Hounds and Hares
A novice's first glimpse of our hounds in their element
by Dennis J. Smith
(This article was originally commissioned for Afghan Hound Australasia, in
which it will appear with photographs". We thank the publishers for permission to reprint here.)
As the car began the long climb to 4,000 feet where Interstate 5 heads south out of California's central valley towards Los Angeles, my legs hurt, my face was windburned and my hands ached from 8 hours of grasping a lead. In addition to witnessing something very special over the previous 24 hours, I felt as if I'd done a days work. So had the hounds, only theirs was a labor of joy, based on instinct and rooted in the distant past where man and hound have gone forth together in pursuit of prey and sport. A quote on the inside page of the program for the Grand Course summed it up best:
"The true sportsman does not take out his dogs to destroy the hares, but rather for the sake of the course and the contest between the dogs and the hares, and is glad if the hare escapes."
Flavius Arranus A.D. 116
The draw determining the make up and hunting order of the trios had been conducted a half hour before. Now standing in the parking lot some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, shivering in the early morning 45 degree chill, I wanted another cup of coffee. After over a year of isolation (meaning no fellow Sighthound owners locally) in Bangkok, Thailand with my Afghan Hound, I knew I was in the right place. Surrounding me were the finest open field coursing hounds and handlers in America. Salukis, Greyhounds, Whippets, Afghan Hounds, Borzois and a solitary Irish Wolfhound. All seemed to know they were headed to the field for a day's work at their preferred task. In a scene repeated endlessly over the centuries, the air was charged with anticipation as hound and hunter prepared for the hunt. Both seemed to understand that this day was somehow different from the others this season. This was The Grand Course, the Super Bowl, the World Series. Sponsored by the National Open Field Coursing Association, all the hunts and all the hares of the previous weekend mornings of this season were now preliminary in nature. Today the competition would be a better and the hares faster. Walking on loose leads, leaping effortlessly into truck beds and vans or simply standing with their owners enjoying the last few idle moments of what would be a full day, their anticipation was readable. It's in the eyes, the organ wired directly to the soul of every sighthound. The people in the hound's company were as varied as the hounds they led, presenting proof that there is no such thing as a class of "dog people". There was a young teenaged girl, several mature female professionals, a retired Ph.D. with academic service in numerous nations of sighthound origin, a retired Air Force officer, now farming, who had spent a large portion of his young life in command of a B-52 over Viet Nam, a city parks employee from San Francisco, and a young businessman. The list continues with no more than a few alike. These widely divergent lives brought together by the ancient pursuit of coursing in the open field. No lures, no machines, no confinement of area. Several enthusiasts had traveled across both the Atlantic or the Pacific simply for the privilege of watching today's hunt, I amongst them. As one viewing an open field event for the first time, I thought how fortunate I was to be here. I was about to have a very new experience with one of man and hound's oldest activities. More importantly, for the first time in a life filled with interest in sighthounds, I was about to witness these dogs' reason for being.
Why is Open field Coursing (OFC) so special? Because the hound is placed in nature against natural prey, with all the vagueness and chance that represents. Speed, agility, intelligence, experience and yes, a little luck, all mix together in a contest as old as written history. OFC is harder and harder to find to today's rapidly developing world. Many nations have banned it outright as a "blood sport". More commonly, it is the large expanse of land, far from roads and hopefully with few obstructions which make the event harder and harder to stage. In today's hectic world many are unwilling to invest the time required simply getting to event. Walking open fields for eight to ten hours is also a test of the hunter, as I was about to find out. Many find the gym a more convenient venue for exercise. Test is the key word here. OFC is a test of a hound's ability to perform that task for which it was bred, the taking of live game in an open, unconfined environment. There are those who will tell you that Lure Coursing , which is widely practiced in many nations, is a true test. I might have believed so before today. Once you've seen the spectacle of a hound in pursuit of a hare, you quickly come to realize that Lure Coursing is an excellent training and conditioning tool for the real thing. But the real thing occurs in the open field.
The central valley of California is an immense ancient lake bed, reaching from just north of Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area. It is almost 100 miles wide. For almost a century, it has been a major provider of food for America and the world. This morning, a small square of it would be the stage for an ancient contest. To the east, the valley floor runs through the mist to infinity. To the west, the Sierra Nevada mountains provide a projection screen for the rising sun. An endless line of 10 storey towers running north to south carrying power lines breaks the mountain vista and reminds one of man's ability to alter the forces of nature. A look around at the raised tails and keen attention of the hounds makes it equally clear that instinct and the forces of history are not easily overcome.
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