Hounds rehearse for the hunt


Winter weather has forced cancellations for a Green Spring Valley hunt club, but the dogs have to stay in shape

February 19, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The dogs of the Green Spring Valley Hounds hunt club are trained to chase a fox for 10 miles or more, pursued by a pack of galloping, hurdling horses over endless Baltimore County farmland.

But even after a winter storm has kept them cooped up for a week in the height of fox-hunting season, the hounds still won't so much as step in front of huntsman John Tabachka without his consent.

Proof positive that in a sport that caters to the upper crust of the horsey set, the best-mannered creatures are still the dogs.

This past weekend's afternoon hunt was canceled, but serious athletes need daily exercise, so the hound-master led 85 of his floppy-eared charges, unleashed, down a narrow gravel road, like Moses into a frozen desert.

Fanned out on either side of the pack were staff groom Stacey Gilson and Steve Farrin, the whipper-in, or huntsman's right-hand man. Both carried yard-long leather whips to help Tabachka control the hounds in case they spotted a fox.

Green Spring Valley typically holds three hunts a week during the winter season, which runs November through March. Five have been canceled so far because of the recent cold snap.

"These hounds are so desperate to hunt right now," Farrin said as he watched the dogs rush in an unbroken stream over a low fence into a neighbor's horse paddock. "Which is not what we want them to do today."

At the top of the hilly paddock overlooking acres of undulating horse farms unspoiled by development, Tabachka finally released the hounds with a single command, and they scattered down a slippery embankment, toward a cover of trees.

Still, not a single bark.

"The only time they're supposed to speak is when they find a fox," Tabachka said.

He gave a yodel-like cry into the air, and they scampered back up to the boss, who responded by throwing a few treats.

But for the recent weather, Tabachka would have been astride a 1,500-pound horse, in scarlet coat and white britches, chasing the hounds, who chase the fox, who runs for his mangy little life.

Behind them would be a field of about 30 formally attired riders, made up of the 60 or so members of the private club, established in 1892, which has owned the 160-acre farm in Worthington Valley since the 1920s.

Though the weather has made the ground too treacherous for horses, the hounds need daily exercise to stay conditioned for the rest of the hunting season, which runs through March.

So Tabachka has been escorting them daily on these one-hour promenades.

The son of the huntsman of suburban Pittsburgh's Sewickley Hunt, Tabachka, 36, came to Greenspring Valley as whipper-in right out of high school.

After six seasons, he moved up to a huntsman position at a Virginia club, and then returned to take the top staff spot at Green Spring Valley six years ago. He lives on the hunt club's property, near the hound kennel.

The sweet-tempered hounds all look alike -- white, with beige, brown or speckled markings -- but Tabachka knows them each by name.

"Truly, Tranquil, Truffle, Trophy, Trident, Trigger," he said, rattling off the progeny of Tricky, an older bitch. In addition to aiding memory, the alliterative naming schemes also help keep track of the litters.

Tabachka said he's not supposed to have favorites, but he does, pointing to Pathway, a light-colored hound keeping pace beside him on a trail.

"She's just brilliant in her work," he said. "She's very good at finding a fox. She speaks to it. She'll draw the pack to her.

"She doesn't run anything other than a fox," he added with pride. "Won't chase a deer, won't chase a cur dog. Won't chase a cat, raccoon, not anything but what I want her to."

Though Tabachka has his pet hounds, there's little doubt who their top dog is.

At one point during the walk, several hounds reached up on their hind legs and held him with their front paws in a prolonged embrace

Moments later, Tabachka used his muck boots as ice skates, sledding down a hill toward a stream, accompanied by his equally sure-footed hounds.

Club master Barbie Horneffer, who also joined the hound walk, took a fall after attempting the same maneuver. (By the end of the hunt, nearly all of the humans, Tabachka included, will have fallen at least once.)

A master is one of the club's governing members. Like many members, Horneffer grew up in a horse-riding family and accompanied her mother on hunts as a young girl.

In England, where animal-rights activists have successfully agitated for a fox-hunting ban, the difference between the professional staff and patron class is more pronounced than in the U.S., says Farrin, the whipper-in.

"You're treated as more of a servant in England than you are over here," said Farrin, the son of a Leicestershire, England, huntsman. "Here it's more laid-back."

Indeed, Horneffer's only concession to status is a slightly fancier hound-whip, with a handle fashioned from a deer antler.

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