By Doris Degner-Foster
The job of a professional huntsman for a prestigious, well-established foxhunt such as the Tryon Hounds requires a vast amount of knowledge and experience; the responsibilities don’t end with taking the hounds out hunting. The job includes but isn’t limited to the feeding and care of over 40 hounds every day. It’s imperative to build a bond with the hounds and train them to work together as a pack and to respond to the huntsman’s voice commands and the sounds of the horn. Excellent horsemanship is required to be able to blow the proper signals on the horn while jumping coops and ditches at a gallop, all while maintaining a firm hold of reins and hound whip.
A good huntsman must also possess a willing attitude and be able to work well with others. There are three masters of foxhounds at Tryon Hounds hunt club and they work together to help make a myriad of decisions regarding the hounds, the owners of the land on which they hunt, and the operation of the club. To successfully do such a job well requires training and years of experience. It’s not something one would expect a young person only 20 years old to be able to do well.
Years of Training
Twenty-year-old Trey Bennett came from a family that had been in the horse business for generations, receiving his first pony at the young age of 3. Hunting dogs were also a part of his early life and his extended family kept a variety of dogs from beagles to night-hunting hounds.
When Trey was invited to foxhunt, it seemed like the perfect combination. “I was probably in the fifth grade when a friend of mine invited me foxhunting and that’s when it occurred to me that I could just ride a horse to follow my dogs when they were hunting,” Trey said. “I was pretty much hooked from then on and went out with the hunt every chance I could.”
Trey became a constant presence in the kennels of the Chula Homa Hunt in Jackson, Mississippi, cleaning kennels, walking out hounds and learning by doing. All the staff there were honorary, or volunteer, so Trey decided that he needed to keep his school grades up around his work at the kennels so that he could get a good job to support his love of hunting. When he found that other foxhunts had paid professionals, he was excited. “I’d thought that I needed to get a really good job so that I could support this but then I was like, ‘Wait, I can do this as my job,’ so I spent a lot of time working toward that.”
Sue Skipper, one of the masters at Chula Homa hunt, was the huntsman when Trey was there. He was 13 when he began to work as a junior whipper-in, or assistant to the huntsman. “Sue was very encouraging, not necessarily for me to go the professional route — she probably would rather I went to school — but just like my mother, when she realized that it was what I really wanted to do, she was very supportive,” Trey remembered. “I talk to her once a week or so about hunting. I learned a lot from her in my younger years.”
Trey hunted whenever possible at Chula Homa, and to broaden his hunting experience he also went out hunting with the Hard Away Whitworth Hounds in Alabama and the Longreen Hounds in Mississippi and Southern Tennessee.
Making the Job a Reality
After a short stint as huntsman with the Saxonburg Hunt in Pennsylvania, Trey called Bonnie Lingerfelt, a master with Tryon Hounds, and indicated his interest in their job opening for a huntsman. After a few phone conversations, Bonnie arranged for him to come to North Carolina for an interview with her and Louise Hughston, who was the other master then.
“Jordan Hicks was the previous huntsman and I spent a few hours with him before my interview just riding around looking at the country, seeing the hounds, kind of getting the inside scoop on it,” Trey said. “The interview was great; Bonnie and Louise were very personable. We had lunch and just talked about where I’ve been, my experience, what I’d like to do, what my plans were, and where I’d like to go. It went really well and by the time I made it back to where I was at the time, Jordan Hicks called me and said, ‘Hey, they want you to come hunt with us next week.’”
Before they joined the others for the meal after the hunt, known as the hunt breakfast, Louise offered Trey the job as huntsman, which he promptly accepted.
“I actually got here in January of last year and whipped-in to Jordan Hicks who’s now the huntsman at Piedmont in Virginia,” Trey said. “It was awesome because it made the transition so easy. By the time he left, all the hounds were very comfortable with me. It was hardly a transition at all as far as the animals were concerned. It was great that I got to hunt and to know some of the country and not just get thrown out there without knowing anything.”
A Well Oiled Machine
“We have a great staff here at Tryon, but I utilize them a little differently. Communication is important, and every day is a learning experience,” Trey said. “I’m the only professional with Tryon Hounds but I have a great staff of four whippers-in. One of my whips does the work of a professional. She’s in college but she’s here every day that she’s not in class and she helps me walk out hounds and helps me in the kennels when I need it. Bonnie Lingerfelt is a whip with Dean McKinney who is also a Master as of this year, and another honorary whipper-in is Reed McNutt.”
Trey emphasized the master’s efforts to communicate well with him and each other. “We’re all really good about talking about what we want to do, what our plan is, and we try to keep it simple. I try to make sure at the end of every day when we sit down and talk about things that there are no misunderstandings.”
Another aspect of his job is maintaining good relationships with the owners of the lands where they have permission to hunt. “I have to be able to work with the land owners,” Trey emphasized. “When I’m clearing trails, it’s important for me to socialize, to stop by and check in and see if they need any help with anything.”
On November 13, 2015, the Tryon Hounds barn caught fire and four horses were killed, three of which Trey rode. After the heartbreaking and devastating loss, the community rallied around and organized fundraisers with live and silent auctions of items donated to the cause, raising around $30,000 to begin reconstruction on the barn. Trey is leasing a horse provided by a member, and he has two young horses that he’s bringing along for next season. The kennels weren’t in danger, being made of cinderblock, so the hounds were unaffected.
“The Tryon community is obviously a huge horse community,” Trey said. “Even people that didn’t have anything to do with horses just kind of rallied up and everybody got things taken care of. It was absolutely remarkable. I’m personally very appreciative and so was the hunt club.”
Trey pointed out that Tryon Hounds is part of a close-knit community. “The people, the hounds, just the steadiness; it’s an old hunt that’s been here since 1926,” Trey said. “We don’t have the biggest hunt but we have some really good landowners who contribute to a good, solid team. Everybody works together to make it happen and that’s a big part of it.”
The masters of foxhounds of the Tryon Hunt set the tone of cooperation, willingly stepping up for the good of the club. Trey pointed out that since he’s the only professional in the club, it might be easy for their expectations to be challenging to meet, but he feels they’re very reasonable and respectful. “They help, which I think is amazing because they don’t have to, but they get out here,” Trey said. “If I’m out working in the country, Dean is out working in the country. If I’m walking hounds, Bonnie is helping me. The people make it great. I can’t exist as a huntsman without faithful members, faithful masters and the people that want to work.
“I want to improve the sport, I want to make it better. I don’t think you can ever be good enough,” Trey added with conviction.
With such a positive outlook for progress and his ability to appreciate the efforts of others, it looks like Trey will continue to do a good job as huntsman for a while yet. After all, he is only 20 years old.