I hadn’t watched lure coursing since one of my beloved Salukis got ill and died last year, so when I went to Great Meadow yesterday with my friend, Dana Thompson, to photograph the sighthounds, I wasn’t sure if I’d get sniffly seeing other Salukis romp through the fields. I didn’t, but perhaps that was because no one brought any Salukis.
If you’ve never heard of lure coursing, you are not alone – it is a sport for sighthounds, a subset of dogs registered in the AKC Hound Group, plus a handful of non-AKC breeds. Sighthounds hunt by sight, meaning that they chase whatever moves, and are less common in the U.S. than scent hounds who hunt with their noses. Dogs such as Beagles and Basset Hounds are scent hounds; the best known sighthound is probably the Greyhound. Unless you went to Southern Illinois University, you may well have no idea what I was talking about, prattling on about Salukis.
While coursing, hounds are segregated by breed and run in groups of three, each wearing a different color blanket so the judge can distinguish them at a distance. They chase plastic bags tied to a line that shoots around a course of 700+ yards. The bags are referred to as ‘bunnies’, an expression which harkens back to the original format of these contests. Normally the lure operator keeps the bunnies just in front of the hounds, too far in front and they may give up, too close and they catch them. Here a pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks catch their quarry.
And this Whippet was not giving up her prize until the bag finally tore free.
Before the competition begins the operators have an experienced dog run the course to make sure the equipment is set up and operating smoothly. Yesterday they used an Afghan Hound and without a coursing blanket, his coat danced and rippled around him as he ran. When I lived in Africa I had Afghan Hounds and the locals referred to them as, “les chiens qui porte les pyjamas” or “the dogs that wear pajamas” to describe the way the hair swung from their legs when moving. If you have the time and money for lots of grooming, an Afghan Hound at the end of your leash will draw every eye.
I shoot horse racing, a lot of horse racing, and on the dirt a Thoroughbred can hit upwards of 40mph. Of the sighthounds, only Greyhounds can achieve those speeds and not many Greyhounds lure course, most seem to move from the oval track to the living room couch. So these dogs were going to be slower than racehorses and I was feeling cocky. Things were fine for the Afghans, likewise the Ridgebacks, but then came the Whippets. The first group set a blistering pace and Dana and I were left sputtering with no shots. Some streaked behind us, some nearly on top of us and a handful too far inside the line. These buggers were fast, small and agile.
In equine photography there are preferred phases of the stride – nobody wants to see their horse tipped forward looking like it’s about to fall on its nose. So again I figured if I can capture a 40 mph racehorse with its legs in a pretty position, I can do the same for a 35 mph dog, right? Um, well, maybe, some of the time. I didn’t think about the fact that their legs are much shorter and moving a whole lot faster to hit that speed. None of the shots above are what a lure coursing aficionado would consider the perfect moment. They look for one of two positions with all four feet off the ground. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to capture that with any consistency? I tip my hat to professional coursing photographers who can do this dog after dog.
One of the things I like best about lure coursing is that it is completely for the dog’s enjoyment. No dog will perform a sit-stay or jump through a hoop for their own entertainment; they do it because they love to please their human. Lure coursing isn’t trained and dogs either run or they don’t. The first time the huntmaster yelled ‘tally ho’ and I let go of my Saluki, she chased the bunny. At the end of the day, a tired hound is a happy hound.