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Horseback Field Trials

By Alan Davison
Thursday, April 24th 2014

An excellent venue to showcase the talents of your well-bred and trained bird dog. Horseback field trials have been in existence since at least the 1870s and were reported on in newspapers and magazines similar to the way major sports of today are reported.

I was introduced to field trials in the early 1990s and soon learned that it was the venue that I wanted to participate in with my hunting dogs. While often told that field trial dogs would run too "big" to be a good hunting dog, I soon realized this was not necessarily the case. If trained well, my dogs would soon learn that when I was on foot they should stay close and when on horseback they could range as far as they needed. My dogs are required to pull double duty when it comes to field trialing and hunting and I wouldn't have it any other way. Participating in field trials extends the amount of quality time I spend with my dogs in training and competing.

When training a mature dog for horseback field trials it's an absolute necessity that they be a completely finished broke dog. Meaning:

  • They're broke to wing and shot (and the fall for those breeds that are required to retrieve)
  • Must honor their brace mate's point
  • Must stop to flush when presented with that situation

They must do all of this flawlessly if they're going to be considered for a placement. Additionally, broke dogs have to be able to apply themselves to the available cover intelligently and, of course, they must be able to find birds, because in the end, that's what it's all about.

Traditionally, horseback field trials are run under either American Field or American Kennel Club (AKC) rules and procedures (though there are clubs that will duel register their events under both of these clubs). For the most part, each entity is looking for the same basic attributes in their participants; but there are subtle cultural differences between the two clubs. Most notably is terminology and expectation when it comes to broke dog stakes.

In AKC, these stakes are listed as Gun Dog and All Age. In American Field, they're known as Shooting Dog and All Age. It's understood that the American Field style of dog will be more independent and run bigger than their AKC counterparts.

So What's the Difference?

Using a broad definition, Gun Dogs and Shooting Dogs will be more dependent upon the handler when it comes to working the course and will handle kindly. They will also apply themselves much more thoroughly to the course than All Age dogs by seeking out individual objectives (likely places to find game birds) and hunt them thoroughly and move systematically.

On the other hand, All Age Dogs take a different approach. Their pattern is much more sweeping when it comes to the course and the objectives on the course. Because of this type of pattern, they're also expected to be more independent and range farther from the handler than a Shooting Dog or Gun Dog may. Click here to listen to a podcast that gives a great explanation of the characteristics of a true All Age dog.

The two other classifications of dogs in a field trial are based on age requirements. They're known as the Puppy and Derby, and are really devoted to the potential of a given dog. They don't have to exhibit the finished skills and knowledge you'd expect in a broke dog, but they must show the innate qualities that will make an exceptional bird dog.

Finally, most horseback field trials have stakes that are designated either Open or Amateur. Simply put, professional bird dog trainers and handlers can only compete in Open Stakes while amateurs can compete in both Open and Amateur stakes.

While this is a general overview of horseback field trials, there is certainly more that could and probably should be explained. If you're interested in finding out more about these types of competitions I would strongly suggest that you go to either

They will be more than happy to introduce you to a local club in your area. There you'll find people who will be happy to take you under their wing and show you what they truly love about this incredible sport.

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