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 GaitedHorses.net 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.