Paving the Way: Women in American Field Trials — Part I
American Field sanctioned trials (for dogs registered with the Field Dog Stud Book) date back to October 8, 1874 when the first field trial was held near Memphis, TN. The sport’s origins in England in 1865 were for “the purpose of trying their Pointers and Setters in competition in order to ascertain their real qualities as compared with one another.” The early competitions in England stimulated interest and the desire to improve bird dogs. This same goal was taken up by the American Field with the purpose ever-being the improvement of bird dogs. Other breeds of pointing dogs soon competed in field trials, initiating breed-specific clubs and trials of their own. Though no rules prohibit the entry of other pointing dog breeds in trials traditionally held for Pointers and Setters, the “long-tailed” dogs remain dominant in those competitions today.
Forty-six years after the birth of field trials, voting rights were granted to women in 1920. This prompted a general shift in views around women’s liberties. Women began riding astride, (wearing jodhpurs), adopting shorter hairstyles and by the 1930s, it was all the vogue for women to wear trousers. Until then, practically the only female names that made the pages of the American Field weekly magazine were those of winning Setters and Pointers like Sioux, La Besita, Mary Montrose and Becky Broom Hill. Paintings depicting upland shooting and field trials were all of men.
But women’s influence and early involvement in the sport of American Field trials is indisputable. Wives of early professional trainers made the long, arduous journey to the Canadian prairies to spend their summers in make-shift training camps feeding and caring for their husbands and families, and the help that accompanied them north. Wives and daughters of wealthy patrons and field trial club directors became enthusiastically involved as owners of dogs and the running of field trials. The Ames Plantation, home to the National Championship, established by Hobart Ames in 1901, passed to his widow Mrs. Julia Colony Ames in 1945 upon her husband’s death. She directed that the Plantation be operated under the ownership of the Trustees of the Hobart Ames Foundation to provide grounds and administrative support for the National Championship in perpetuity. Gerald Livingston, president of another of the earliest field trial clubs in the country, the Continental Field Trial, founded a permanent home in 1937 for the Continental Championship to be held on the vast holdings of his quail-rich Dixie Plantation that, at the time, spanned some 30,000 acres across the Georgia/Florida line. After Gerald’s death in 1950, his wife Eleanor took the reins followed by their daughter Geraldine in 1977, ensuring the continuation and, indeed, expansion of trials held on Dixie. The story of these two extraordinary sportswomen who were pivotal to the growth of field trials in the southeastern United States requires an entire chapter of its own.
No doubt, to this day, men still far outnumber women, particularly in the area of American Field competition — handling and scouting dogs. However, women are making remarkable strides and proving themselves to be serious contenders. In all other aspects of the sport, from breeding to judging and reporting, the uptick in women’s participation is even greater. And why not? Let’s take a look at some of the women who paved the way.
Claudia Phelps was born June 29, 1894 to a prominent American family. She grew up in the outdoor sporting world: fox hunting, quail, grouse and deer hunting, salmon and trout fishing in various locations the family resided throughout the year. Her father purchased an estate in Aiken, South Carolina in 1900 where years later Claudia would set up her Rosstor kennels for the importation and breeding of West Highland White Terriers and was recognized as the country’s top breeder of Westies. She already had the right ideas about dogs in general which she would eventually apply to the pointers she bred and competed with. “I try to develop real character in my dogs…I want my dogs to be affectionate, yet independent, confident, intelligent and alert without being quarrelsome and foolishly noisy…” In 1929 Claudia sold her Westies, set up her Homerun Kennels and began breeding and competing in field trials with her pointers. She had dogs with two prominent professional handlers, Fred Bevan and Fred Arant. (All three “Unforgettables” are described affectionately in Bill Allen’s wonderful book) On her death on September 14, 1984 at the age of 90, Fred Arant wrote of her: “She was called the “First Lady of Field Trials,” this for many reasons; principally because of her many contributions to the sport, service that merited her election to the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1962. Over many years she was a prominent breeder of top-notch field trial contenders — most of them carrying the Homerun prefix. She handled her own dogs often in competition, especially at trials in the Southeast and Pinehurst. Claudia Phelps was an excellent horsewoman; she was a fine field shot; was a keen analyst of bird dog character, and a student of pedigrees, which served her well as a successful breeder. From her Homerun Kennels came any number of sparkling performers, champions and Futurity winners that spanned the decades including the 1960 National Open Pheasant Champion, Homerun Bess. Bess was bred to Arant’s Ch. Rambling Rebel Dan, with Claudia listed as breeder of record, to produce the great Hall of Fame performer, Ch. A Rambling Rebel who went on to head a lineage of winning field trial pointers still prominent today.
Claudia Phelps, circa 1930
Mary C. Oliver
Mary C. Oliver was born in Little Rock, Arkansas early in the 1920s. She was introduced to field trials through her husband who was an avid quail hunter but it is Mary who took the spotlight for her insightful breeding program and the legendary dogs she produced. A great sportswoman, she got over her initial apprehension of horses and handled her own dogs in amateur field trials while campaigning others in the 1950s and 60s with professional handlers Jack Harper and after his retirement, Hoyle Eaton. She became a prominent breeder first through her prepotent matron Ranger Bows who produced eighteen winners with 139 placements — including three celebrated champions, Jeff of Arkansas, Hattie of Arkansas and The Arkansas Ranger (1957 National Derby Champion, 1958 National Championship winner, 1977 Hall of Fame inductee) — this at a time when the sport had far fewer field trials and championships than today. Mary could easily recall the thrilling races of one of her all-time favorite dogs, Hattie of Arkansas. Hattie made her debut winning the Derby in the chicken trials on the Canadian prairie in 1955. She went on to win plenty more and became a fine producer of ten winners bred to three different sires, the most notable being 1960 National Championship winner Home Again Mike producing Home Again Hattie, winner of both the three-hour grueling National Free-For-All Championship in 1960 and the National Championship in 1962. Mary Oliver’s name is associated with many other dogs of great prominence. She was instrumental in supporting field trials in Arkansas and the establishment of the grounds at Conway, still in use today. For her many contributions, she was inducted into the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1975. Her nomination letters expressed the respect she garnered in a still very much male dominated sport: “Records live and opinions die. The records will show that Mary Oliver is by far the greatest breeder of field trial dogs who ever wore a skirt. She is also among the top five of the greatest breeders of class field trial dogs in any category since time began.” and “Her breeding program has been the envy of many, for she just keeps turning out more great champions, and her contributions to the sport are legendary. She has been and still is patron, club official and benefactor of the All-Age major circuit. She has always been a fierce competitor, but a good loser as well as a winner that asks no quarter. Mary died in 1989. She will have witness many changes in field trials and the increased participation by women.
The Arkansas Ranger by Iwan Lotton
Home Again Hattie, 1962
Mary C. Oliver, Jack Harper, Hattie of Arkansas
Matilda Nitchman, Ch. Potato Patch Sue, 1961
Matilda Nitchman, born in 1914, was married to one of the country’s most successful amateur competitors of his time, Alvin Nitchman. Their son Alan fondly recalls: “Mom and Dad were a “team” in the field trial game. Mom was a full-time participant in the selection of pups and training of the dogs as well as an accomplished and recognized scout and handler. There is no doubt in my mind that Mom’s interest, dedication and hard work was a key to their success. While Dad was at his dental practice, Mom kept the dogs and horses conditioned and sharp in their training. I recall many times Dad would instruct Mom to roadwork dogs to get them ready for upcoming trials. He did not have the time to leave his practice to assist her. Rain or shine, hot or cold, Mom would go to the barn, brush her horse, saddle up and get at least two dogs out and put them in the harnesses. It was not an easy send off as our home in Cranbury, N.J. backed up to the school ground, which meant Mom had to lead the animals out through the back gate before she could mount and go. No one was there to hold the horse or the dogs so they really had to know what “whoa” meant. As well as participating in the training, Mom was a wonderful scout who, on numerous occasions, found dogs on point. If dogs went astray, she knew how to bring them back to the front so they appeared to have made a beautiful cast. And, of course, Mom successfully handled dogs too — Sue in particular — in trials and won.”
Sue was Ch. Potato Patch Sue. Though she ultimately became Alvin’s dog, it was Matilda who recognized the special talent this dog had which resulted in 25 wins, including 5 championships and 11 first place wins. Matilda had faith in the little female, originally slated to be sold, discovering she had unusual game-finding abilities and concluded that perhaps she was the best of all the Nitchman dogs when it came to pheasant work. And it was Matilda who piloted Sue to both her 1961 and 1962 National Amateur Pheasant Shooting Dog Championship wins! Sue would become the dam of Ch. Smart who sired Ch. Pork Roll and Ch. Guard Rail, all three dogs are in the Field Trial Hall of Fame.
Matilda Nitchman, Ch. Potato Patch Sue, 1962
As a young horse trainer, Sherry Ebert entered the world of pointing dogs in 1962 when she married Harold Ray at the age of 17 and they began working dogs with the trainer, Fred Bevan. Within two years they were hired by Elwin and Inez Smith thus beginning a relationship that was to endure for 32 years and resulted in 25 champions winning over 60 championships. These include Smith setters: (Hall of Fame dogs): Ch. Tomoka, Ch. The Performer, Ch. Destinare, and the pointer Ch. Bonafide and National Shooting Dog Champions: Ch. Tomoka and Ch. Righteous Dan. As well as expertly scouting these dogs to their wins, Sherry was indispensable to their development. Sherry raised the puppies born at the Smith’s Waynesboro, Georgia farm, often sleeping in the kennel house awaiting the arrival of a litter. She recognized early-on the importance of handling young pups for them to rise to championship level.
In the early prairie trials Sherry attended, she rode every brace to watch and learn from the best, including John S. Gates, Fred Arant, Herman Smith and Bud Daugherty. This dedicated approach to her new profession soon earned her a reputation once noted by field trial reporter and writer, Everett Skehan, “Sherry Ray is a fierce competitor, rated by many professionals as one of the most talented and productive scouts in the country and an excellent trainer in her own right.” Her tenacity and dedication would not only earn her this reputation but also as one who would help if you needed her and give her all when she did.” In 1989, Sherry won the 75-dog Eastern Open Shooting Dog Championship with The Performer, making her the first woman to win an open championship competing against all professional handlers.
In 1995, She began training dogs for the public. Sherry has had her hand in the development of countless champions — both American Field and many pointing breeds in AKC, including national champions. She is also a highly sought-after judge. With nearly 60 years of experience, Sherry has dedicated much of her life to field trials, the development of field trial bird dogs and sharing her vast knowledge and experience with others, particularly encouraging and helping other women.
Elwin and Inez Smith, Sherry Ray Ebert, Harold Ray and the Smith Setters
Mazie Davis, 2010 Manitoba Championship
Mazie Davis’ contributions to the field trial sport are vast. An excellent horsewomen, she began her life-long involvement with bird dogs scouting for her husband, professional All-Age trainer/handler Colvin Davis (Hall of Fame, 2006) in the early 1980s. In All-Age competition, the scout is an integral part of the team along with the handler and dog. Instructions from Colvin were minimal: ‘turn the dog loose, don’t lose him, find him when he points and don’t get hurt’.
On Sherry Ebert, Mazie wrote: “Early in 1973, I attended my first field trial in a scouting capacity for Colvin who was, at the time, competing with shooting dogs. And I met Sherry there for the first time as we rode side by side scouting. I was nervous, of course and she could tell. I will always recall her looking me square in the eye and saying ‘You sit a horse well. You can do this — just believe in yourself.’”
Mazie was soon persuaded to report her first field trial and went on to become an official reporter for the American Field penning her unique, insightful descriptions of the performances of dogs competing in the country’s preeminent trials and championships. Mazie partnered with Colvin in running their training and kennel operation in Alabama as well as during the yearly trips to the Manitoba prairies where they hosted the oldest Canadian prairie championship, the Manitoba Championship as well as the Broomhill trials. Mazie has trained dogs — successfully run many of the younger ones in puppy and derby stakes, judged, marshaled and done about everything hosting successful field trials requires.
Colvin and Mazie Davis, Condo’s Rebel, Rex’s Promise, Quicksilver Pink, Farm Hand, circa 1990
In 2008, Mazie and I collaborated on the creation of Strideaway, this online publication dedicated to American Field trials and pointing dogs to share stories and advice from knowledgeable trainers, handlers, breeders, and other experienced enthusiasts in the sport. On Strideaway’s launch, Mazie explained: “We’re trying to take care of the sport as it was passed down to us and hope to pass it on to the next generation. It’s astonishing every time I get on a horse and watch the show. The animals are amazing with the pure heart and grit they show! They’ll give you their last breath! We want people to be familiar with what great athletes the dogs are; to remember the people who left the sport to us, and why they were so passionate about it. We want to connect the forebearers of Field Trials to today’s and the next generation trialers to keep the sport going.”