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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

weekend report

So, I was hoping to have gotten some pictures back from other folks by now but sadly, I am a bigger dork than they are and immediately download my pictures and imagine which ones to use. In any event, I was up at the CVVC trial this weekend, running Jozsi in his first adult stake, running Rogue in her second horseback trial, bird-planting, and generally trying to be helpful as a member of the field trial committee.

Besides a brief shower overnight on Saturday, we were blessed with warm, dry weather the entire weekend -- which was good because I had decided to camp out at the trial grounds to save some cash to pay for all the horse-riding lessons and rentals over the past month. The last twice we had used the tent down on Cape Cod at a couple of hunt tests, we ended up suffering through post-hurricane weather and rain (and fracturing two of the four poles). Kelty, incidentally, has awesome customer service.

I had made arrangements with a friend, Bill, Kudrun's father, to borrow a horse from him for the actual braces I was going to run dogs in, to spare myself the grief of trying to wrastle a wrangler's horse that might or might not feel like cooperating. I had also arranged to get myself an experienced scout to help me out with Jozsi's brace -- although it was beginning to feel like I was doomed after pick #1 broke her arm the week before, her replacement got called in to work on Saturday morning, and #3 had to go out early on another brace because both dogs on the previous brace were picked up in the first 10 minutes. But I ended up acquiring the services of Tracey Faber, from the Conestoga Vizsla Club, who is the owner of the fabulous Cannon and who has been scouting for Bob Seelye this fall and spring.

I can sum up Jozsi's first adult stake simply by saying that he got around clean... sadly so clean that neither he nor his much more experienced bracemate, Tony Smid's Jenny, found any birds. Both dogs ran well, hunted objectives, and looked purposeful out on the course -- but sadly, there was no opportunity for Jozsi to show his stuff. Or for Tracey to get off her horse. This is one of the downsides of drawing the first brace of the day, especially on a part of the grounds that haven't been used yet that weekend. The dogs were reliant on the handful of birds that had been freshly planted on a rapidly warming morning with little breeze. It was still a lovely ride as the moisture burned off and we watched two fiendish vizslak burn up ground. But sadly, no quail, no cigar, and no hope of a ribbon. But here's a picture of me roading Jozsi back to the clubhouse -- and yes, I know the checkcord is caught under the saddle trees and not completely around the lip on the cantle.

For her second time off a horse (and especially because she kept getting harassed by her bigger bracemate), Rogue ran great in Open Puppy. She definitely faded a little by the end, but was certainly finding her pattern. The unexpected bonus was getting to run her in Amateur Walking Puppy as well -- sadly, Kim contracted some nasty plague from her darling daughter and could hardly stand. So I had a great time. I was a little disappointed by the result -- she took a 4th -- but was so pleased with how she ran. After two minutes of puppies fooling around, she had several awesome casts... not just big, but to my mind smart casts, down along shady tree edges and down into damp parts of the course, exactly where birds that might have been down a while would go in the late afternoon. And she ran hard for the full 20mins - the final two of which she did with a semi-live chukar in her mouth that was left over from the Gun Dog Stake and had been flushed by her bracemate. While I was a little disappointed by the judges' choices, I was excited by how she ran... less like a puppy and a lot more like a little bird-dog.

I will go up to Flaherty again on Sunday, to ride some braces and apparently to scout for Dennis + Sally. I am glad he is as confident of my abilities as I am of his dog's. Speaking of which: one of the highlights of the trial was hearing the judges discuss their placements for the Open Gun Dog stake at the end of dinner on Saturday. I gather this is still a common feature in livestock shows, but it added a really nice dimension -- as much as anything because handlers and spectators alike come to appreciate the judges as people, and the dogs as the real geniuses of the whole charade.

It was also a great trial because while the odds are clearly stacked in favor of the professional handlers out there, Open Gun Dog was won by an amateur in his first horseback trial working a dog (Rebel Rouser Gingerbrandy, aka 'Rita') that had clearly learned its trade on wild birds. And Bill & Kim also took placements with all three of their home-trained dogs: Baldur, Gestalt, and the mind-boggling Kudrun.

Monday, April 20, 2009

equine interlude

We just got this postcard from my darling niece, Evie, this weekend. She and her brother, Lachlan, spent the Easter week with my parents up in Orkney. Seems she is turning into quite the horse-girl, too. Sadly, I don't think a pony will fit in my brother's allotment. Hopefully we can go take riding lessons together sometime! That would be a hoot -- getting shown up by my 8yr-old niece.

Folks may have noticed a few equestrian links on my blog-roll. While hardly exhaustive (because I think there may be more folks writing about horses than there are dogs), the folks on there reflect my nascent feelings about horses -- that while dealing with a stubborn or fearful 1100lb horse is a whole lot more to handle than a similarly confused or obstinate vizsla, the response and ideally the solution to the situation is the same. That kindness and patience will most often reward you both faster than force-of-will. My riding instructor steered me toward Linda Tellington-Jones -- and in the process of exploring the world of TTouch, I found Kim Carneal's excellent Enlightened Horsemanship blog and Sally Swift's Centred Riding.

Now all of this mindfulness and centred riding is fabulous if you have a horse that isn't already programmed in a particular way. Which brings me to wrangler's horses at field trials. I have ridden everything from a very good one from Will Langley at Bottom Creek Farm to some scarey-ass ones. This weekend's horses were somewhere in between. I actually have a lot of sympathy for both wranglers and their horses -- the horses have to be dog- and gun-proof, and will get ridden by a lot of very casual riders, probably more than a few who think because they know something about dogs then they must know something about horses. Which is to say, if the horse they rent doesn't turn out to be as good they think their dog is, the wrangler gets an earful. On the other hand, if you've ever tried to plant birds while pirouetting on a horse that won't stand still because it can't stand to be on its own -- and which then wants to gallop to catch up with its friends, if you're riding mis-matched stirrups and split reins and a saddle that is sufficiently worn to solve the world's over-population problem, then I think I get to express some concern. And can hopefully be forgiven for not finding my center.

Maybe I just have cowboy fantasies, but the working horses at High Mountain Horse seem to be blessed by beautiful scenery and some sensible, sensitive owners and operators. The Literary Horse strikes me as a horse version of the SmartDogs blog in some ways, part potpourri, part how-to guide, while the Fugly Horse of the Day seems like the even more irreverent equine version of Pat the Terrierman. And I mean that as a compliment to both of them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

horses + dogs + horses + dogs

Lions and tigers and bears... oh my!

It was a busy weekend. I had the weekend off to take another riding lesson at Beech Brook and then head up north to pick up the whirlwind known as Rogue to run her at the TarTan Gordon Setter field trial at Flaherty. Kim has (finally!) blogged about all of ForestKing's successes in the past two weekends.

As Kim mentioned, Saturday in most of New England was just plain wet. I was feeling very proud of my recent eBay purchase of a Barbour Burghley riding coat from the Yorkshire Countryman. With few exceptions, his is all either pre-owned or old stock stuff -- but his descriptions are accurate and even shipping from England, he's speedy and efficient. I had just re-proofed the jacket, too, so I was perfectly comfy despite the rain. We did cut the ride a little short because the trail was a little rocky and leaf-covered and while the horses were doing great, there was no need to push things for the sake of making up time.

I then zipped up to the Southern New England Brittany Club Hunt Test where Kim + Mike were running both Kyler and Rogue (to success, I might add) despite the weather -- and our friend, Stephanie, was judging. We had hoped to run the dogs on some birds, but weather and timing pretty much ruined that. So we settled with me getting Rogue used to my voice and hopefully remembering her recall. After a few tasty treats and some lovely modeling from Jozsi, she seemed all set.

After stopping off at a mind-boggling beer shop in Amherst where we found Orkney's finest beer, Skullsplitter (which I am slightly stunned to discover is available at 19 bars in New York City), we headed up to ForestKing for dinner and a night's sleep before heading down to Flaherty at the crack of dawn. We got there nice and early, early enough to reserve a horse for me to ride some braces and then run the pup-monster.

Rogue ended up braced with Kudrun, a GSP pup who I remembered from the fall, a pup who would go out equipped with a radio-tracker collar because the owners needed it -- and had to use it. Since then this puppy has grown 'a handle'-- and all credit goes to her owners, Bill & Kim, for putting in the time to train the dog in front of a horse. The great part about being braced with Kudrun was because, unlike all her other puppy bracemates, this dog was not interested in playing -- and so the brace immediately got off to business. I was very pleased with how Rogue ran -- and she ran hard. She had never been handled from a horse before and did well. She would head out on a track so hard she'd find herself looping back around us to get back in front -- and it's more trialing that will give her the experience to get in front, and pattern in front. The bad side about being braced with Kudrun, the ultimate winner of the stake, was that no matter how hard Rogue ran, we were in a different league. Braced with another dog, we might have made a placement, who knows, but we got smoked. And that was still great.

The picture is actually from the run that we gave both Rogue and Jozsi after the trial was over. And as hard as Jozsi does run, he has the benefit of longer legs and a bigger chest... but Rogue was still covering ground like she'd never been out. She definitely has the equipment to do well in this game -- and hopefully she'll get enough experience to really mature into a great trial dog. And she'll get more this coming weekend.

Thanks to everyone for their kind wishes to Momo -- he gets his drain tubes out tomorrow morning. He was supposed to run in the vizslas-only Amateur Walking Gun Dog stake but will actually stay with Meg this weekend, too, while I take Mr. Enthusiasm to the CVVC trial. Wish us luck!

Friday, April 10, 2009

^%*@#*&_* wildlife!!

Warning: War Wounds!

As an update to the post a couple of days ago: Meg and the boys got harassed one more time by the coyote in our section of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Except this time, it followed them around a 2mile loop making repeated runs at them over the course of 45mins. I should add that the coyote is hanging out at a bottleneck in the trail system, so once you enter that section of the park, you can't easily get past her. When it finally came in too close, the boys went after her -- a tussle ensued, she left with a limp, and it wasn't till they got home that I discovered that in addition to a small bite on the tail, the Mominator had a puncture wound on his inner thigh.

The tooth went in between the skin layer and the muscle -- and even after his surgery his gait is showing no signs of impact. But it was long enough that, in addition to the stitches, the vet put in the two drain tubes -- which are actually what makes it look worse (at least from my perspective). So he leaks a little from time to time, but other than feeling a little disgruntled because we won't let him clean his own leakage, he seems fine. Sadly Momo is used to wearing the original E-collar, his Elizabethan collar - and so in addition to his Franken-foot, he will now have a Franken-thigh. Looking at that wound makes me glad he was neutered.

As human beings have subsumed more and more natural habitat, coyotes are one of the species that have been forced to adapt into increasingly small pockets of habitat. And are remarkably adept at making those transitions. The Audobon Magazine has even described them as the 'ultimate survivor' (and thanks to Pat the Terrierman for helping me find this). Here in the northeast, the coyote tends to be larger than its southern and western cousins perhaps in part because of climate -- or perhaps because it has more recently paired with the wolf population. In any case, Meg described this one as resembling a large German Shepherd.

At some point, coyotes were diurnal -- although pressure from humans has forced them to become almost nocturnal. I am not sure how specific she was in referring to the population here in our part of the Bronx, but the naturalist from the Parks & Recreation department described coyote behavior as crepuscular, ie. most active during the twilight of the dawn and dusk hours. Which would explain why Meg first encountered this coyote in the crack-of-dawn but not in the subsequent afternoon.

After the first encounter I had speculated that this was a female coyote whelping pups on the ground, although the naturalist suggested that she may have been pregnant and being especially territorial as she tried to find a location to den up and whelp. While I have heard enough direct experience stories to know this isn't the entire story, the fact that we choose to run our dogs off-leash may have generated an especially strong defensive response from this particular animal -- seeing them as a potential threat in a way that Meg alone, or Meg with the two dogs on-leash, would not have generated. Again, though, this was also a coyote who demonstrated an especially aggressive and persistent defensive posture -- and it was her coming too close to Meg that sparked a response from our two. Momo's wound, it should be noted, is much more of a defensive wound than the coyote's usual neck bite when it is intent on actually killing something. We have still applied for a Federal bail-out to deal with the vet bill.

When Meg called Parks & Recreation, she learned that others had reported problems with the coyote, too, and that in fact there was a pair denning about a half-mile away on a golf-course. The golf course workers actually liked them being there because they kept the geese (and their stinky poop) away. We asked about why they hadn't at least posted a sign so folks like us could at least make an informed decision -- and when they had last posted signs some years ago, coyote carcasses just started showing up in the woods. I hope folks can tell that I am somewhat ambivalent about what the best course of action here is with regard to the actual coyote -- we don't keep livestock, for example -- but the idea of John Rambo in the Bronx out here in a public park area with a firearm in the dawn and dusk makes me a whole lot more nervous.

In any case, here's a few words of advice for those of you in the northeast:
* This is the whelping season. Coyotes will defend their whelping grounds and their pups.
* Coyotes will look for a secluded area, probably wooded, here in the northeast to establish a den. If you normally run your dogs off-leash in such areas and have seen evidence of coyotes (such as scat with a high amount of hair in it), it would make sense to either avoid those areas or leash your dogs for the next couple of months.
* Carry a big stick. If you encounter an aggressive coyote, heel your dogs in close, make noise, throw sticks. And back out of there. No matter how big or brave you think your dog is, it doesn't kill its own food every day. With very few exceptions, your dog will lose.

Some of those exceptions would be the Central Asian guardian dogs -- like Cat Urbikit's Aziats. As you can see from one of her more recent posts, these big monsters can be lovers, too. Now we need a bigger house to house the vizslak and their new-found canine protectors.


On a lighter note: here's the picture I was waiting for. Every good Scotsman needs a West Highland Terrier as a wedding accessory. And a loving wife to take care of him and his punctured dogs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

good luck

It's a busy week in vizsla-land. The Vizsla Club of America is holding its annual National Gun Dog Championships starting on Thursday, April 9th, till 'conclusion'... as the field-trial world likes to put it. Finding the best dog will take as long as necessary, all the while assuming that the weather will cooperate. Incidentally, for the gun dog championships, the primary difference between it and most conventional field-trial gun dog stakes is that it is a one-hour walking stake, and birds will be shot (and retrieved) throughout the course.

We're rooting for Upwind Kismet Rapid Fire (aka. Mason) who had such a good outing with his owner, Lisa DeForest, at the VCA National Field Trial in Arizona this past November, ultimately taking 3rd in the Amateur Field Championship. While trying to find the running order for this week's event, I found that Mark Spurgeon had posted a slew of pictures from the fall event including this one. There's some great pictures of the scenery as well as the dogs -- and it includes a pic of a coyote that had to be chased off from harassing the dogs.

On a side note: it's coyote whelping season... here in the Bronx! Our two had to chase off a coyote this morning that was probably just trying to protect its cubs but which, in turn, was getting too close to Meg. Somehow, the idea of coyotes whelping in Van Cortland Park doesn't seem like a hazard wethought we'd have to worry about -- but then again, nor was toxic poop.

In any case, think happy thoughts for all the red dogs competing in Portage, WI, this week -- but especially for Mason. (Mason is actually an uncle to our own Mr. Enthusiasm... his mother also produced Jozsi's father.)

Sunday, April 5, 2009


This weekend was the Nutmeg GSP field trial up at Flaherty... rumors are coming through, but it seems as though Sally, Tucker, and Rogue all have a few extra colored ribbons to hang on their walls. It was going to be Dennis's first time handling Sally from a horse -- and I gather he only nearly fell off once. As details become clearer, I will post them. I do know that Widdershins Flyin' Kyler SH also took a 3pt major conformation title this weekend. But hopefully Kim will blog about that shortly.

I am excited to run Rogue from a horse for Mike + Kim next weekend at the TarTan Gordon Setter Club trial at Flaherty. It will be really nice for me to ride a bunch of braces, get some horse-time in, and watch the Tsunami's progress in the relatively low-stress of a Puppy stake. But before we return to dog-related programming, here's this...

We were in Ireland just over a week ago for my cousin, Richard's wedding. We'd met his wife before at another cousin's wedding four years ago -- and Cathy is a charm. The two of them are a great match. So, as mentioned, we had boarded the boys at a kennel while we were gone, but were very happily surprised to see these two, not altogether dissimilar, fellows greeting us at Castle Durrow where we were staying for the reception.

And so, here by popular demand (and in part because my wife has already posted this on Facebook), here we are in our regalia. Yes, that is a Campbell tartan on my kilt -- Ancient Campbell to be precise, which as some folks may recognize has the same sett as the Black Watch tartan, made so popular by LL. Bean over the years. As this post makes clear, it is no coincidence that the two tartans are related.

I was hoping to have received the picture my brother took of me managing my cousin's West Highland Terrier, Dugal (who is in fact a girl), who not only attended the wedding but was blessed by the minister.

And now back to our normal programming: I went back up to CT this morning for another horse-riding lesson. I could take lessons 10mins from our house, but the drive to Mystic is worthwhile for me because I know I will get at least two hours on a gaited horse, riding Western style, on a trail, with one-on-one guidance from Ariel at Beech Brook Farm -- and not be trapped in an arena and charged four times as much. Theirs is a small farm whose primary mission is actually equine rescue, while their love is Tennessee Walkers.

For those that may not be aware, gaited horses are generally prefered as field-trial horses because of their smooth gaits even at the running walk or canter. As a result, and especially for judges and professional handlers who might spend an entire day in the saddle, whoever is riding experiences less jolting and is therefore less worn by the end of the day. The trick, though, is how to ask the horse for the various different gaits and then keep them in whichever gait you require. And for someone like me who was briefly schooled in English-style riding somewhere back when mammoths were still wandering western Scotland, this means learning how to use your legs properly.
I'll be honest and say that I've read some books on the subject -- all of which are written by folks who've ridden horses so long that they have forgotten what it's like to find that sweet-spot on the horse's barrel with your calf muscle. And all the while you're trying to remember to keep your legs under you and your heels down, your pelvis loose, your back straight, and still find time to realise that you're now coming close to 20mph. But today's break-throughs were figuring out how to turn the horse with as little direct reining as possible, using my legs and hips instead, and finding the sweet spot on Tequila (aka 'Teke') to ask him for more speed while still maintaining my balance. As you can see in this picture, he's a handsome boy that had a good workout in today's lovely, breezy weather.

There's still plenty of work to do, for sure. But I am feeling as though I have a much better idea of what I should be doing when I get on a wrangler's horse next Sunday. And as a result, I will be better able to concentrate on the dog -- and hopefully better show the judges that the dog in front of me is the dog they want at the top of their list at the end of day.


Finally, here are some assorted ephemera:

1) In a related note: John Yates has a great article in the newest issue of Field Trial Magazine on 'The Art of Showing a Field Trial Dog.' Sadly it's not available on-line, but I will probably post excerpts in the future.

2) Brad at For Love of Dogs and Birds has posted a great piece originally in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal by author Thomas McGuane. Most of us knew he was a fisherman, but were not as aware he loved chasing upland birds with dogs.

3) There's a great new blog about a young woman's pursuit of eagle hunters around the world. Lauren has some great pictures and stories -- and I feel lucky to have been to some of those same places.