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Field Trial Preparation, Etiquette, and Safety


The author Ken Blackman with Katie Lofton and his French Brittany, Tank at the 2013 AFTCA Youth Field Trial at Misty Morn Farm in Holly Springs, MS.
By Ken Blackman

In the mid south region you can find a bird dog field trial just about every weekend through the fall and winter months.  Many are listed in the Mid-South Horse Review Calendar of Events, but a more complete listing is at American Field Magazine, Region 6: or on Facebook at the “Region 6 AFTCA Field Trial” page.  AFTCA events are only for amateurs who raise, train and run their own dogs. There are also a number of “Open” field trials that are mainly entered by the professional handlers. 

On February 10, 2014 the 115th running of the National Championship for Bird Dogs will start at Ames Plantation near Grand Junction, TN and will run for about two weeks, with no braces on Sundays. The Champion is crowned on the steps of the Ames Manor House soon after the last brace of the trial is concluded.

 It’s been said that Ames is the truest test of the best bird dogs in the world. This trial is the only three-hour endurance stake for Bird Dogs in the World. To qualify to compete, a dog must have won two first placements in one of nearly 100 field trials held across North America. Once that qualification is met, the dog must place in one of the trials to re-qualify for the current year’s National Championship.

The National Champion is the dog who has best met the “Amesian Standard.” Mr. Hobart Ames, who owned Ames Plantation 1901-1945 and was a Judge of the National Championship and served as the President of the National Championship Organization for 43 years, developed this judging standard for the National Championship.

The two weeks of field trial activities attract a lot of folks who want to ride in the “Gallery” (followers on horseback) and enjoy the fun and excitement. If you want to participate, there are a number of things the rider needs to do to prepare for this prestigious event.  So, here we’ll introduce riders to the sport. 

In the competitive field trial world, the terms and lingo used are consistent across all events.  For starters, a Pointing Dog Field Trial is contested by a number of canines, and the dogs are grouped into pairs or “Braces.” Sometimes, with an odd number of entries, one dog won’t have a “brace mate” and is called a “bye dog.” In many trials there are several segments or “Stakes” that make up the complete event.  While each stake usually consists of 30 or 60 minute braces, a few (mostly championships) are run in two hour braces. 

Each brace in the National Championship runs for three hours across a specified course. The National Championship usually draws around 40 dogs. The “Brace” consists of two “Handlers” and two Judges (The National utilizes three Judges). There are “Marshals” who accompany the Handlers and Judges to ensure that the Handlers and Judges are always on the proper course. There are also Marshals throughout the “Gallery” who ensure the riders stay together and, if there is an emergency, call for services (EMT’s, Veterinarians, etc.) to help. 

Each Handler has a “Scout” who assists the Handler during the course of the running. When a dog is not seen for a period of time, the Scout may be dispatched to look for the dog, who may be on point or off the course searching for birds. Many times the Scout plays a vital role in allowing the Handler to keep his dog “under judgment” by the Judges.  The successful Scout does his or her job normally without anyone noticing the work.

Usually the owners of the dogs in the brace ride close to the Judges to ensure they get a good view of their dog’s work. The Gallery rides behind the owners. The number of Gallery riders is usually dependent upon the popularity of the dogs being run and, of course, the weather. For sure, the February weather plays a significant role! At Ames, the Gallery can be as large as several hundred riders, so it is very important that the Gallery does not string out. There are a number of areas where the Field Trial courses turn back on themselves, only divided by a hedge row.  Dogs have been known to jump the row and follow the stragglers. Marshals are under orders to keep the riders together, and some riders may be asked to leave the grounds if they lag behind. 

Trials are scheduled to ensure the maximum number of dogs can be run each day. At Ames, the morning Brace starts precisely at 8 a.m.  The afternoon brace starts promptly at 1 p.m. Before each brace starts, instructions are read to the Gallery, introducing each dog by name, the handler and owners if they are in the Gallery, along with Marshals and emergency personnel riding with the group. Instructions to the Gallery include any field conditions that might be encountered during the brace.  Generally speaking in most trials, stallions are not permitted to be in the Gallery; no alcoholic beverages may be consumed; and in periods of dry weather, no smoking is allowed on the courses.  It is also a rule that horse owners carry a current negative Coggins certificate.  At some trials, USDA and/or State Veterinary representatives check for negative Coggins on the horses. 

When the dogs are released by the Scouts, or “broken away,” Gallery riders should always ride behind the Judges. It’s never appropriate to converse with the Judges or Handlers, and no yelling or calling is allowed.  During the Brace each Handler calls or “sings” to his or her dog.  Sometimes he/she uses a whistle to encourage the dog to “go on.” 

Sometimes the Handler blows the whistle in three short, but loud blasts. This alerts the Scout that the Handler has visual sight of the dog and for him to return to the Gallery. The vocalization or singing is a signal to the dog, telling him/her where the Handler is on the course and when the course changes direction, i.e., the dog should “swing” to the front.  Dogs are severely penalized by the Judges if they lag behind the Gallery. The place for the dog to locate birds is “to the front.”

There are certainly great vistas on the field trial grounds. Fall is the most vibrant with the brilliant colors of the Oak, Sweet Gum, and Hickory trees. As Winter is about to turn to Spring at Ames during the National Championship, the dull, muted colors of the woodlots and edges bring a sense of excitement as you watch the pointers or setters keep up a pace that is more like a marathon than a sprint. These canine athletes are expected to maintain a consistent, forward race which challenges the edges and, when appropriate, change to an opposite edge when the wind changes direction.  These dogs are searching for the Bobwhite Quail and occasionally a migrating Woodcock.  Their sense of smell is all they have to detect these little birds that normally move in coveys seeking the food they need to survive. 

Once the dog catches scent, an instantaneous connection with the brain takes place, the dog stops (sometimes slams) to a motionless position with an erect tail. The Handler, upon seeing the dog pointing, will raise his/her hat and yell, “Pooooiiiiiinnnntttt.” At this sequence of events, the Judges walk their horses to the area of the dog. The pace is never to gallop or canter to “the find!”  Marshals caution the Gallery to walk their horses so as not to interfere with the work of the Handler, Judges and, if present, the Scout. The Handler will dismount and start a methodical walk in front of the dog, kicking the grass or brush to put the covey (or bevy) to flight. When the birds are in the air, he/she will fire a shot (normally a starter pistol loaded with blank ammo).  In today’s field trials, no birds are killed. 

In some cases, the birds have tried to escape or will “walk off” from the area around the dog. When the Handler can’t “produce birds,” he will stand next to the dog, gently stroke it and then tap it on the head to “relocate.” Then, the dog will begin a meticulous search for the covey or a single bird.  Sometimes he will circle upwind of the quarry and “pin” or stop the covey and again hold rigid for another point. The Handler will watch the dog and then go into the flush. 

In some cases the birds may have flown off before the handler got on the scene and no birds can be located. In this case, the situation is called an “Unproductive Stand” or simply a “U.P.”  The UP is a minor blemish on the dog’s run. However, if the dog has too many UPs, the dog is usually “picked up” by the Handler and the dog’s brace is ended. When a dog is “picked up,” the dog is no longer in contention.    

There are occasions when a brace mate comes upon a dog on point. At the moment the brace mate sees the other dog in a pointing stance, the brace mate must stop and “honor” the point of the first dog, until birds are put to flight.  The judges consider it a severe breach of manners if the trailing dog fails to honor or, as it’s called, “back” the first dog.

Another breach of manners occurs when a dog that should have backed, but rushes in and “steals point” of the first dog. Handlers know when these faults occur and will pick up the failing dog.  If seen by the Judges, and at their discretion, they may inform the Handler of the breach of manners and “order the dog up.” 

Each dog wears a collar that has a black appendage and antenna attached. This is a Garmin GPS unit that may come into play if the dog has been gone from “judgment” for a long period of time. Each collar has a corresponding receiver that is carried by one of the Judges or Marshals.  When a Handler decides that his/her dog is no longer showing to the front, and after a thorough search of the area by the Scout, the receiver is called for and is used to locate the dog. Many times the dog is standing on point in rough country or thick brush and unable to be located by the Handler or Scout.

This technology has also been invaluable in locating a dog that has run off and may be lost and vulnerable to motor vehicles near roads. It’s illegal for members of the gallery or others to use the GPS in tracking the dog while under judgment. At the end of the three hour brace, the dogs are put in kennels to await the Judges’ decision at the end of the trial.

Most people who ride in field trials and in the National Championship usually ride one of several varieties of gaited horses: Tennessee Walkers, Missouri Fox Trotters, Paso Finos, or Mountain Horses are in majority seen in the Field.  Developed to carry a rider across the southern plantations, Tennessee Walking Horses have a smooth ride, durability, good temperament and sense to be with large groups of horses.  Your horse MUST NOT be sensitive to gun shots and loud sounds, dogs under foot, and varied weather conditions. The weather may change and your horse should be conditioned to perform in all sorts of weather. 

While many horses aren’t shod, it may be advisable to shoe your horse so that the frozen ground won’t bother it. There are a number of road crossings on the Morning Course, where you must NOT run your horse over the macadam (black top) roads.  If your horse starts to act up and become a problem, one of the course Marshals can assist you in getting back to the Stables.  For the sake of your horse’s, and your own, condition, prepare your horse to be able to ride up to three hours. While it has not happened often, there have been horses who have tied up and even expired on the grounds due to stress and inadequate preparation and conditioning to take the muddy conditions that usually exist during the National Championship. So conditioning your horse is of upmost importance!

As for riders, your choice of clothing can be summarized by “Dress for the Weather.” I’ve seen clear, sunny, warm conditions change into rain, sleet, snow and freezing temperatures. 

There are several field trials the lead up to the National Championship, including the Ames Amateur (Dec. 31-Jan. 3) and the Hobart Ames Memorial (Jan. 13-19, 2014).  These trials are one hour braces and cover the same ground as the National Championship, so provide a good opportunity to accustom your horse to field trialing. 

Watching by car is also a great primer for your “ride” at Ames.  You’ll get to know the courses, see what people are riding and wearing, and get answers to you questions.  There are also hearty lunches served at the Clubhouse during the Ames Amateur and at Bryan Hall during the Hobart Ames and the National Championship. 

One final suggestion:  pick up a copy of the Field Trial Review.  The folks at the Mid-South Horse Review publish a special edition on the National Championship that is available the day after the drawing for the National  Championship (Sun. Feb. 9th).  They will be available at Bryan Hall at Ames, at the Bird Dog Museum in Grand Junction, and at several other locations in the Grand Junction, La Grange, TN area. 

Have fun; be courteous and safe on your trip to Ames!

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