Tally Ho! The Iroquois Hunt Club readies for the coming foxhunting season
Take a jaunt down Old Richmond Road on some misty autumn morning and you’ll happen upon a lonely country road called Grimes Mill that winds along the picturesque Boone Creek and eventually leads you to the stone clubhouse of the Iroquois Hunt Club.
Walk through the clubhouse doors, and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back in time. The IHC is a place steeped in history – a seemingly secret society most are unaware still exists. But after 84 years, it’s still going strong in the Lexington area, and the passion of the principles behind this unique organization prove why it has stood the test of time.
Completed in 1808, the Iroquois clubhouse was formerly a gristmill and was a prime location where corn and wheat were ground and some of the first bourbon was distilled, bottled and shipped down the Kentucky River.
Bought by the Iroquois club members in 1928 and remodeled into a clubhouse, it now serves as the headquarters where IHC members meet and mingle on dark leather couches and relish the distinctive aroma of century-old wooden beams and floors, as well as the sight of its stately décor and hundreds of ornately framed images of members and hunt scenes from days gone by.
Primed for social gatherings, the two-story building includes a full kitchen, bar and patio that looks out onto a pristine swimming pool.
But the IHC represents more than just a social group – it’s a lifestyle in which participants are dedicated to preservation, land conservation and animal welfare. The athleticism required of and traditional attire worn by members, as well as the champion bloodlines of its English foxhunting hounds, proves their dedication to the culture of the sport.
Founded in 1880 by General Roger D. Williams, the IHC was named for Iroquois, the first American horse to win the English Derby. The club is led by president Derek Vaughan, huntsman Lilla Mason and manager/caterer Cooper Vaughan, who cooks for social dinners and special events at the clubhouse.
The hunt season corresponds with the growing season and runs from the first weekend of October through the end of March. The season, during which the IHC hunts on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, officially kicks off with a special ceremony the first Saturday of November – the blessing of the hounds.
“We invite the public to come watch … An Episcopal bishop blesses the hounds and the horses,” said Mason, who explained how hunt clubs around the world all hold similar ceremonies that day, followed by a traditional ball.
While fox hunting originated in the United Kingdom in the 16th century, it is practiced all over the globe, including Australia, Canada, France, Ireland and Italy.
The IHC consists of about 150 families, 70 of which are actively involved in hunting. Members are sent a “fixture card” for the season listing the different farms where the hunts will be located.
While the hounds used in the hunts are owned by the IHC, the horses are owned by members and range from off track Thorougbreds to Quarter Horses and draft horse crosses.
“If you have a horse with good feet and a good brain that will watch out for you with a little sense of self preservation, any horse will do,” Mason said.
“Hunting is for all levels of riders,” she continued. “We have groups of riders led by somebody that may jump a lot, or there may be a group that’s slower, or are beginners. (The sport) appeals to all ages and all demographics.”
IHC members, which is one of the oldest still-active hunt club in the country, wear purposeful garb for each hunt. Those that have shown proficiency in the field wear the IHC’s distinctive robin’s egg blue vest under their coats, and Mason is clothed in a scarlet coat with five buttons to distinguish her as the huntsman.
In her role, Mason is the focus and controller of the hunt and gives a signal to the rest of the group as to when the event will start. The hounds wait for her lead to be sent out to find the scent of a fox or coyote, and then the game begins.
“It’s really great…during the winter months when it’s cold, we’re out there enjoying hunting,” said Mason, who has been involved with the club since 1990. “It’s appealing to a lot of people that like to ride and also for people that like watching the intricacies of the hound work.”
Mason’s huntsman responsibilities are difficult in that she must make quick decisions during the hunt.
“You have to notice that the wind is coming from a certain direction which might point the hounds one way, and you must watch their body language to see what kind of scent they’re picking up,” Mason said. “You have to read all the signs all the time.”