Successful Field Trial Women: They Can Handle It
Several years ago, Field Trial Review, the newspaper published each February by MidSouth Horse Review for the National Championship, did a story about four women who participated in American Field/AFTCA sanctioned field trials. They were Lori Steinshouer, Ellen Clements, Mazie Davis and myself. With less than two weeks to this year’s submission deadline, I volunteered to pull together a story that presents more women field trialers — specifically women who handle dogs in competition. I knew I couldn’t possibly find and contact all the women who handle dogs, so I apologize to those who were omitted. Thanks to all those who enthusiastically agreed to provide me with the information for their stories. It clearly shows their commitment to the sport.
Like so many other women involved in field trials, my childhood was spent riding horses. I competed in hunter/jumper classes and showed Shetland ponies in 4H and local horse shows. And I won plenty. Girls made up about half the entries in all classes. In the early 1960s, the US Equestrian Team (the original “Dream Team”) consisted of my heroes and heroines, Kathy Kusner, Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot and Carol Hoffman. It never occurred to me when I began field trialing that I could not train or handle a field trial bird dog. Some would argue that there are aspects of the sport that make it more difficult for women to compete. They pale when compared to, for example, sled dog racing, a sport in which American musher Susan Butcher set the second 4x Iditarod winner record and the first time any musher won it in four out of five sequential years. Reading about Susan, Libby Riddles, DeeDee Jonrowe, and dozens of other women who have competed with their teams of dogs in that grueling 1,000-mile race through Alaska’s wilderness, in temperatures often 40 degrees below zero, will quickly change anyone’s mind about what women are capable of.
Women have been an integral part of American Field/AFTCA field trials since their very beginning, taking responsibility for many of the necessary, often behind the scenes, tasks like club secretary duties. Women have been reporting field trials, feeding hungry judges and field trailers, whelping, caring for, and starting young dogs and more recently, scouting for their husbands and friends as well as being part of many other field trial activities. Where they have always been most obviously in the minority is handling dogs in competition. In over 17 years of competing as an amateur, I have not known women handlers to ask for special privileges, nor have they expressed any desire to change the sport. Women are the fastest growing segment of new hunters, including upland bird hunters, in the US. I hope these stories will encourage more hunting, as well as non-hunting, girls and women to try their hand at training and handling dogs in this thrilling and competitive sport. We need and should welcome all new participants.
Betty Shearouse, Kimball, Tennessee
Betty grew up with Irish setters as well as several other breeds of dogs. After finishing college, her start in competition was with Labrador retrievers for several years. In 2006, she purchased an Irish setter from Ken Ruff, as her sons wanted to bird hunt. Ken insisted that if she was hunting Bailey, she should also attend some AKC trials with her. Betty entered and placed Bailey in several AKC walking trials. Rhett Kermicle, Bailey’s trainer, had a litter of English setters from which Betty picked a female, Annie, and that fall, purchased her two-year-old sister, Desi.
Betty’s first AFTCA field trial was in February 2009 at Berea, Kentucky. She placed Desi second in the shooting dog stake and was hooked — really hooked! In one year Betty went from one dog to three, from a Ford Explorer to a dually, a living quarters trailer, and two horses. She now owns ten English setters. She has competed and won in amateur and open shooting dog and all-age stakes. Annie was the Region 6 Amateur All-Age Dog of Year, the Mid South Amateur All-Age Dog of the Year, and the English Setter Amateur All-Age Dog of Year in 2011. Ch. Prodigy’s Bonfire (Bonnie), a full sister to Annie and Desi, won the American Quail Classic and the Alabama Open All-Age Championship under the whistle of professional handler Ray Warren. Currently, Betty has a young male setter, coming derby next year, on Georgia trainer/handler, Jamie Daniels’ string.
Betty has always had a passion for dogs and horses. To her, a working dog is a thing of beauty to watch, and if you can watch from a horse, that makes it perfect. She believes field trial dogs are some of the most astonishing canine athletes, never ceasing to amaze her with what they can do. She loves the rush she gets competing — watching the dogs race through the country and then seeing them slam on point. But it is the people she has met and the friendships made that are Betty’s favorite part of field trialing.
Betty recalls many special field trial moments that will always remain vivid memories, such as watching Bonnie’s extraordinary fast and furious race throughout an hour of pouring rain and wind at Hell Creek in Mississippi.
Karen Conroy, Denver, North Carolina
Karen’s family owned and hunted bird dogs for many years. As a family, they participated in shoot-to-kill trials. They also rode horses, so the next logical progression was to horseback field trials.
Karen always loved to ride and, as a youngster, worked retired pacers from the race track and broke them to saddle. Sometimes she used these horses to run dogs. As her interest in the dogs grew, she began breeding and was especially successful with pointers. In 1980, Karen became a professional trainer on the Shooting Dog circuit and so combined the two things she most loved to do — train horses and bird dogs.
One of her greatest wins was placing Brass Rail in the US Quail Shooting Dog Futurity. Brass Rail and Ch. Miss Porter were the beginning of a successful pointer breeding program, which, along with her daughter Chelsie, she still carries on today. Ch. Mohawk Mill Pirate, Ch. Smokerise Caroline and Ch. Steel City Karen are just a few of the recent champions she bred.
Karen’s greatest memories from 50 years of being involved in the sport are of the wonderful people she has met along the way and the dogs she has bred and watched succeed in their field trial careers or in the hunting field. Her greatest achievement in all those years, however, was developing her daughter Chelsie’s love and respect for dogs, horses, the outdoors, and people.
Chelsie Conroy, Albany, Georgia
Chelsie was born into field trials. Surrounded by family and friends who trained and trialed bird dogs, it was something she was always around. Starting with the development of puppies, she won her first trial at the tender age of five at South Hill in Virginia. They pulled in to the grounds and saddled up despite the pouring rain, and off rode little Chelsie to run her dog, Lily. The gallery enjoyed her performance and the pride and confidence she showed in her charge. The support of many people — especially her mother — kept that interest in field trials alive through her childhood. Along with running young dogs, she spent most of her “tween” years tagging along while her mother competed or judged. Chelsie was always working horses and scouting for anyone who needed help. She learned to love watching a good dog and seeing the gratitude on people’s faces when they recognized their dog had put down a good performance. Important to Chelsie is that there are other people who enjoy the sport for more than the titles the dogs earn.
Chelsie has had many proud achievements with her dogs, but finds herself smiling when she thinks back on the many trials and tribulations she went through with one particular dog, Mohawk Mill Wrangler. Wrangler taught her so much and together they overcame many challenges. She is left with wonderful memories of her mother helping her work through different situations with the dog. He went on to have several derby wins and was named NBHA Runner-Up Derby of the Year in 2011. In the following seasons Chelsie and Wrangler continued winning, adding more memories of exciting finds and remarks from judges that stick with her, comments like “that needs to be captured on oil and canvas!” Wrangler was invited to the NBHA Amateur Invitational and won trials in shooting dog and all-age stakes. Though Chelsie doesn’t compete in field trials solely for the points or wins, she admits that it does feel good to see your dog do a great job and be recognized for it. It’s a unique sense of accomplishment that many people today do not have the opportunity to enjoy.
Claudia McNamee, Atlanta, Georgia
Claudia has had a lifelong love affair with dogs, but it wasn’t until she and her husband Bill bought their first French Brittany 16 years ago that she realized what that bond could really be. They started in walking gun dog stakes — were nearly always in the ribbons — then bought another Brittany and won twice as many ribbons! The real fun began with their first pointer, Richfield Silverbelle, call name Sydney. Soon after Syd appeared, so did two horses and then a trailer – and then three more horses, puppies, and a bigger trailer. The rest is history and so many great memories.
The field trial game and community changed their lives and when cancer cut Bill’s life short. The passion that had been theirs became Claudia’s lifeline, and the friends they’d made became her support group. Since then, Sydney has been retired. She proved to be a dog one could only hope for: 7x Champion, 5x Runner Up, and 2x cancer survivor — one very special family member and companion. Some of Claudia’s most memorable times have been handling Syd. Her first amateur championship win was in Windsor, CT and then up in Baldwinsville, NY, just two years ago, they claimed a Classic win. In both, Syd had nearly ten finds and up-out-of-your-seat races. What a team and exciting run they’ve had! Now with four young shooting dogs on the circuit, Claudia continues to play the game, and moved south from New York to Georgia because of it.
When asked what it is about this sport that has so captured her heart, Claudia’s response is the animals and that feeling of being connected when it all goes right; the dog’s love of the game and being with her; and flying along on her Tennessee Walker. It’s the constant focus on the future and what comes next, whether it be the next trial and another opportunity to be better, or more dogs; and of course the people — seeing friends who have become like family. Claudia believes that having a passion in life like this crazy sport is so important to being happy, and she embodies that joie de vie at every trial she attends, whether her dog places or not. Winning is just being there.
Fran Miller, Barwick, Georgia
Fran, along with husband/teammate Jack, got their start in pointing dogs after competing with Labs and Coonhounds (Jack). Both grew up riding horses. Their business: the training and selling of horses and mules. Jack’s shoeing connected them to the south Georgia plantation world, where kennels full of pointing dogs piqued Jack’s curiosity. Fran attributes professional trainers Jim and Tracy Davis, with whom they co-owned their first field trial dog, with the help and encouragement that marked their entry to the breeding of pointers and shooting dog competition.
Their next dog, purchased from Gary Lester, Lester’s Silver Charm, became the foundation female of the dogs in their kennel today. Charm’s direct offspring include National Field Trial Ch. Shell Creek Coin, and Fran and Jack’s first RU Ch. Casey’s Silver Charm. Second and third generation progeny include Fran’s Ch. It’s Only Money Honey, Miller’s Bring On The Heat, Ch. Lester’s Prime Poison Lane, Miller’s Armed And Dangerous, Miller’s Calamity Jane and other successful field trial dogs owned by the Millers or sold as young prospects.
Early on, Fran was more involved with the raising and development of the puppies, while Jack handled the dogs in trials. On occasion, Jack was unable to attend a trial and Fran began handling and building her confidence to win. Growing up in a houseful of boys and playing tennis competitively also helped, along with Jack’s encouragement, and his excellent scouting skills.
Her first big win came with Casey’s Silver Charm capturing Runner Up in the National Amateur Shooting Dog Derby in the spring of 2005. She won the same championship in 2007 with Chief Two Feathers, who went on to make his name on the Open All-Age circuit with handler Steve Hurdle, winning the National Free-for-All Championship twice. Fran was the second woman to win Runner Up in the highly competitive National Amateur Free-for-All Championship with Miller’s Blackeyed Suzy in 2013. More recently, Fran won the prestigious National Amateur Shooting Dog Invitational Championship with It’s Only Money Honey in 2015. Amazingly, she won Runner-Up laurels in the same championship again with “Honey Bear” this year. This is a tribute not only to Fran’s training and handling skills, and Jack’s scouting, but also to the Miller’s breeding and development program.
Fran and Jack take great pride in that program and give all their pups the opportunity to become the best they can be — whether a champion field trial winner, a hard working plantation dog, or a beloved personal bird dog. The right genetics and socialization of pups has proven that possible. Fran also states they like to keep the pups long enough to successfully evaluate them. Winning field trials is very fulfilling to Fran, but developing great bird dogs takes center stage.
Among others that Fran thanks for their encouragement and sharing their extraordinary expertise are Ferrel Miller, Gary Lester, Ike Todd, and George Tracy. She encourages women to try handling dogs in field trials, something she, at one time, could not have imagined being successful doing. She certainly proved herself wrong!
Jeanette Tracy, Glenville, Pennsylvania
The only professional woman regularly competing on the Open Shooting Dog (horseback) circuit today is Jeanette Tracy. She was born into one of the sport’s most esteemed field trial families. At one time, however, her life plans did not include training bird dogs. She grew up loving dogs and with a full measure of responsibilities that came with the family’s kennel full of dogs to be taken care of.
Jeanette was a distinguished athlete (basketball and softball) in high school and later at York College, where she graduated in 1999 with a degree in Recreation and Leisure Administration. Her plan after college was to run a boarding kennel. While various technicalities ultimately prevented that plan from materializing, Jeanette was starting puppies for her family’s adjacent Summerhill Kennels. Eventually she was starting dogs for her own clients who wanted her to go on with them. And so, with the encouragement of close friends and family members, Jeanette started her own training facility in 2005, Ladywood Farm.
Jeanette’s first big winning dog, the one that made people sit up and take notice, was Sukara’s Come Home Jessie. A great confidence builder for Jeanette, Jessie had an amazing career, amassing 38 placements. In 2007, Jeanette won her first championship (the New England Championship) with Enhancement Tess, a big running female pointer. From that time her field trial record has grown to almost 500 open shooting dog wins — including championships and classics — as well as several Dog of the Year Awards. During the 2012 – 2013 season, setter male Grand Heritage Motion won the prestigious Elwin Smith English Setter Shooting Dog of the Year Award. Jeanette competed Moe in the National Shooting Dog Invitational Championship where the country’s top 12 shooting dogs go head to head, handled by the most successful trainers. Jeanette currently develops between 30 and 50 dogs and continues to make her mark on the Open Shooting Dog circuit with Steel City Karen, Ladywood’s Keepsake, and Pine Straw Blackhawk, among others. Not only has she demonstrated her ability to win field trials, but also to be an accomplished businesswoman running her own kennel operation.
When asked if she has any regrets in following in her family’s field trial footsteps instead of running a boarding kennel, Jeanette responds: “None at all.” She enjoys the competition and the many great people she has met. She proudly boasts of having the best owners that have faith in her abilities. “The best part of the whole thing is taking the pups and watching them mature into adult dogs. Dogs are my passion. People who know me always joke about retiring at my place with the animals.”
Jeanette sees to it that her dogs are given every opportunity to win big. She lets them prove they are meant to be out there winning against the best – meaning, of course, dogs handled by her brother Mike and father George!
Karen Norton and Kim Harrell, Norman Park, Georgia
Karen has loved and owned horses and dogs from the time she was a child. After the death of her first husband, the animals became an even larger part of her life. In 2004, she married Bruce Norton who had a few pointers to go along with Karen’s horses, and together their journey into field trialing began. Their first trial was at the beautiful Dixie Plantation as spectators of the Continental Derby and All-Age Championships. Soon after they got their first trial dog, Gypsy Dancer, who placed and, as so often is the story, were forever “hooked” on field trialing. Next came Bittersweet Sensation (Mae) named Runner-Up Dog of the Year in the South Georgia Field Trial Association in 2012.
Karen learned a lot from Mae. She started out scouting for Bruce, though there were times when she handled the dog when Bruce was unable to attend a trial. Karen discovered that she was a competent handler and enjoyed the competition. Her first win came with Samara Pride — an enormous thrill especially because her daughter Kim was scouting. A winning pair, they became known as the “Powder Puff” team! Next was Bad Prairie Storm Valley (Bob) who was named Dog of the Year in 2014 by the South Georgia Field Trial Association. Karen is still campaigning Bob, as well as Quail Hollows Dixie Darlin, whom she raised from a puppy and has placed several times as a derby and first year shooting dog.
The most enjoyable part of field trialing for Karen is that it’s a family affair. Daughter Kim Harrell started attending trials with Karen and Bruce and also fell in love with the sport. Kim, an excellent rider and scout, is often sought out to scout at various trials. She also has wins handling Karen’s Bad Prairie Storm Valley and now has a dog of her own, Happy Daze, whom she handles in field trials.
Karen and Bruce also have two pointers on the Open All-Age circuit with handler/trainer Mark McLean. Song Rider, an awesome derby raised from a puppy by Kim, is doing very well this year with a second in the Broomhill Open Derby on the vast Manitoba prairie and a win at the Lee County Open. Also with Mark is House’s Buckwheat Hawk, an all-age dog who won the Derby Invitational and was Runner-Up in the 2015 Manitoba Championship. Karen and Kim love riding and watching their dogs compete on the open circuit almost as much as competing on the amateur level.
Kim Sampson, Santaquin, Utah
From the time she was a youngster accompanying her father into the fields hunting pheasants behind his dogs, Kim has felt something very special for bird dogs. The outings were never long enough and she never tired of walking along, watching the dogs. She also had a horse and spent summers riding in the Utah mountains with her friends. Back then she never dreamed those two loves — dogs and horses — would someday not only combine, but combust into the habitual hurricane of her life today with bird dogs: training, field trialing, and upland hunting.
Fifteen years ago, after a long hiatus, which included a college education, a career teaching junior high English, and raising a family, the longing for a dog resurfaced. Her first bird dog was a Weimaraner named Meg. Then came a pointer pup from South Carolina named Daisy. Things were never the same after that. On a borrowed horse, Kim ran Daisy in several AKC puppy and AF derby stakes and placed — usually winning — every stake she entered, along some state and regional Dog of the Year awards. The hook was set.
When asked what Kim enjoys most about field trials, the answer is always the same: the dogs and looking for that “great performance,” whether it wins or not. Field trials run on wild birds are her favorite, as she firmly believes that format is the truest test of the most important aspects of a bird dog.
There isn’t one singular thing that stands out to Kim as her biggest accomplishment, although the placements and especially the championships she’s won are near the top. Her first championship in the 2011 Region 9 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship in American Falls, Idaho; then, RU Champion in the 2015 National Chukar Open Shooting Dog Championship and Champion in the 2015 Oregon Open Shooting Dog Championship, both run in Sunnyside, Washington, were especially meaningful. She takes special pride in 3x Ch. and 4x RU Ch. West Mountain Sunny Days, a dog she bred, raised, developed, trained, and continues to campaign. Kim has also judged prestigious events around the country, including the 2011 Umbell-Armstrong Endurance Classic in Marienville, PA and the 2014 National Amateur Pheasant Shooting Dog Championship in Circle, MT.
Today, as a professional and owner/operator of West Mountain Kennels in Utah, Kim loves developing pups and derbies and working older dogs for their owners to hunt and compete in trials. She makes a huge effort to get her charges out on wild birds as often as possible, hunting or training in several western states from early August until nesting season begins in the spring. That phone call informing her of a client winning with a dog she trained, or just a great report on a client’s hunting trip, is what keeps her excited, motivated, and loving her life with bird dogs.
Shannon Nygard, Circle, Montana
One of the first dogs Shannon recalls working with and learning from was a derby-aged female, Light Rail. As she had the time and was itching to learn, Shannon took Liza and headed southeast to Sherry Ebert’s training facility in Mott, ND. There she learned, among other things, how to run a dog in a field trial. Three weeks after returning from Camp Ebert, Light Rail, handled by Tom Nygard, topped a field of 24 dogs, winning an All-Age Classic. Liza kept winning and was awarded Region 14 Dog of the Year for the next two years. From there the Nygard kennel filled up and Shannon, already an accomplished horsewoman, was on her way to developing and handling her own dogs.
Some of the field trial dogs in whose early development Shannon had a big hand include High Noon Sport, who won the Montana Shooting Dog Classic and was Montana Dog of the Year in 2005; I B Anxious who won the 2010 National Amateur Chicken Championship with Shannon scouting; and Dixie Chic who competed on the Open All-Age circuit with professional handler, Rick Furney. Shannon handled Chic to her first derby win in Mortlach, Saskatchewan.
Shannon has competed in field trials across the country, from in her home state of Montana to the Canadian prairies, the piney woods of Dixie, Sedgefields, and Smith Setter Plantations, West Tennessee, the Robertson Ranch in Idaho, to Sunnyside, WA. She has traveled to the southeast for the past several years, making the long journey from Montana with her dogs and horses. She takes special pride in having hosted the National Amateur Pheasant Championship and the Montana Open Shooting Dog Classic since 2009 in Circle, Montana. Together the two events’ entries number over 100 dogs.
All the relationships, whether with person, dog or horse, have enriched Shannon’s life journey, adding challenges and enjoyment. “As a field trailer,” she says “you grow and learn every day and the reward is the thrill that comes when your hard work and the many choices you make result in a win.” She loves the people, all their support, the fun they are to be with, sharing their love of the sport.
Her greatest stride is that she is on “The List” this year with the best of the best competing in the National Championship. Ch. Circle Masquerade, now in the able hands of Jamie Daniels, is a dog Shannon raised and brought along as a derby, out of her female Phillips Miss Kate. Added to the fun is that Rosie’s sire is Ch. Distant Shadow, a very accomplished and commanding All-Age winner of note owned by Jed Demsey and Tom Nygard and handled by Robin Gates. Shannon is honored and grateful for all the people, places, and situations that have made this dream come true!
Tracy Haines, Broomfield, Colorado
Tracy has been handling dogs in field trial competition for the past 20 years. She rode horses and established a great love for dogs and a knack for working with them from early childhood on. Tracy’s first exposure to the bird dog competition world came after having been told that her recently acquired Brittany was breeding quality. Wanting to verify that fact before breeding, Tracy attended and became involved in shows and field trials as handler for her dogs in both show and field. She discovered her passion for all-age dogs while watching open championships on the prairies with her husband, long-time dog trainer Jack Haines. When the opportunity arose to co-own a promising young all-age dog on Fred Delio’s string, Jack and Tracy jumped on it. The dog, Just Wait, went on to become a 4x champion and sired Just Wait Bess, whom Tracy handled in amateur and open stakes beginning in late 2008. Bess was top all-age dog in Colorado three years in a row, winning 27 open all-age placements, 75% of them first placements. Tracy trained and handled many other dogs of various pointing dog breeds in both AKC and American Field trials from Maryland to Washington State.
When asked what she most loves about field trials, Tracy emphasized her interaction with the dogs (and horses) and the thrill of handling a dog to a great performance, regardless of outcome. One of her proudest achievements came when she was asked by the late connoisseur of all-age dogs, John Criswell, to judge the 2008 All-America Open Prairie Championship with Mike Furney. To sit up front and watch some of the best dogs in the country as they skim across the prairies is one of those indescribable experiences which has kept her attending summer camp and the prairie trials every summer. Tracy has also made many trips to the piney woods of South Georgia to learn and experience the traditional southern trials.
She and Jack have bred several champions, including Hideaway Tall Boy, Just Irresistible, and Funseek’n Hitman. The latter two littermates out of Just Wait Bess are both on the string of All-Age pro, Jamie Daniels.
Tracy is also very proud of her (their) accomplished daughter, Andi Christensen, who is a winning breeder and handler of several champions and dual champion Brittanys.