Why They Call Them Field Trials
September 23, 2010
Beginner's luck can take many forms.
I turned away from my tailgate, and before I got across the muddy parking lot I realized that I wasn't walking in my usual gait, and that I kind of liked it. I found myself striding with a borderline swagger, born from the unaccustomed weight of the holster and pistol on my right hip.
I had begun to realize as I drove up the driveway, seeing the lines of dogs on stakeouts and the array of horse trailers, that I was entering a new world with customs foreign to me. For starters, my dog was riding up front, his head out the window -- a grizzled, bowlegged man with the requisite battered shapeless hat would tell me later that this was the type of dog veteran field trial people feared -- unknown, spoiled, which just might scorch the course.
After checking in at the clubhouse, I stood on the porch sipping coffee and hearing snatches of conversations I longed to join, for people were talking of dogs past and present and ribbing each other in good natured rivalry. I was thinking of a country song -- "These are my people, This is where I come from" -- but as the caffeine began to wake my brain to the day's activities, I got incredibly nervous.
What the heck was I doing here, anyway? I'd seen the field trial listed on the AKC website and, impulsively, entered it. My dog had gotten his AKC senior hunter title, although he invariably got low marks for a category called "trainability."
"He runs too big; you should field trial that dog," judge after judge in the hunt tests told me. So here I was, entered in Amateur Gun Dog. I had no illusions of earning a placement. I didn't want to mess up anyone else, and had worked tirelessly on backing for weeks. My goal was to make it around the course without getting disqualified. And then, after looking at the horses tied to the wrangler's trailer, I amended that to, "and without getting killed."
Puppy and Derby stakes were running on an adjacent course, and Amateur Gun Dog started promptly at 7. My dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Josey Wales -- listed on the brace sheet as Josie -- and I were in the seventh brace. My nerves were shot, my stomach in knots, and I made repeated trips to the porta-potty -- until the unthinkable happened. Yep, the splash.
The splash was my shiny new holster, gun snapped inside, sliding from my belt and landing in the nameless muck as I pulled up my pants. The lighting was poor, and I bent and canted my head, thinking I might have a glimpse of it.
I opened the door a crack, and seeing no one in line, quickly ducked into some brush and snapped off a couple branches. I returned to the porta-potty, locked its door and hurrying, using a system of sticks and branches, rescued it -- but I hadn't been quite fast enough.
"Where's that girl with the shorthair?" I heard one of the volunteers asking, and then yelling, "Sixth brace is coming back, seventh brace, Josie, to the line!"
"She was right here," I heard someone say, and then they were going to go look for me, and that's when I made a mistake bigger than dropping my blank gun in the porta-potty.
"I'm in here!" I yelled. "I dropped my gun!" There was no reply as those outside processed the information. I emerged, holding a stout stick with my holster snagged on the end of it, covered and dripping with sodden toilet paper, the holster stained blue from the porta-potty disinfectant.
I'll give them credit though, and I have a soft spot in my heart for those Brittany Club members -- they didn't laugh, at least not then. I'm sure they laughed later, snorting beer from their nostrils around campfires that night, but at the time, a kind man directed me to a water hose.
Just for the record, although it undoubtedly wasn't part of the product testing, a Kimar blank gun will fire after being dropped into a porta-potty.
I grabbed Josey from his crate in the truck and hurried to the wrangler's trailer, only to find that the horse I'd chosen wasn't there. In fact, there was only one horse left at the trailer. I know now, with many more field trials under my belt, that there are several reasons a horse is the last one chosen:
1. It is so impossibly tall that only people who take Tae Kwon Do classes three times a week will be able to get their foot in the stirrup.
2. The horse is a legend for all the wrong reasons.
3. There is something amiss with the tack.
4. All the above.
I asked the wrangler if it was a horse for beginners, and after giving me the once- over -- I was the only person there besides the cook not wearing chaps -- asked me, "When's the last time you were on a horse?" And my fingers involuntarily went to my left eye, to the bone below it, broken the last time I was on a horse.
I fought the memory of the romantic, idyllic beach ride, the gallop through the water ala perfume commercial, and its violent end -- the horse tripping and falling, catapulting both of us into a tangled roll across the hard sand, giving me a rack of bruised ribs and the broken orbital bone, which caused two black eyes.
"What's her name?" I asked, unsnapping her halter rope. The wrangler shrugged, "Ten." The mare was long-legged, with deceptively kind, long-lashed eyes, and I remember briefly thinking, ah, Ten, like the Bo Derek movie. I made my halting way to the line, stretched like a cutout doll, dragged by my dog and dragging the horse.
Josey's bracemate was a giant Weimaraner. I'd never seen one so big. The judges studied their papers, confused about the sex of my dog, which I thought was obvious. "It says here Josie, but your dog's a male," one said. "It's Josey Wales, J-o-s-e-y," I said proudly, "You know, like the outlaw." I had picked out the name about 20 years before I got him.
"Oh," the judge said, "I thought it was a female. You know, Josie and the Pussycats." I thought, could this day possibly get any worse?
I didn't have a scout, didn't know you needed one, but a kind woman in the hastily-mounted, huge gallery -- everyone wanted to see Porta-potty Girl's dog run -- volunteered. (We are now good friends, and regularly train together.) We broke the dogs
away and by the time I got on the horse, I could see Josey up ahead, standing still, looking off in the distance.
It took me a long time to get there, since one of my reins broke immediately -- no surprise there, it was baling twine -- but with me kicking desperately and the horse covering the ground in tight circles and neighing like a range stallion to broadcast its strong desire to return to the trailer, I finally arrived. You almost needed binoculars to see it -- Josey was backing a pointer, which was at least a hundred yards away, on the Derby course.
I could barely hear the judge, talking from behind his hand as he was, but he said, "Just take him on," so I moved Josey up on the course and cast him away again. Back on Ten, I had a clear view of the accident as it developed -- all of us did -- but could do nothing to stop it.
Josey had taken off, low to the ground, jetting forward at top speed, and the Weimaraner was lumbering down the back side of a fencerow. It was like an algebra problem: if A is traveling at 35 miles per hour and B is traveling at 10 miles per hour'¦ For a couple seconds there, I hoped for a clean miss, but both dogs hit the fence break at the same time, Josey slamming into the Weimaraner and caroming off to the side, like a bumblebee glancing off a billboard.
The impact knocked the Weimaraner over and he came up growling a bit and swatting ineffectually, like a grizzly slapping salmon from a stream. Josey had disappeared into the high cover in the next field. The next time I saw him, if I'd had a free hand -- and I didn't, as I had one on the reins and the other had a death grip on the saddle -- I'd have put it over my heart. Bless that dog, he'd found a bird.
After Josey's back, I'd taken the end of my remaining rein and tied it onto the bridle on the other side. I was able to steer Ten to Josey, and my scout materialized to hold her. I was so nervous and eager and thrilled it took me a long time to find the bird. I'd turned my head away, expecting the worst, but miraculously, the gun fired in an explosive spray.
I collared Josey away and my scout took him. I hurried back to my horse but once mounted, couldn't figure out what had happened. Why were the stirrups so short? "Hey," my scout said, not unkindly, "That's my horse," and then very kindly, "Just stay there, I'll take yours."
(Ten would later enact a calculated spinning and hopping maneuver which would rid her of my scout, thankfully uninjured. Later that day, I would hear the wrangler tell a handler that Ten's name was Eleven. It's been more than a year since then, and her name is probably something like Twenty-two or even Thirty-five by now.)
During my search, I'd heard the other handler fire his gun, and learned that the Weimaraner had taken steps on the bird and been disqualified. Poor thing was probably a little shell-shocked, expecting unknown objects to hurtle into his side at any moment. The other judge joined us and said to me, "It's all yours."
Josey's next find was a covey, tucked out of the wind in some short laurel bushes behind a lingering snowbank. Time for more handler error -- I only saw one quail, flushed that one and fired, but along the path I took back to Josey, I flushed more, one by one, right at his face. One actually glanced off his head, and he never moved.
Not sure what to do, I'd kept squeezing the trigger, leaping among Clint Eastwood movies from The Outlaw Josey Wales to Dirty Harry. Had I fired six shots, or only five? To tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kinda lost track myself.
And finally -- as Clint first asked the bank robber, and later, the serial killer -- do I feel lucky?
Yes. In fact, as I ride a good horse and watch my dog run true to the instinct that directs him, I do feel lucky, kind of like a bride. After all, I've got something borrowed -- a good horse -- and something blue -- the stained holster.
The judge says, "Thank you handler, nice job; that's a nice-running shorthair," and I say right back, "Thank you, judge." I leash Josey and, leading the horse, set off down the long grassy path which leads back to the clubhouse.
As a matter of fact, this path looks a lot like an aisle. I have to smile, thinking it would be the perfect ceremony, attended by plenty of good dogs and nice people. I realize this is something I want to do for the rest of my life, and just like that, I am wed.