Mount Vernon? Yes. Montana mountains? Not so much.
March 1, 2023
It is not something you expect to see in Montana. You'll do a double take and rub your eyes the first time you round the bend in ranch country and catch a glimpse of a pack of foxhounds followed by a bunch of people horseback, some wearing scarlet coats and hunt caps, some Carharts and cowboy hats. You'll want to stop and watch as some sail over a jump put across a barbed wire fence in the middle of a cow pasture. You will probably hear the huntsman's horn and the hounds in full cry. And if you look way, way ahead, you might catch a glimpse of a very nonplussed coyote. Not a fox.
This is fox hunting, Montana-style. Even though there usually isn't a fox involved and it's not really hunting like most here have seen, it is a helluva lot of fun for those who ride to the Big Sky Hounds.
I first became blushingly enamored with the sport when it came to Montana twenty-two years ago. Master and huntsman Lynn Lloyd brought her traditionally English Red Rock Hounds from Reno to hunt ranches surrounding Three Forks, where one of her members owned the Sacajawea Hotel (before its present-day splendor, back when the toilets flushed hot water and the showers did not). Hundreds of people worldwide flocked to the annual April three-day event in the middle of Cowboy Country, USA.
We mounted those who did not bring their own on our breediest dude horses, pulling them off winter pasture a few weeks early before our annual Montana Horses' Horse Drive down Main Street Three Forks. They were rough-haired and didn't look at all like the "fancy horses," with their evening clothes and slick, clipped hides. But, they knew the country, were fit from being out on range, and really didn't care what kind of saddle we threw on them.
Like any loyal western rancher, I tried very hard to maintain a stoic suspicion of the tiny little saddles, ridiculous clothing, and excessively long-legged thoroughbreds with entirely too little hair. But, fast forward fourteen affairs with Red Rock and there I was sitting at the Sacajawea having dinner with Lynn and the rest of the intrepid gang, consuming my share of scotch and a bit more to make up for those who don't like the stuff. She turned to me and said, "I think you need a couple hounds." I, of course, responded, "That is a great idea." The next morning, I woke up with a headache, two hounds, and the beginning of Montana's only Masters of Foxhounds Assn. (MFHA) recognized foxhunt. And that's a big deal if you're a hunt. I was utterly powerless against it.
Eventually, with the help of an incredibly talented and enthusiastic group of people, we endeared ourselves to the community. Ranches opened across Montana. Locals frequently join the hunt. If nothing else, foxhunters are the most accepting and accommodating people I have ever met. They are exceptional riders and die-hard sportsmen. They ride hard. They are game. It didn't take long for us, and all our ranching neighbors, to gain respect for this mostly female fearless group of crazy people, mounted on fire-breathing Areions, hell-bent on covering country as fast as possible in pursuit of a pack of intensely proficient hounds.
But, building a foxhunt in Montana, under the tutelage of a 40-year veteran huntsman from Nevada and a 113-year-old association in Virginia, was not without difficulties. First, no one in Montana knows what foxhunting is and we're all a little suspicious of outsiders. Try explaining it to the type of person here who could enjoy it. The concept of "just plain fun" isn't in most Montana horsemen's realm of understanding. They equate riding with a purpose, or at least an economic gain. That resolution isn't readily available to most neophytes. It takes a while for some to loosen up to the idea of self-indulgence. Plus, who pays to ride?
Then, there's the unusually harsh weather that most clubs do not deal with. We hunt from when the crops come out of the fields (September) to when the crops go back in the fields (April). Normally in Montana, we pull shoes, turn out, and go to the NFR or the Bahamas for a rest. Now, we put on sharp shoes and snow poppers, keep the horses close to home and in shape, and spend our free time and money in the elements - grinning like idiots because it's exhilarating.
And then there's the obvious - I had no idea how to hunt hounds, blow a horn, or be in a club, let alone build one. Luckily, Lynn did. She was always at the other end of the phone to talk me off the ledge or impart some sage advice.
I learned quickly that a Western hunt is different from most. We have enviable vast tracts of huntable land and a healthy respect and proprietary right to hunt it. Here, we decide we're going to do something and we just do it. Elsewhere, the remnants of the caste system still cloud the minds of the bold. Montana is of the American mind, and hunt savvy has been passed along many generations. It's a perfect fit for the people of the West.
So, we plowed forward. Not aware that we could possibly fail, we opened our first season with four hounds and 45 people following. We had cowboys, Indians, and English-clad ladies (and all sorts in between) sipping from the same flasks at a check. We didn't have one red coat.
Now, our pack is around 20 hounds (10 couple). It's distinctly suited for us, made up mostly of Walkers who scent well in our extreme conditions and have a personality we like. Many riders see the benefit of that English saddle, especially going over a jump and staying out of their horse's way when trying to keep up with the hounds. Most embrace the practical parts of the tradition. Some are complete converts. The rest of us are a hybrid, practical, if nothing else.
Sadly, with land values soaring and an influx of people coming to Gallatin County, our hunt country has been chopped up in recent years. Many non-ranchers, especially those from out of state, are not interested in allowing us to cross their property or hunting of any kind. We can no longer ride from our kennels, so we must haul to meets. We're searching for new places in the area, or our hunt will move to eastern Montana, maybe out of state, or cease to exist.
But, for now, we're still going strong. Hunting hounds isn't a whole lot different than moving pairs, just sometimes a little faster. Anyone that understands livestock can help with a hunt. It's a poker ride on steroids where everyone discovers they were dealt a royal flush at the end of the trail. And it's still all about the hunt. We're looking for that Easter egg in a yard that goes to the horizon, with the help of some furry friends who speak the local language.
It is not hard to see why Montanans, fiercely individual and pragmatic, take to foxhunting so completely. It is inherently Western. Pride. Accomplishment. Excitement. Camaraderie. Challenge. Purpose. Respect. It's about revering the beautiful country in which we live, our magnificent Western horses that are so perfectly suited for this, the other bold souls in our tribe, and pushing ourselves just a little further than we thought we could. Plus, we love telling Wild West tales. The jumps get higher, the temperature gets lower, the distance covered gets longer with every recount of a meet. It is intoxicating.
Big Sky Hounds began its tenth season last fall. We've some of the most arresting hunt country in the world, for now. Best of all, we're eager for new converts. We invite you to join us at Big Sky Hounds.
Check out http://www.bigskyhounds.com or call Renee at (406) 579-4060 for more information.