No-camo-required fox hunting comes to Kinsey

SUBMITTED PHOTO The hounds gather for a fox hunt on April 6 at the Terry Haughian ranch near Kinsey.

Three Forks-based ranchers Kail and Renee Daniels-Mantle dropped off a load of hay for local producer Terry Haughian last year, and the first thing Renee said to Haughian was: “This looks like a good place for a fox hunt.”

As Daniels-Mantle remembered: “I [was] driving in and out, delivering hay, and I’m just salivating over the country. It’s perfect for hunting.”

Haughian’s response? “What in the blazes is that (fox hunting)?”

According to the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America (MFHA) at mfha.com, “foxhunting is mounted riders watching a group of hounds hunt the scent of a fox or coyote and following them as they trail the route the [animal] has taken as it moves through its home territory.”

Once Haughian, a horse- and cattleman himself, learned the details, he agreed with the Mantles, especially when they disclosed that the hunt includes coyotes, as fox aren’t that common in his neck of the prairie.

Haughian’s ranch, some 30 miles due north of Miles City, is prime coyote territory, and he admitted he’d appreciate if they were run off somewhere else.

The purpose of the hunt is the chase, the ride, the camaraderie, the tradition.

“It’s more about a sport and less about predation,” Daniels-Mantle said. “It’s a misconception that we are killing fox or coyotes.”

The MFHA agrees. “The hounds rarely make visual contact with the fox or coyote. The riders do not carry guns…the hunt ends when the hounds can no longer find the scent or the huntsman is ready to call it a day.”

Historically that hasn’t always been the case.

Mounted fox hunting has existed in America since colonial times, according to MFHA. All breeds of hounds were brought with European settlers, and in Britain, where fox have been as prevalent as to be considered vermin, hunting had been used to eradicate them from farmsteads.

The Guardian UK reports the first mention of fox hunting was by the Romans in AD 43, and King Edward of Britain was believed to have the first royal hunt pack in 1340. Hunting to kill has been illegal in most of the United Kingdom since 2004.

Mantle and Daniels-Mantle became personally invested in fox hunting over four years ago, but the journey’s been two decades in the making. Red Rocks Hounds from Reno, Nevada, has been bringing their hounds to hunt the Mantle’s ranch for 20 years. Through that affiliation, Montana Horses (the Mantles’ equine arm of their businesses) has been able to lease horses to all abilities of riders looking to hunt.

“I got hooked,” Daniels-Mantle laughed. With Red Rocks Hounds’ help, the Mantles were able to start their own club, Big Sky Hounds.

“I am so very proud to say that Big Sky Hounds is the only Montana-based fox hunt registered with the MFHA,” Daniels-Mantle said.

Kinsey Hunt

On April 6, nearly 30 riders descended upon Miles City for the hunt, including a handful of locals. Others came from the Three Forks and Bozeman area, the Big Sky and Red Rock Hounds clubs, and from as far away as Tennessee.

“Chet Holmes got everyone lined out at the fairgrounds as they arrived,” Haughian said. “He was very hospitable, arranging for horse boarding in the stalls out there and making sure the hay was waiting.”

The hunters’ first day was spent scouting the area and giving the hounds and hunters a sense of the country.

“It’s nice to get the hounds acclimated,” Daniels-Mantle said. “Once they get on a line, they just go.”

She noticed right away the difference between hunts in the eastern United States and the hunt-to-be in Miles City.

“This wasn’t some 100-acre plot,” she said. “There weren’t fences to jump to follow the hounds. It was just open country.”

The hunt morning dawned, and the convoy of trailers pulled into Haughian’s ranch headquarters, called the “fixture” in hunt lingo.

Out came the hunters, many in traditional hunting attire. In Montana, hunting attire means camouflage and hunters’ orange. Fox hunt clothing is just as distinctive: black leather boots, riding breeches, black or navy jackets with brass buttons, a riding helmet, and a white hunting stock, which the MFHA describes as a scarf that can be used as a sling or bandage in an emergency. There aren’t rifles in their scabbards, but full flasks, which are actually MFHA-sanctioned hunt gear.

The hunters and staff are easily identifiable in scarlet coats that are easily visible on a distant ridgeline, buff-colored breeches, and black boots with tan tops.

Most riders mount an English saddle, smaller and lighter than those common in Montana, and the horses themselves are a bit different.

“Some of these horses came from overseas,” Haughian said with the awe of a man used to riding ranch horses. “They’re worth $25,000 or more. They stand 18 hands high.” The average horse usually stands at about 14 hands.

He pulled out a photo of the event, and chuckled when he pointed himself out, astride his stocky ranch horse, at the tail end of a descending line of horse height, himself in western chaps and cowboy hat against the traditionally-attired hunters.

But as Daniels-Mantle pointed out: “We do Big Sky Fox Hunting Montana style. It’s less about the pomp and circumstance and more about the hunt,” she said. “We can ride Western, we can dress Western. There’s a reason for the colors we wear and why we ride, but for the most part, we just ride.”

The hunt began with the traditional stirrup cup toast. Mounted riders were served a small cup of port wine, a custom dating back to the 17th century. It’s a dose of liquid courage that also warms off the early-morning chill.

“We toast the day, toast the country, hope for a good hunt, and we’re off,” Daniels-Mantle said.

Between Red Rock Hounds and Big Sky Hounds, there were 22 couples — fox hunt hounds are counted in pairs, so there were 44 hounds raring to strike.

As the huntswoman, Daniels-Mantle sounded the traditional horn, and the hounds and riders were off.

“They impressed me, as a typical cattle guy,” Haughian remembered. “These gals could ride. They were very knowledgeable about their mounts, and those horses are narrow and not easy to seat.”

He continued: “What really impressed me was the way they took off into this rough country.”

The field (that’s hunt-speak for the group of riders), equipped with handheld radios to keep in contact, headed out west and the hounds picked up a scent.

“They don’t bay until they get on a coyote,” Haughian said. Once they do, the cacophony — especially in the open country north of Miles City — is intense.

 “Any dog-fearing coyote probably left the country,” Haughian chuckled.

“The preceding two days, I was out with the cows and saw coyotes, but they sure weren’t easy to find once the hounds were out.” They saw one on Saturday, but it didn’t stick around once it got wind of the hounds.

“These dogs are unreal,” he said, “but they’re really easy to be around.” Several of the hounds curled up with Haughian’s ranch dogs.  The group lost one dog on Friday in the barren country, but, following scents as hounds do, he turned up at home base on Monday. That’s not at all unusual, according to Daniels-Mantle.

They hunted for two days, spent a weather-induced off-day resting their mounts and their bodies, and picked it up for a third and final day of hunting.

“On the last night, we tossed some logs in a circle and heated up leftovers,” Haughian said. They sat around the bonfire and listened to Haughian’s history of the land. His family has been on the home place since 1901. 

“I told them stories, because that’s just the way I am,” he said.  “They loved the Western atmosphere. They loved to be in the Big Open.”

“Miles City really endeared itself to us,” Daniels-Mantle said. “We had the best time ever. I love Miles City. The country is beautiful. Real horse people there, and everyone we came into contact with was so kind. What a historical experience. We will make it annual event.”

As a final note, Haughian said he’s been inundated with thank-you gifts, including cards, photos and food.

“I’ve got Kansas City barbeque coming out of my ears!” he said.

And he hasn’t seen a coyote since.

(Contact Star Staff Writer Sarah Peterson at milescitystarsports@gmail.com.)