance Trial process takes snapshots of the action and scores those snapshots. The scoring system doesn’t guarantee that the best hound wins. That’s OK. Any hound in the top ten is a hound we would all be proud to have.”
THE TWO MAIN MISSIONS OF PERFORMANCE TRIALS
1. Give us a better way to compare the performance of our hounds for breeding purposes.
2. Have fun!
Thanks to the incredible efforts of many, including the MFHA, those missions have been and continue to be accomplished in spades.