with Horse and Hound

How to Blow the Hunting Horn

kohler hunting hornSurely, one of the thrills of the foxhunting field is the sound of the huntsman’s horn. When huntsman and hounds are out of sight, the horn keeps the knowledgeable foxhunter informed as to the progress of the hunt.

When the huntsman doubles it in covert, that’s a good time to check your girth. When you hear the Gone Away, you watch your Field Master and anticipate that moment when the saddle tosses you standing in your stirrups and dancing to that seductive three-beat rhythm. The knowledgeable foxhunter can distinguish when the huntsman is blowing Gone to Ground to celebrate a successful conclusion, or simply collecting hounds after a loss. But have you ever tried to blow the thing yourself? Not easy!

In The Hunting Horn: What to Blow and How to Blow It—an undated, pocket-sized, twenty-seven-page booklet, first published probably in the 1940s—author L.C.R. Cameron says, “The lips of the performer should be hard, and the front teeth in good order. Hold the tube in the right hand, the bell slightly depressed, and incline it so that the wind does not blow directly into the tube. Almost close the lips, pressing them back against the teeth. Place the mouthpiece firmly against the centre of the almost closed lips and half blow, half spit into the mouthpiece, when a clear note should be produced. It is not necessary to puff out the cheeks, nor to discharge a lot of saliva into the Horn. Once it is found that the note can be obtained it is merely a question of practise to prolong or shorten it, so as to produce the various calls.”

Author Cameron quotes Colonel Anstruther-Thomson who complained, centuries ago, that too many huntsmen and Masters “blow the same monotonous note on the Horn all day long without variation or meaning.” While that sad state of affairs hasn’t been my experience while foxhunting around two continents, this little booklet does offer a rather complete instruction, using musical notations on the musical staff for all the hunting calls. Although the pitch is rather boring to read on the staves—an unchanging D-note—the timing, note lengths, quavers, trills, and pauses are all clearly shown for the student of the hunting horn. A few pages are devoted to the meaning of all the musical notations, so one need not be an accomplished musician to understand the calls. The booklet has been reprinted numerous times, and may be found on familiar online sources and antiquarian booksellers like ABEbooks.com. It is also available from ABEbooks.co.uk as a print-on-demand publication, as a happy subscriber, Olgs Danes-Volkov, discovered a couple of years ago.

Cameron further explains, “the original object of blowing the Horn was to enlighten the company as to the progress of the sport, not to direct the hounds. Indeed, in the collection of twenty-five ‘lessons’ here presented, but three are intended for the hounds, and of these two are of modern invention. The only ancient call used for this purpose was the Recheat…employed to recall hounds running a counter-scent [heel line], or to bring on tail hounds once the main body has got on with their quarry. To this day the information of the field is the principal object of Horn music with the three or four hundred packs that hunt in France and Belgium, where it is possible in the vast forests of those countries to keep in touch with hounds all day without seeing them, to recognise every point of venery, and to so regulate one’s movements by the ‘lesson’ blown as to miss none of the sport, and finally to be in at the death.”

The original hunting horn was curved, actually that from an animal, and could only sound a single note. The straight horn became the vogue around the end of the seventeenth century shortly after the fox was elevated to the front ranks of beasts of the chase. That led to what Cameron calls the “decline of Horn-music almost to the vanishing point.” The faster pace of hunting across the open undoubtedly had much to do with the diminishment of the horn music.

The twenty-five horn calls, fully detailed on the musical staves in the booklet are: On Leaving Kennels, On Moving Off to Draw, On Throwing Off (uncoupling at covertside), On Throwing Off (modern), The Seek (used in stag, hare, and otter hunting), When Drawing On (moving from one covert to another), To Call Away Hounds, When All Away (modern), The Veline (rousing the quarry or marking an otter), The Gone Away, Breaking Covert, Tally Ho, Back (followed by a crack of the thong), On a Scent, Doubling the Horn, Gone to Ground (if to dig), Call for the Terriers at an Earth, To Call Away (if not to dig), the Death of a Fox, The Mort of a Buck, The Taking of a Stag, At the Worry of an Otter, At the Killing of a Hare, The Rattle (modern), The Recheat (above), and To Notify the Field that Hounds are Going Home.

If one has a brass horn with valves, and wants to play the Fanfare of the Duc de Chartres’ Hunt at Chantilly, that’s included as a bonus! What I find missing is the horn call for the whipper-in, which has the rhythmic cadence of ‘Whip to me, whip to me.’ That must be a more modern call.

German-born John Köhler arrived in England and joined the Royal Lancashire Volunteers in the summer of 1782. By 1786, he had moved to London and set himself up in business to make trumpets and French horns. By 1794, he had relocated to St. James Street in Piccadilly. John Köhler died in 1801, and his son of the same name took over the business. Unfortunately, John, Jr died young only four years later. His wife, just four months a widow, gave birth to John Augustus Köhler in 1805. The wife continued the company in partnership with a Thomas Percival.

John Augustus Köhler proved to be a musical innovator, setting up his own shop in Covent Garden in 1830 at the age of twenty-five. He gained manufacturing rights to newly patented valves and improved instruments and produced high quality brass wind instruments for orchestras and the military. In turn, his son, Augustus Charles Köhler, joined him in the business in 1862, after which father and son produced instruments inscribed Köhler & Son, the name by which the firm was known thereafter. In 1878, upon his father’s death, Augustus Charles took over, soon after moving the premises to Westminster, and shifting the firm’s focus to coaching and hunting horns.

In 1879, Augustus Charles anonymously published a precursor to the booklet described here, titled The Coach Horn: What to Blow, How to Blow It. He died the following year, well-recognized as pre-eminent in his musical products. His son John Buxton Köhler took control, but ran into financial difficulties and sold the firm in February 1907 to Swaine & Adeney, a manufacturer of whips and luxury leather goods. Köhler & Son was moved back to Piccadilly where Swaine & Adeney was located.

In 1943, Swaine & Adeney became Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons, under which name the little booklet, the subject of this story, was published. Along with Köhler & Son, Henry Keat is another prestigious name in the manufacture of the nickel, copper, or silver hunting horns of the last few centuries. The Henry Keat coaching and hunting horns go back to that company’s start in 1795.

Click for a Foxhunting Life video of the principal horn calls in use today to keep staff and field informed. The calls are blown and narrated by two-time National Horn Blowing Champion John Tabachka.

Posted January 11, 2021
A similar article was first published in Foxhunting Life on October 4, 2018.

The first edition of The Hunting Horn: What to Blow and How to Blow It was sent to me by Steven Price, author of numerous books on equestrian subjects and a member of Foxhunting Life’s Panel of Experts. Steve wrote, “I found this in a pile of stuff that had fallen behind a bookcase.”