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Field Trials
With Emphasis on the Horse and the Role it Plays
By Roxanne M. Coccia

What is a field trial? 

In a nutshell a field trial is competition to see who has the best bird dog on a given day. It's a way of showing off that dog. How does a horse fit into all of this? The horse is an integral part of field trials. It is traditional to use horses instead of mechanization. Horses and dogs frequently go together from Dalmatians that followed coaches to English Foxhounds running in front of hunter horses. 

Two competitors ready to go. Both have Paso Fino. TWH in the background. The horse on the left carries a water bottle for the dog in addition to the check rope.

People who like dogs often like horses too. In field trials horses add something besides being a tool. They make you feel closer to the way things used to be and they don't make the constant noise like machines do. And the American Kennel Club does not allow the use of mechanized vehicles for its trials. There is also a certain aesthetic value that they add to the field trial. There is something very enjoyable about riding a gaited horse behind fast moving dogs out in the open. It gives you a sense of freedom and you soon leave the office and other worldly worries behind.

Starting a Brace

You just about have to forget your worries because if you are running a dog all you attention will be needed on your dog. And especially if you want to win or place in the trial. And you need a good reliable field trail savvy horse for you to be able to get the best out of your dog.

Where are field trials held?

The dog clubs that caters to each breed of pointing dogs host field trials in most major cities. Professional and Amateur handlers will often travel from the West Coast to the East Coast, staying in the east for the whole trial season and then working their way back across the country. Trials are usually held on weekends and long distances are traveled by some, others restrict their participation to a three or four state area.

The dog has established point. his handler is attempting to flush the bird. Meanwhile the marshall has courteously taken the handlers horse, which was ground tied. 
Spotted Saddle Horse and TWH.
Handler is Chuck Cooper Horseman is John Franck

What dog events use horses?

Field trials where horses are used are almost exclusively for breeds of dogs that point their game. These dogs are awarded points that cumulate. When they earn a certain number of points they are awarded a field trial championship by AKC or American Field. Earning these points is difficult. And only the first place winner in an open stake gets the points. Amateur stakes do give points for first through fourth, in Amateur and Open the number of points available depends on the number of dogs entered. Filed Trial Championships are very hard to earn. Most dogs take more than a year of active training to attain them. Two to three years is normal.

Dog Heading to the front during a brace.
R to L
Dogs staked out, German Shorthair, German Shorthair, Pointer, Weimaraner. Spotted Saddle Horse in background staked out.

Spaniels and Retriever breeds do not need horse and don't use them in their trials.

Beagle fanciers do occasionally use horses for their pack trials. These packs of beagles move very fast and the judges follow them on foot or on horseback. If the judges are on foot they literally have to run to keep up with the pack. Horses make this much easier and give the judges a much better view. A good view is important because the judges need to see the individual dog and observe how they are working within the pack.

American Kennel Club Hunting Tests for the pointing breeds also use horses. Hunting tests are non-competitive; the dog is scored on a number of criteria. The score are tallied at the end and the dog either passes or fails the test. Dogs who pass earn a leg toward a Hunting Test title, which the AKC recognizes after a dog completes the required number of legs (usually 4). Only the judges and bird planters in these events use horses. Judges are often on the course all day, following the dogs. The horse offers a better view to the judge and eliminates all that walking for him.

Missouri Foxtrotter
Notice the covered stirrups. Trailers prefer these. They protect boots when traveling through brush or cactus.

Horse is Ice owned by Cindy Long

Of all the dog field trials, horses are most common in the Pointing dog field trials, governed by the AKC or the American Field. Both organizations have set up rules as to how the trials are run and what the dog must do. Trials have what are known as “Stakes” such as the “Gun Dog Stakes” and the “Open All Age Stakes” which are for dogs who are adults and are trained to stay point through the flush and shot. The handler flushes the bird and fires a blank; the dog is expected to stay on point throughout the process. These dogs are known a “Broke Dogs”, and the sakes the run in are often known a “Broke Dog Stakes”. Puppies also have stakes, but they are not expected to be broke or point, just to indicate the bird by flushing or pointing. Derby stakes require a dog up to two years of age point, but they do not have to stay on point. They can break and flush the bird, just as long as they have established a point. In all these Stakes, handlers, judges, field Marshall, bird planters and gallery follow behind the dog on horseback. The speed of travel behind the dog will depend on the type of trial, breed of dog, that particular brace of dogs, Stake rules and terrain.  Braces can run from 15 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the type of brace. National Champion trials often run up to one week in length. The trial season is spring and fall in the temperate areas of the USA, with winter trials not being uncommon in the southern states and California. It is too hot in most states to hold summer trials.

Now you have a very basic idea of what dog events use horses and how they work. 

Blue Roan TWH. 
Field Trial horse owned, at that time, 
by Henry Caruso

What is expected of the horse and how does it help in the events?

Gaited Horses are the exclusive choice of field trialers and hunting test judges. Everyone and anyone who is involved in field trial events wants Gaited Horses ONLY! No one wants to ride a breed that trots, nor do they like hard pacers. The professional handler who train dogs for clients’ day in and day out all year will not even consider having a trotting horse!  Most commonly and traditionally the TWH is used, but all gaited breeds are represented. Paso Fino, Spotted Saddle Horses and rocky Mountain Horses are currently very popular. Most gaited breeds can be seen at the trails, including gaited mules and grade crosses. The common denominator being that they are SMOOTH, for you are often in the saddle from 7 AM to 4 or 5 PM.

Field trial horses need to be very fit as they are ridden many miles, often over rough terrain and in inclement weather, in the training and running of dogs. 

Heading out
Field Trail weather can be 
wet, cold, hot, warm or snowy. 
These riders are dressed for a cold wet trail.
Beautiful Field Trial Weather
Judges waiting for their 1st brace.
Both horses are TWH

The Horses learn to conserve energy and can be observed standing very quietly when they are not out on the course. Horses used for trials must be road safe and be willing to load without a fuss. A horse that fights the trailer is no fun when you are done and ready to head on to the next trail. Most horses that are used to the routine are ready at the end of a weekend to get on and go home!

Two TWH being readied to go out.

John Cochran and friend. The horse on the left has an Aussie saddle.

How Gaited Horses are used in training dogs for trials.

Field trial horse must be able to be picketed or stand tied. The form of picketing in field trails is not the overhead type of set up. A stake is driven into the ground and attached to 20 or 30 foot of rope, cable or chain then it is run through a hose to attach to a heavy duty snap that is hooked to halter. Horses are tied out night and day when not in use. It is important that the horse be trained to be out on such a picket, they must be watched closely when first started to this form of tie out. Some people use a nylon cow collar instead of a halter. 

TWH on stake out.
Spotted Saddle Horse on Stake out. Typical field trial rig in background. Dogs are kenneled in the middle, horses in the back. Dogs may be in crates in the middle of dog boxes may be built into one wall. The handler will usually have abed in the front of the trailer and he or she will stay with the dogs at night.

Horses must also tie quietly to the trailer, tacked up, without fighting or pulling back.

TWH fully tacked and waiting for his owner's braces. Note the tab that sticks out the back of the saddle. This is to attach the check cord for roading. Or rings in the front of the saddle may be used also.
This is a TWH, Paso Fino cross. This horse is in typical Filed Trial Tack. Note the check cord rope for roading. This horse spent part of a day tied to a trailer. Also note the dog harness hanging by the rope. Horse is owned by Tom Hanson of Lancaster California. The trooper saddle sports a pad on the seat for extra comfort. Trooper, Aussie, McClellen and English saddles are popular with an occasional western thrown in.

Horses must be very good with dogs. They must tolerate:

  • Dogs running up suddenly from behind
  • Dogs underfoot
  • Dogs running under their bellies
  • Puppies and debris going under a horses legs or running into them.
  • Dogs in the saddle or jumping to the saddle from the ground.

Spooking of any kind is not desirable.

Gunfire is a part of all field trials and both the dog and horse must be OK with it. Blanks are fired from special pistols that the handler carried in a holster. These pistols can not fire live ammo as they have a blockage in the barrel. The pistols give off a loud bang, simulating the shot in hunting and proving to the judge that your dog is not gun shy. In most instances, you will dismount to fire the shot. The horse must be well trained to ground tie, so he will not leave you for the next county! Most people do not care if the horse grazes, just so long as he does not run off or try to evade you when you go to get back on.

Dog being roaded. In this case the handler has opted not to attach to the saddle. Ice and Cindy Long

Roading is another skill that the field trial horse must master. Roading is a method to condition a dog. You put a dog in a harness and attach a thirty-foot rope to the harness from the saddle. Some people have purchased a field trial or trooper saddle and did not know what the tab in the back of the saddle was for, that is what the dog is attached to. Some people attach the rope to the rings in front of the saddle. The dog is encouraged to lean into the rope and harness and pull hard. The rider and horse follow. Thirty minutes of roading is the equivalent of an hour of free running. The dog usually stays out in front of the horse so the horse must tolerate the rope crossing over his chest as the dog moves from the left to the right. Roading is also used to excite and educate the dogs. In American Field Trails you can road dogs in the gallery behind the dogs in a brace. The dogs being roaded becomes fired up by watching the other dogs work as the gun is fired and the bird is flushed. Roading is also used when a dog messes up and you are far out on the course but the judge has ordered you up, you can road the dog back to the club house. A dog that has been lost on the course and later found can be roaded back to not interfere with the new brace of dogs.

On one occasion at a Brittany trail in Kentucky a handler lost his dog on the course. Sometime later, during another brace, the dog was found tied in the front yard of a nearby house. The people who owned the house had kindly tied the dog in the front yard, knowing from past experience that someone from the trial would notice and pick up the dog.  We rode over through some brush and through a drainage ditch then across the road to get to the house.

The man I was with had a Dun Paso Fino and he had 30 foot of check cord or rope. He retrieved the dog and attached him to the rope and we started back across the road and through the drainage ditch. Then into the brush, where there was a narrow deer trail with just enough room for one animal to pass through at a time. The dog ended up behind the horse and was actually bumping against the horses’ hocks as we walked through. The rope was across the horse's chest from the right side, the dog having passed to the left of the horse before we entered the brush and back around to his back end. SO the dog has wrapped almost all the way around the horses body. We proceeded through the brush this way, until we got out into the open, where the dog swung around in front of the horse. That horse never missed a beat. He simply gaited on through with the dog bumping off his hocks. These are the kind of things expected of a field trial horse!

Trial horses are used in four ways at a trial.

  • Judges horse
  • Handler's horse
  • Bird Planter's horse 
  • Field Marshall/Gallery Horse
TWH Preparing to go out on a brace at the starting line. The horse is in typical field trial tack. Dan Long holding the horse.

First and up in front of everyone are the two handlers and their dogs and horses. A Handler's horse must be able to do everything previously described, plus must be able to gallop on occasion. This happens when the handler doesn't want a dog to get away with chasing or catching a bird that it has flushed during the trial. At that point he or she is out of the contention and will probably have to road the dog back or walk both horse and dog back. It is important that the dog does not chase and possibly catch the bird. Once in a while horses have been known to slap a hoof on a rope of a running dog that has broken and taken off after a bird. That is a horse that has really figured out some of what is going on!

Peruvian Paso and Judge Linda Keeton

Handler in the orange coat is taking her Hungarian Vizsla to the line.

The Judges come next, they require a horse that can go anywhere willing to be separated from the other horses with no fuss. They must go into the woods on occasion to observe a dog on point. The judges horse must stand quietly while they write notes and confer with each other. It is especially important that these horse be smooth, as the judges will be out all day.

The Field Marshall's horse must, including the above, be able to ride up to a ground tied horse and hold it's reins to ensure that it does not go anywhere. The horse cannot fight with the other horse. The field Marshall's job is to control the gallery, which may be as large as sixty or seventy riders on some of the more prestigious trials. He has to watch each brace and be ready to step in and judge, in the event something happens to one of the judges. He may also be the time keeper. The Marshall knows the course and shows the first brace where to go, most trials run over the same course all day. Some have two courses going at once, some may use a continuos course. 

The Bird Planter carries birds that he puts out for a bag made for that purpose. In the morning he rides out and salts the course with birds, then he rides along well behind the dogs, judges, gallery etc.. 

Bird planter ready to go. Note orange bird bag and the collar around the horse's neck, this is for picketing him. Rider John Potter

He stops and tosses birds out where they would be likely to be found by a hunting dog. This replenishes the course for each brace for the rest of the stake. His horse must be able to tolerate the fluttering of the birds without spooking and be willing to work away from the other horses.

Typical collection of items unloaded from a pro handler's trunk and trailer. Not the hoses, these are what trailers picket the horse out on. A pro carries everything imaginable for dogs, horses and humans.

This is has been an overview of how field trials run and how the horse are put to use. A lot is expected of a field trial horse and the Gaited Horses rise to the top for comfort and sensible field trial use!

If you would like to attend a field trail, or think this is something you would like to try with your dog or horse, you can contact the American Kennel  Club or American Field for dates and times and rules.

American Kennel Club
5580 Centerview Drive
Raleigh, NC 27606-3390

American field Trial Dog Stud Book
542 S. Dearborn Street
Suite 1350
Chicago Ill 60605


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