Photos by Jim Graham.
Ivan Dowling, the 42-year-old, recently retired Huntsman for Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, is part of the nearly 400-year-old tradition of fox hunting in America. He first came to Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds in April of 2003 as first whipper-in. By February 2005, he’d ascended to the position of huntsman. He has served six masters in 12 years and bred scores of hounds.
As it happens, Dowling is from an even longer fox-hunting tradition. A native of Loughrea, County Galway, Ireland, he’s been an equestrian since childhood. After his dad died when Ivan was 12, his uncle, Noel Mullins, became a father figure to the youngster and traveled across Ireland each weekend to take him hunting. Mullins had been a horseman all his life, hunting with the Galway Blazers from an early age.
The Blazers became a passion with the young Dowling. He tended not only his pony but his uncle’s horse, as well. He did most anything to be near the group.
Dowling later went off to college and took a corporate job in England. “[But] I knew something was missing in my life,” he says. “I went in to my superior’s office and said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ She thought I meant for an early weekend. But when I went out the door, it was for good, and I never put on a tie again.”
He headed back to Ireland, to the horses with which he’d been raised. He eventually found his way to New York, after the hoof-in-mouth epidemic limited the amount of work he could do in the British Isles. Dowling broke horses and worked as an amateur whipping-in for the Stone Valley Hounds. There, he met John Tulloch, who would bring him to Unionville.
When Tulloch left the Cheshire Hunt, Dowling again headed back to Ireland. But Russell Jones, then the master of foxhounds at Cheshire, had seen something special in his former whipper-in, traveling to Ireland to bring him back. “Russell gave me a huge leg up,” Dowling says.
John B. Hannum Jr. is the son of Mrs. Nancy Hannum, MFH, who watched over the Cheshire foxhounds for more than 50 years as master. She had taken the horn from her stepfather, W. Plunkett Stewart, who founded the pack in 1912. John Hannum has plenty of great things to say about Dowling. “He was a passionate huntsman, and he loved his hounds. He has the ability to make the day exciting for the field, as well,” says Hannum, who is chairman emeritus for Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds. “We’re so blessed with open country and beautiful fences. Dowling challenged the country and challenged his hounds in that country. In doing so, he brought us all along for a wonderful ride.”
Even when conditions were tough, says Hannum, “Dowling demanded the best from his hounds and got it-—and the field was better for it. You always knew, though, that his hounds came first. He cared about the followers, but above all he wanted to satisfy his hounds.”
Dowling helped facilitate the change from the purebred English hounds Hannum grew up with to the current pack of Penn-Marydel crosses. “He never held back,” Hannum says.
“In Ireland I never knew anything like an American hound or Penn-Marydel hound existed,” Dowling admits. “I was used to English hounds—the difference being their voice and scenting ability. The Penn-Marydel could cover weather conditions from 80 or 90 degrees during cubbing season to snow storms during winter, and they still ran.”
Dowling further elaborates on the differences between the two types: “With the English hound, you have to be tough. Discipline and hard work is what it respects. The American hound is the complete opposite, shyer—you couldn’t raise your voice to it. You have to be quieter in the kennels. I had to change everything while hunting them. English hounds would cast forward to where they think the fox might have gone. The Penn-Marydel hound would try back to the spot where it might have lost scent.”
The English hound, Dowling adds, was bred to depend on the huntsman to guide him, while the Penn-Marydel was trained to work on its own. “The Penn-Marydel hound is hunting scent, not the fox—all they know is what’s in front of their nose,” Dowling says. “And that came from generations of hunting on foot.
Dowling confesses that it was a struggle having two different types of hounds and trying to get them “to hunt a bit more forward.”
“My number one thing was to be true to the hounds, at all cost,” he says. “I had to juggle this and that, between landowner, managing staff and communicating with the masters and the field. But, in all of it, I needed to be true to the hounds. I bred them to do this, and I needed to let them do it.”
For 12 years, Dowling bred and hunted hounds for Cheshire. He worked closely with different conservancies and preservation organizations in the area to keep land open. The basis of Cheshire country was part of the original ground that would encompass the Brandywine Conservancy. For Dowling, the hunt community extends throughout the countryside. “The spinoffs in the horse business are enormous,” he says. “Feed vendors, veterinarians, the racing community, and on and on.”
Catherine Ledyard, a corporate analyst and the owner of a 200-acre West Grove farm, recalls Dowling fondly. “From the first time Ivan hunted the Cheshire hounds on a brutally windy winter day over a decade ago to the last sunny Saturday I was with him just in March, his serious commitment to his hounds was ever present. He trusted them and allowed them to work things out, suspecting their success would result more readily from intrinsic motivation than from interference from him. More often than not, Ivan’s hounds were correct, and his smile as he would go flying by to accompany them on the chase was testament to his pride in and love for them. Over the years, the clear affection and dedication that he showered upon the Cheshire beauties brought us fabulous sport and a lot of wagging tails.”
Ledyard particularly loves the language of a huntsman. “[It’s] a combination of calls on the horn and sometimes-odd utterances that sound primeval or foreign,” she says. “The purpose is always to communicate with the hounds, to encourage them, to direct them, to honor them.”
And there was the marvelous music of Dowling’s horn. “From the coaxing chirps at the start of a draw to the heart-stopping ‘Gone Away’ he’d miraculously execute while galloping at full speed, Ivan learned and mastered every call a huntsman is required to know,” Ledyard says. “There’s no more beautiful or mournful sound than the concert he’d provide at the conclusion of a day’s hunting. ‘Going Home,’ played through Ivan’s horn, was a tribute to the sadness of ending the fun and a heartfelt homage to the hard work of the hounds.”
Dowling now passes his horn and hounds to new huntsman Barry Manger. Dowling and Stephanie Boyer, his longtime whipper-in at Cheshire and soon-to-be wife, will hang out their own shingle in Unionville as Grey Lake Stables, training and selling quality foxhunters and timber horses, and retraining off-the-track thoroughbreds.