Monday, April 27, 2009

horses + dogs

In the classic book, How to Win Field Trials, originally published in 1950, Horace Lytle wrote about trialing that "The purpose of the whole thing is to find the greatest amount of game in the shortest possible time with the utmost grace and rhythm in every action that takes place." The dog that should win is the dog that does this with the most class: "It is a dog's buoyant eagerness; his rhythm in running; the merriness of his tail, that fairly 'sings' of his joy; his style and character in every statue he turns into on game."

As a newcomer to the sport and a lover of books and of reading, I have read classic texts like Lytle’s and William F. Brown’s Field Trials: History, Management, and Judging Standards (1977), as well newer books by seasoned professionals like Earl Crangle’s Pointing Dogs: Their Training and Handling (2000) and Dave Walker’s The Bird Dog Training Manual (2005). Unusually perhaps, none of them describe the role of the horse in all of this. Roxanne Coccia has an article at that explains most of the mechanics of how horses are used in trials, but after reading it I realize that a lot of what is missing for me is how the horse and horsemanship make the dog even better.

This post is inspired in no small part by an ongoing conversation with Gin Getz at the High Mountain Horse blog. I know very little about horse-packing and she very little about field-trialing dogs. Arguably, I only know a shade more than she does. She has already written an eloquent entry about the roles and relationships of dogs and horses in her life and work – and the ways she, her dog, and her horses have figured out how to make the genetically ingrained relationships of prey and predator work for them.

But I have, unfortunately, now handled my dog off a horse four times and have seen the glimpses of his greatness, a greatness that extends a little further each time, a greatness that is his enthusiasm and intensity. And it is the horse that makes it possible. For his first all-breed trial, I handled him from foot in a horseback stake. We still placed, arguably because he runs with a smile on his face and, for a young dog especially, had very good bird-manners. But leaving aside my fatigue, I quickly came to appreciate that my being down low was a disadvantage to him, and not just to my worn feet. He had to stay closer or back-track to keep in contact with me, he had to look for an arm to verify his direction. And heaven knows, the idea of me walking every brace to study every dog and every handler was too daunting to bear.

In her fascinating book, Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement, Susan Harris describes the horse’s ideal forward motion as coming from the ‘circle of muscles’ – “a series of muscles groups that act together and in sequence to make each stride. In a good athlete, these muscles work in harmony, contracting and relaxing in a regular rhythm.” For a variety of reasons, Kim Carneal uses the enso of the circle as the logo for her blog, Enlightened Horsemanship, and the particular enso she uses is to my mind a wonderful illustration of the reach that a fast-moving horse relies on to drive itself forward – never quite closing the circle entirely. By contrast, the suppleness of a dog’s lower spine allows its front legs to come well forward of its back legs. If the horse is a series of circles, the fast-moving dog is perhaps an alternating series of Morse code dots and dashes.

I got to ride some very nice horses this past Sunday at the Hudson Valley GSP field-trial – and it really helped illuminate the relationship between horses and pointing dogs. Especially if you’re lucky to have a gaited horse with a smooth fast-walk or lope, then the horse can be smooth where the dog can be explosive.  But the horse, even if it is just because the extra height lets your dog see you from further away, inspires the dog’s desire to hunt further and faster. Ironically, perhaps, producing a performance of grace, rhythm, and class comes from driving something as ungainly as an articulated city-bus.  All the power comes from the back -- from the horse, from the horse's legs -- and handling the dog from a horse requires anticipation and some degree of over-steering as you make a turn.  However, the real joy comes from gathering your horse’s speed over a small rise to bring the dog back into view and seeing all that explosive, canine energy locked into an intense, rigid statue.

As much as this entry is really about the relationship between a horse and a dog, those 45mins of glorious enthusiasm were also about understanding the subtleties of how the handler and scout can work together to channel the dog’s effort, try to prevent mishaps, and ultimately make the dog look like everything it can be. I feel committed to doing as much of this training and trialing myself, but feel blessed to have friends and mentors to show and guide me. And hopefully the three finds, the manners in front of running birds, the stop-to-flush on a mongo turkey, and the barf-on-the-fly were sufficient entertainment for Audra. All I did was fall in love with my dog all over again – and look forward to the next time, to sitting a little taller and looking a little further for his golden, frozen silhouette.

But the difference a good horse makes! Especially in the heat, knowing that your horse is sure-footed, knowing that it will stand with the reins dropped when you need to dismount, and especially once you've figured out the particular horse's brakes and accelerator, that good horse just lets you concentrate on the good dog in front of you. And ironically perhaps, when you concentrate on a hard-running dog, you probably become a better rider.


Dale Hernden said...

A good field trial horse is worth its weight in gold. Once they get to know the game, they can be better than a scout.

I rode a strawberry roan mare named Merry for more than 15 years. She was a wonderful horse and really part of the family. My son rode her like most kids ride bikes. Merry ground tied and when I went looking for David I just looked for the horse standing in his friends yard.

Merry was an equal part of the field trial team. I always knew where my dog was by watching her ears and she ALWAYS knew when the dog was on point and took me to it. I just gave her her head and she did the rest.

If the opportunity arises, you'll never regret having your own field trial horse.

Stephanie said...

Andrew -
Who barfed? You or the dog? ;)

Are you going to Mayflower this weekend?

We'll be there Sat.

High Mountain Horse said...

Andrew, I think I figured it out. You talk about how working with the horse goes so smoothly (you have a much better way of saying this) when you are focused on the dogs. Well, isn't that like working cattle? I don't know if you've had the chance to try cutting or just driving, but there is something that so clicks between you and the horse when you both are intently focused on one cow. It's intense, almost passionate. Everything else is gone but you and the horse and that cow. And when you and horse do well, you both know it and feel it together. The big "wow!" syndrome. Probably quite similar to you working dogs horseback, I am guessing. Different, I'm sure in a way, as cow work brings out an interesting aggression in the horse, but the same intensity and blending team work, and dance and drive... Something about having focus for creating the right communication between horse and rider. I hope this makes sense... it just came to me as I was reading your post.

Jane said...

Bing bing bing bing bing...
Andrew, you win the Grand Prize!

Once you have the true basics of horsemanship and you acquire the body memory for riding, focusing on something besides riding DOES make you a better rider. Very zen.

Kids instructors often have them play games on horseback, so the focus is on the game, and riding becomes the means instead of the end.

Always wondered why trainers don't do similar things with novice adults. Grown up games. :-)

Vigo said...

i can't say enough how envious we are of you folks. horses and vizslas, horses and gsp' noone is that lucky, well, most arent - england is too small, and london too far away from most anything that could provide for such an event.

hamish and vigo went on a training weekend this last weekend again, and they are both improving, though it is a looooong way off what you are up to.

Andrew Campbell said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments! Horses are a mixed blessing -- if I'd never tried handling Mr. Enthusiasm from a horse I'd never have seen a glimpse of what he might capable of. Now that I have, I want a Missouri Foxtrotter on a lame donkey budget. And the amazing part is that some folks out West really do also get to handle their dogs from horseback in pursuit of wild birds. Now that would be an adventure!

We'll see how this next trial on Sunday goes! Wish us luck.

all best

Jen "Display homes" Ambers said...

I don't know which one to choose!
The dog? or the horse?
I like both of them!

enlightenedhorsemanship said...

I agree with Jane and Vigo,

You're both getting it all figured out, and darn lucky to be doing it!