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The Chronicle of the Horse - Five Rules for Fieldmasters

September 20, 1996

In the quarter century since Erskine Bedford took over the field for the Piedmont Fox Hounds (Va.) field from late MFH Theodora Randolph, he has learned a lot. And he shared it with staff members from hunts across the continent at the MFHA seminar in Southern Pines, N.C., last April.

His first rule was to know your country.

"How do I do it? Year after year, I go out with staff and help clear the country. After you've hunted it for 25 years, you know where the holes are and where the rock is going to slide when you come down off a cliff face. So you sensitize your field to what's comoing up," he suggested.

Bedford actually had five rules for fieldmasters to follow.

1. Have a great pack of hounds,

2. Have a great huntsman,

3. Have good horses,

4. Know your country,

5. Make sure the field has good sport and good fun.

And how do you handle that? Bedford asked, somewhat rhetorically.

"First and foremost, keep as close to your huntsman as you can, and that will vary day to day, depending on scenting conditions and the mood of the huntsman. And if you do something wrong, that mood will change drastically and you'll fall 100 yards farther back," he said.

Bedford advised thinking of the field as the audience at a movie. "You, as the fieldmaster, are in the front row, so stay down the hill enough so that the rest of the field can be above you and see hounds and staff. It's fantastic when you can get them there and hounds can open right in front of them, and if you get a view away, it's unbelievable," he said.

Bedford addressed a good deal of his remarks to the subject of educating the field, and his preference for positive rather than negative reinforcement.

"In our country, we have a lot of Texas gates, wire gates that take an unbelievable amount of time to take down and get back up again. So I take the front end of my field and send them to be gate men. There's a standing rule that once you get a grate, you come back to the front of the field and report to the master that the gate is shut.

"That does two things: It enables that individual to get back to the front of the field legitimately; and it gives you the chance to thank him or her in front of the entire field. That's positive reinforcement for help they've given you."

When part of the field is coffee housing, said Bedford, if you turn around and tell someone to shut up, that's negative. "But if the fieldmaster will turn back and call, 'Hark,' chances are they will all stop talking and you haven't singled out an individual, they'll all take the blame collectively."

Bedford also educates his field to hound work. "If I've got tail hounds, I'll tell them, hounds right, or hounds left. If they're educated and the field is strung out, they'll pass it back." And by the same token, if hounds come up through the field, members will alert the fieldmaster.

"That way, they feel it's part of their duty to be a decent member of the field, and that way you can get closer to hounds."

Sometimes, Bedford, admitted, the negative can be more intriguing. He used to lead the field on a mare who was a bad kicker on the right side. "If you knew you had a thruster behind you that might cause problems, you just always pulled and canted to the right. If anyone came up on her right, she would kick, and her batting average was about .800.

"I had a big red pompom in her tail, so they couldn't say they didn't see it. Most of them would apologize - when they came back from the hospital," he said. "That's kind of a tough way to educate your field. That's the negative method."

Bedford added that Piedmont always had three rules for the field: no hilltoppers, no green horses, and keep up. Anyone who had trouble - a thrown shoe, a bad horse - is supposed to know that it was his or her responsibility to get to the nearest road and get home without interfering with hounds.

Finally, counseled Bedford, think of the future. "After the grown-ups have gone in, invite the juniors up if they can run and jump. Once you turn a child on to speed, he may go many places in the horse world, but he'll always come back to foxhunting because it's the one place he can really enjoy it," he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Chronicle of the Horse