The Iroquois Hunt Club has a long history. Founded in 1880, the central Kentucky club is named for Iroquois, the first American horse to win the English Derby. 133 years later, the Iroquois Hunt Club remains active from October through March. Most hunts today focus on coyotes, not fox. Deaths are rare, but member Glenye Oakford says they do occur. “People think we come out specifically to kill and it is called hunting and I suppose maybe that’s why people think that. But, it’s very, very difficult when you are riding with a pack of hounds and that is the only way of catching a wild animal running over territory it is intimately familiar with,” said Oakford.
The hunt usually covers ten square miles of farmland in Fayette and Clark counties. Riders, hounds and their prey run from one farm to another. Oakford considers coyotes as dangerous, nuisance animals that often kill a farmer’s calves and household pets. She says the hunt helps keep them under control.
“As dangerous as one coyote might be, you can imagine if they are allowed to pack up, to settle in a country, to pack up to breed, to grow larger packs, that that gets more and more difficult and dangerous from the farmers’ point of view,” added Oakford.
On this Saturday morning, hounds are trucked in and prepared to track coyotes. Alan Foy, who works at the hound kennel, places a G-P-S tracking collar on each dog.
“Without sounding clique, they don’t lie to you. I mean, they are what they are. People, you’re always guessing what they’re supposed to be or what they’re trying to be, or what they’re wanting to be. That’s just a dog,” said Foy.
Years ago, American Walker Hounds were used to hunt foxes. But, club member Lilla Mason went to Europe years ago to help find a breed better suited for coyote hunts. Today, pure English hounds are used by the Iroquois Hunt Club. Although many are similar in color and size, Huntsman Lilla Mason notes each hound has a distinctive personality and is easily singled out.
Just before they let loose the hounds, Mason and Co-Master of the Hunt Jack Van Nagel offer some last minute advice to participants.
Lilla Mason also warned fellow riders to stay together and watch out for farmers, who are again working their fields.
When the huntsman blows the bugle, the hounds are off, seeking the scent of a coyote. Elizabeth Playforth serves as one of the whipper-ins….who keep the dogs from straying away from the hunt…
“Hounds need to hunt as a pack and you don’t want them spread out all over the country hunting individually so we help her keep the hounds together in a pack,” said Playforth.
The six month season can include as many as three hunts per week, on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Over time, that can also take a toll on horses.
Winter weather is also a factor. Poor conditions forced a four week break this year. Whipper-in Nancy Klinkenbeard says conditions can be too tough on horse, hound, and rider.
“When the ground freezes really, really hard, it’s jarring on horses and it’s also jarring on the hounds. You know, if it’s frozen, it can cut the pads. Really, frozen ground is hard on your horse, on their legs. This is supposed to be fun and a lot of people don’t want to come out when you have to put on so many clothes, you can’t move,” said Klinkenbeard.
Part of the sport involves setting up jumps for horse and rider, as they navigate over streams and fences, in pursuit of both hounds and coyotes. Still, veteran hunter Blaine Holloway says horses rarely suffer serious injuries.
"It’s not as hard as a like racing or eventing because you aren’t ever flat out. We get our horse good and fit. So that they are able to handle what we ask them to do, but it’s very rare that you get a bad injury in fox hunting,” explained Holloway.
Not all the travel during the hunt is on horseback. A four-wheeled all terrain vehicle is nearby throughout the hunt. The radio also comes in handy. Co- Master of the hunt Jerry Miller listens for direction from huntsman Lilla Mason on the two-way. It’s a rare occasion when hounds catch and kill a coyote or even a fox. On this day, they pick up the scent several times. Mason says it was an exciting time.
“You know the slower part of the day is when, you’re going along, and the hounds are going into cover, trying to find the scent of a coyote. But, once they find it, and start speaking, it’s really exciting because the horse know they’re gonna get to gallop and the hounds start speaking and giving tongue and that happened many times today, so that’s an active day,” said Mason.
"Giving tongue’ is the term describing a hound’s bark when it picks up a coyote’s scent. Mason says the hounds kept by the Iroquois Hunt Club are in a unique position…by hunting, they remain true to their breeding.
“Most breeds of hounds, you know, the Labradors were bird dogs and Catahoulas were hog dogs, but now they’re just domestic dogs. They don’t really get to what they were born and bred and created to do. And these hounds get to do what they were actually created to do. And it’s a thrill to watch a dog get to do that,” added Mason.
The hunt season is just about over for another year, but the tradition will resume next fall.