Grimes Mill, home to the Iroquois Hunt Club, is surrounded by a picturesque countryside with historic homes and farmlands. On the first Saturday of November, the club hosts the longstanding tradition of the Blessing of the Hounds.
Started in 1880, the Iroquois Hunt Club is a local fox-hunting club, the third-oldest hunt club in the nation. It’s named after the first American-bred horse to win the English Derby.
The Blessing of the Hounds is an annual tradition that not only starts the club’s new hunting season, but connects the club to its traditional roots.
Lilla Mason, one of the club’s three Masters of Foxhounds — the others are Jerry L. Miller and Dr. Jack van Nagell — led the recent event along with the Rev. Bruce Caldwell of the Episcopal Bishop Provisional of Lexington.
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Mason came to the club in the 1980s through her interest in horse training and her background as a competitive rider.
“I became fascinated with hounds and the intricacies of the watching them use their instincts to find the scent of quarry,” Masonsays. “It quickly became a passion, and although I never aspired to be a master or huntsman, I was eventually asked to fill those roles.”
Miller, who a local landowner who offers his lands for the hunt, and van Nagell have been with the hunt for 25 and 20 years, respectively.
As the blessing begins, the colorful fall leaves float down from the surrounding forests on Grimes Mill Road in southern Fayette County around the Iroquois clubhouse, complementing the traditional bright red coats of the huntsmen.
Caldwell takes a stand on one of the mill’s old millstones in front of the building, and the hounds are released from a specially made truck that transports them from their nearby kennel to the clubhouse.
Spectators encircle the grounds as the hounds come running in, playing with children and sniffing everything in sight, ready for the ensuing hunt.
Mason calls out, “Bike! Sayitt! Hold over! Banknote!” and the hounds surround her, wandering off occasionally to solicit a quick pat on the head from spectators. These seemingly random words are a sequence of commands, directing the hounds where to go and what to do, mixed with their names.
“The hounds are named using the first two letters of their mother’s name,” Mason says. “For instance, our hound Baffle had a litter of pups, and their names are Bailey, Bagshot, Barwick, Bashful, Bandstand and Banknote.”
The club owns the hounds used in the hunt and trains them in a special kennel, where “the everyday routine of each hound includes several hours of play time in 20 acres of fenced pasture and woods that surround the south side of the barn,” the club’s website explains.
“When a hound is born here, it dies here,” Mason says. The Iroquois Club was the first in the nation to establish a retirement program for its hounds that allowed them to live out the remainder of their days in the kennel at Grimes Mill, as opposed to being sent to a shelter after their hunting career is over.
Many of the clubs hounds can draw their lineage to England, making them naturals at the hunt.
During the blessing, Caldwell says a few words blessing the club, its riders and hounds, as well as local landowners. He then hangs a small medal dangling from a bright red ribbon around each rider’s neck as they kneel one by one on the millstone. The medal is of the patron saint of hunting, Saint Hubert.
Mason leads the hunt, followed by about 20 riders, ranging from young enthusiasts to longstanding club members. They mount their horses and head down the road to the farmlands. A team of club members travels on horseback or all-terrain vehicles around the properties for support in case a hound gets loose or someone gets injured. The entire team communicates via walkie-talkies.
“Many families have allowed the hunt to cross their land for generations,” Mason says. “The hunt is a historical part of the community, as we have hunted on the same land since 1928. The landowners are the most important part of the hunt, as the sport could not continue without available farmland.”
As the hunting party rides across the farmland, echoes of dog barks mix with the bray of Mason’s bugle horn and cries of “weeay,” a call that alerts the hounds to Mason’s location, rolls across the landscape. The land the club uses comprises 10 square miles, and on this day, the hunt will only go for about an hour and a half.
Contrary to the traditional title of “fox hunting,” the club no longer hunts foxes, but coyotes as a means of pest control to keep the local coyote populations from attacking livestock. As explained by the club, “Hounds chase the (coyotes) by scent and we follow on horseback. When the hounds lose the scent, the hunt is over. The focus is on watching the hounds.”
As opposed to other forms of hunting in the state, the Iroquois Hunt club does not carry guns, or even focus on killing game, only occasionally ending a hunt with a kill. The purpose of the hunt many days is to disperse coyotes as a means to insure that their packs do not grow too large. Masters and rider are perfectly content with what they call “blank days,” when they don’t find the scent of a coyote at all.
Instead, the club is committed to promoting the athleticism of the horses and the hounds they work with, appreciating what Mason affectionately calls the “symphony of nature” as they take in the bluegrass from the back of a horse, and preserve a long-held tradition that reminds those who participate of an older Lexington and another time.
As the hunt ends, riders congregate and congratulate each other on a successful start to their season before heading home. The hunt will continue throughout the winter until March, meeting every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, continuing an old tradition.
Clary Estes is a photojournalist who was born and raised in Paris, Ky., and has worked internationally on a variety of photojournalism and documentary projects. Find her work at Claryestes.com.