When the horn calls, fox hunters, hounds and horses respond

SEWICKLEY (AP) — The horses!

Before you see them, you hear the clip-clop sound of metal-shod hooves striking the pavement. Then 15 big beautiful horses in hues of brown, black and gray slowly walk into view. Their riders wear jackets of scarlet or black.

The hounds!

Trotting briskly beside the horses is a pack of tricolored foxhounds. They look disciplined, regal and focused on the task at hand.

The hunt!

The presence of Shiloh, Sampson, Happy, Hannah and nine other dogs transforms what would be a simple trail ride into the centuries-old sport and spectacle of fox hunting. But these hounds will neither catch nor kill a fox.

Since the Sewickley Hunt started in 1922, “this has always been a no-kill hunt,” said president Tom Reinsel. “I am proud of that.”

Mounted on Givinitmyall, an 8-year-old thoroughbred mare who used to be a racehorse, huntsman John R. Tabachka leads hounds and horses to the meadow at the entrance of the 35-acre Fifer’s Field Conservation Area in Franklin Park.

It was the first time fox hunters had been invited in the 20 years that the Hollow Oak Land Trust has owned the land, but trust officials hope it will be an annual event. The group preserves and maintains 550 acres as habitat for wildlife and outdoor recreation.

Horses stood quietly while riders socialized with spectators from their saddles. Riders enjoyed snacks and port wine or warm cider provided by Robyn and Sean Brady, executive director of Hollow Oak.

The hounds were a hoot, happy to play and frolic like regular dogs, although always under the watchful eye of the huntsman. Aiken and Aspen, the youngest hounds, made an enthusiastic run toward the snack table, until a “leave it!” command from Mr. Tabachka turned them away.

Some hounds jumped up and licked the faces of adults and children who invited the canine overtures. The hounds clearly enjoyed being petted.

And then, without a command from the huntsman, all 13 dogs gathered as a group and sat at attention, eyes focused on Mr. Tabachka. “They know the hunt is about to begin, and they are waiting for my command,” he explained.

Brian Daniels, one of the three hunt masters, sat astride Lance, 6, a Percheron/thoroughbred/paint cross. He fell in behind the huntsman and hounds who had resumed their almost business-like demeanor. The rest of the riders followed through the meadow and down a path to the first jump.

In the next 90 minutes, the hunt would traverse 6-7 miles of hills, woods and fields. Horses would jump obstacles — both natural and manmade — as high as 3 feet tall.

This sport is not for riders who are faint of heart or short on skills. The riders are bold and brave, and so are the horses.

“If I point Lance at something, he will jump it,” Mr. Daniels said. But at the same time, his big bay gelding “has strong self-preservation skills.”

Away from the hunt, Lance is a sweet, quiet horse who loves to be groomed and petted. “If he was a dog, he’d be a golden retriever,” Mr. Daniels said.

It’s difficult to explain the allure of fox hunting.

“You could just go out on a trail ride and that’s a lot of fun,” said hunt master Doug Christy. “The hounds are what makes it happen. There is nothing like hearing them hit the scent and you hear them in full cry, doing what they love to do. At that point I am not even conscious of being on a horse. You get into the moment.”

Mr. Christy has two thoroughbreds who used to be racehorses — Riley, 12, and Mote, 8. On Nov. 10, he rode neither because he is recovering from a broken collar bone sustained in an earlier hunt.

Fox hunters put the safety of their horses ahead of their own safety. On Nov. 10, as Mr. Tabachka approached the first jump, he asked his mare to go around rather than over. The other riders followed his lead. It was a cold day and the horses weren’t sufficiently warmed up yet, he explained later.

The hounds train year-round to stay on the hunt course and to stay off roads. They are trained not to chase live foxes, coyotes or deer.

Most of the training is done by Mr. Tabachka, who is the Sewickley Hunt’s only paid employee. He lives on the hunt’s property on Little Sewickley Creek Road; 30 hounds live in kennels there, too.

The foxhounds look like beagles, but at 44-75 pounds they are much bigger. Some are white with black and brown spots and markings. Others are predominantly brown. They are a mix of breeds — American foxhounds, English foxhounds and Penn-Marydel hounds, which have been bred since the early 1900s, originally in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

“I’ve literally been around this since I was 2 years old,” said Mr. Tabachka, 48, whose father, John, was huntsman for many years.

Hours before each hunt, Mr. Tabachka organizes line-layers to “lay the scent,” a combination of urine and other fox scents. In a “drag hunt,” horses and hounds do not set hoof or paw on properties of owners who have not given permission to be part of the course.

Mr. Daniels describes the hounds as “pleasers” both in the hunt and in homes. “Their personalities are amazing. The are very affectionate … but they are not protective.” So they make lousy watch dogs.

Mr. Christy once had three retired hounds living on his Butler County farm.

“I was worried about taking them out of their environment, but Suzie and Bailey instantly adapted to a quieter life. The third one, Beauty, decided at age 11 that he had enough. He refused to come out of the kennel” to hunt, so Mr. Christy took him home.

The only drawback, Mr. Christy said, is that the hounds are fairly old when they retire, “so you don’t have them very long.” Beauty, his last, died last spring at age 13.

Adopting foxhounds “was a good experience, and when they have more available, I will put my name on the list,” he said.

When hounds pick up the scent, they “cry” — what other dog owners would call barking or baying. Hounds hunt with joy “because that’s what they’ve been bred to do,” Mr. Tabachka said.

During the hunt season from August through January, Mr. Tabachka and the hunt masters take hounds on practice runs three times a week.

Mr. Tabachka runs them and trains them during the off-season. Sometimes older, experienced hounds show the young hounds what to do.

Mr. Tabachka uses a small hunting horn, vocal commands and a whip to encourage or correct the hounds. The whip is not used to hit horses or hounds; when he snaps it in the air, the crack gets their attention and gets them on course.

As a backup to training and trust, each hound wears a GPS tracking collar. It’s not unusual for a hound or two to take off at the end of hunt, but with the collars they are quickly rounded up.

All that training makes the hounds valuable, but they are also genuinely loved by the hunters. When the dogs are too old to hunt, they are adopted by members, and they happily adapt to retirement.