"My First Field Trial"

There was a first field trial for every fan of the sport, sometimes while still a child, sometimes as an observer only, and for some of us courageous (read "foolhardy?") souls, as an active participant with dog, commonly called an "exhibitor." Following is a firsthand account of what it was like for me, a non-hunter and complete stranger to the sport, to attend MY first field trial:

I was driving a little Mazda wagon at the time, and was used to narrow and winding roads, but my general road experience had all been on pavement. When I told a Gordon Setter trialer friend that I was going to the Irish Setter Club of the Pacific's February 1973 field trial at Grizzly Island, she laughed and said that the place was appropriately named - grisly indeed! 

It wasn't so bad at first, driving through the green fields and small delta channels in the sparkling air of early spring, but I soon came upon large broken sections of road, then big patches completely devoid of pavement, and some really deep and sloppy holes. I slowed down considerably and pressed onward with determination; this was becoming an adventure! After 11 bumpy and twisting miles I passed the rangers' check station, after which the road turned into a horror of rutted and washboarded gravel. I think I learned the true meaning for "proceed with caution" on that drive!

I finally arrived at what had to be the right place to stop: There were cars, vans, pickups, campers, and horse trailers parked all over the place, and lots of people with all varieties of red dogs on leashes...big ones, small ones, a few pups, dark red ones, some nearly orange, some with big patches of white, some looking right out of a show ring, some who had obviously never known the clippers' touch. Several folks were walking their dogs, while in other cases the dogs seemed to have the upper hand. An image persists of a nice-looking, reasonably athletic woman being dragged down the road, through a ditch, and into the field by two enormous dark red females, amidst much amused protesting and comment on the part of owner and observers alike! Evidently this scene was a bi-annual event, as much looked forward to by the owner as by her red friends!

The vehicles were parked along a road which was both the starting and ending point for the actual field events. Long rectangular fields stretched out for hundreds of yards from the road, bisected at intervals by raised dikes which, as I was shortly to learn, were the only solid ground beside the road itself.

Several men, seemingly unattached to any dog, were walking around in each of the fields. I was told that these men were official "gunners" and "bird planters." The dogs entered in the field trial were run in pairs called "braces," with a handler for each dog, and there was a gunner for each handler when his dog came into the area designated as the "birdfield." Only the official gunners were allowed to fire live ammunition during the field trial, partly for safety's sake and partly to equalize conditions as much as possible for each dog and handler team.

The job of the bird planters was to release a specified number of birds (pheasants at this trial) into the bushes before the start of each brace of dogs, again to afford each dog as equal an opportunity as possible to find a bird. These men were dressed very curiously: they wore rubber coveralls with feet in them. Imagine if you will, a boot so tall that it becomes trousers and is held up with shoulder straps! These outfits, I gathered, were called "waders," and I was soon to learn both to understand and to appreciate their function! The other official personnel that I observed in the field were three mounted men who continually rode back and forth on the dikes. These, I was told, were the judges and the "marshal" or timekeeper.

Ribbon, my Irish Setter, got very excited the moment I stopped the car. She and I regularly went for runs in the hills of Marin County two or three times a week, and we had also practiced for this event a few times with our Gordon Setter friends and some homing pigeons, so she had a good idea of what was going on out in the fields and was going nuts wanting to get out and join in the fun!

Now in February there is always a lot of standing water on Grizzly Island. Were it not for the dikes, the entire island would be generally under water throughout the rainy season. When our turn finally arrived, I walked out into the field and promptly sank to mid-calf in very wet sticky mud. Instant enlightenment: I now understood everything I needed to know about waders! My feet and legs were immediately soaked and squishing, but fortunately it was otherwise a glorious day, and in any case, I had no opportunity to complain: Ribbon took off like a flash as soon as I turned her loose, and she ran like a crazy thing for the entire 20 minutes of her brace and throughout the three subsequent ones!

There were mud-filled ditches at the edge of each field alongside the dikes, and she would run to one side, hit the ditch, scoot through the mud for 100 yards or so, then cross to the other side of the field and do the same thing. Every so often on her dash across the field she would encounter a small bird in flight and the chase would be on until the bird outdistanced her. Then she would turn and come back for more. I saw her occasionally, each time more covered with mud. In sharp contrast to her fleetness afoot, I was having a hard time just staying upright. The mud sucked at my shoes with every step. The terrain was slippery and unstable and each step became a challenge. My calves began to ache and burn with the effort of extricating my feet from the mud, one after the other. Far from watching my dog, my concern was whether my legs would hold out for 20 minutes and get me back around the field, or would I fall down in the mud and need to be rescued?

The course was U-shaped, which meant roughly that we walked out for ten minutes and then swung around and walked back. When it was time to turn, the marshal told me to call my dog. I laughed: who had the energy left to do anything but just slog one filthy, sodden foot in front of the other? But, miraculously I thought at the time, not knowing then how a good bird dog works, when I turned and called her name, Ribbon went past in a muddy blur and was up in front of me once again! I heard some sounds that seemed complimentary from the direction of the dike, and I forced myself to look past the 12 inches beyond my feet, to catch a quick glimpse of my dog having the time of her life!

Suddenly I forgot my aching legs, my parched tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth with thirst, and my exhausted body soaked above with perspiration and below with mud. I had an overwhelming sense of being alive right here and now, of existing solely in this very moment. I, one of the world's great worriers, had forgotten about yesterday and could not have cared less about tomorrow. If I looked ahead at all, it was to staying on my feet and advancing forward step by laboring step, while my beloved dog did the job that she was created for and loved every second of it! The air was glorious, the sun a soft caress, and despite the physical toll, I felt more real than I ever had in my life. I knew at that moment that I was hooked on field trialing! I might not know much about it yet, but anything that made me feel so vital had to become a part of my life.

At the conclusion of my 20 minutes, as I struggled out of the muddy birdfield to the nearest dike, I attempted to call my dog in. Ribbon would have none of this; she was having far too delightful a time. I called and whistled in vain as she crossed one dike after another in hot pursuit of all the tweety birds on the island, flushing three pheasants in the bargain! I was partially frustrated by her ignoring my calls, but I also had a wonderful chance to watch her fly across the field, hit the muddy ditch for a while, crest another dike, and take off again! None of my fellow observers complained about her "disobedience." Instead there were comments of, "Look at that dog go - fantastic!" which pleased me no end, although I wasn't really sure then what was so terrific about her performance.

After a sold hour and ten minutes of running, and still just barely winded, Ribbon did finally come in to find me. Upon her return, covered with the contents of ditch and slough, one of the field trial committee members promptly dubbed her the "Mud Runner," a name and habit that stuck with her throughout her field career. As I walked up the dike to the road with my wild running Irish Setter, my muddy feet and aching legs now utterly forgotten, one of the top local professional field handlers passed me and said, "I'll give you $15 for that pup!" Quite a complement from him! "Thanks, but no thanks," was my reply...and inside I was beaming!

That was the beginning of my love affair with field trialing. Ribbon went on to finish her field championship at the Irish Setter Club of America's National Field Trial in Wisconsin in 1976, winning a 4-point Open Limited Gun Dog stake there. And I can still be found each spring and fall trial season tramping around out in the field with a setter or two, or sometimes a half dozen or more, often covered with mud, and always enjoying every second of it!