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Training Field Trial Horses


By Jacob Parks
Hundreds of horses, the best bird dogs in the country, mud, water, woods, traffic, roads, below freezing temperatures, rain, snow, sleet, sunshine, and varied terrain are the field trial adventures that the National Championship brings. A field trial is a competition to see who has the best bird dog on a given day. It's a way of showing off that dog.  And the National Championship is the competition to see who has the best bird dog in the nation in a given year. 
How does a horse fit into all of this? The horse is a huge asset of field trials. Gaited horses are the choice of field trialers and hunting judges. Most commonly and traditionally, the Tennessee Walking horse is used, but all gaited breeds can be represented. Paso Finos, Spotted Saddle horses, Rocky Mountain/KY Mountain horses, and Single Footers are currently very popular. Most gaited breeds can be seen at the trails, including gaited mules and grade crosses. What’s most important is that these horses are smooth, for you are often in the saddle for three hours each brace (that’s six hours if you ride both braces). And for officials, it’s riding six hours a day for two weeks. In addition to smoothness, handlers and judges want a horse with a nice gallop to allow their horses to maintain a close distance between them and the dog.
Field Trial horses must be very good with dogs. They must tolerate:
-Dogs running up suddenly from behind
-Dogs underfoot
-Dogs running under their bellies
-Puppies and debris going under a horse’s legs or running into them
-Dogs in the saddle or jumping to the saddle from the ground.
-Spooking of any kind is not desirable. 
-Gunfire is a part of most field trials, so the horse and dog must tolerate it.
Let’s examine the training that has to go into these animals to become a competitive field trial horse. As with any horse that I would train, ground work is the most important facet. Your horse has to know that he can trust you, just as the owner has to know he can trust his horse. Ground work will strengthen the bond that you and your horse will need, and will teach the horse many cues and movements that you will later use when mounted. 
It is important to praise your horse when he completes a task that is asked of him, but it’s also important to teach your horse respect – not in a mean way, but in a disciplined way. 
I like to desensitize a horse with objects, such as large blue tarps or sacks, whether it be walking your horse over it, riding while dragging it, or rubbing the horse all over with it. Whatever you can find that looks weird or unordinary to take your horse through will also help desensitize him. The more he can see and be around, the better. I also like taking my bull whip and popping it around the horse and then gradually start using it aboard the horse once he tolerates it on the ground. Once your horse cooperates and learns the whip is not meant to hurt him, then he will be trained to stand for the type of gun used in the trials. These types of routines will let your horse know that you are not going to hurt him or take him anywhere that will endanger him/her. 
It is also important for me to teach my horses to side pass. You never know when you will need this tool out on the trails and, trust me, you will need it. Reverse (backing) is just as important, and neck reining is a must. Ground tying is also important for the dog handlers as they dismount to check the dog and to fire the gun. 
This type of training doesn’t come over night. It starts at birth and continues through the ages of 4, 5, and 6 years old and more. It takes time, patience, and repetition. 
Another important aspect is caring for your field trail horse. These horses work hard. When I say work hard, I mean all-day riding; driving their hindquarters through mud and water; keeping up with the dogs, whether it be in a swift gait or canter; crossing ditches; crossing 500 yard fields; and even traveling down roads. 
This kind of exertion requires a healthy diet full of fat, protein, and plenty of water. Feeding twice a day, grain and hay, is a must. I suggest a feed with a high protein and fat content along with fresh, pure, clean, and healthy hay that has been tested and proven to have good protein content. This will keep the horse and his/her muscles rejuvenated for the next day or the next event. 
It is also important to have your horses shod. A protective leather pad under the shoe is a good suggestion since the horses will be traveling through rocky and rough terrain. A stone bruise, glass prick, or other foreign object in the ground could cause lameness, or an abscess resulting in lameness. 
Field Trialing is an event that will test a horse’s endurance, his abilities, and his cooperation. Without repetition, constant bonding, and training with your horse, he/she will not be a good candidate for the trials. Time, patience, miles, and care are the keys to having a great field trial horse. 

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