Why I Love Field Trials
I got introduced to trials fifty years ago by Bill Anderson of Danville, Virginia, a law schoolmate and dear friend. Bill was active with the Carolina-Virginia Club which ran a spring trial on the Leggett Farm east of Danville on a long bend of the Dan River that drew the Deep South and Carolina Major Circuit handlers on the way home from the English Setter Club in spring. Bill and I hunted rabbits in the morning and quail in the afternoon with Bill’s lifelong friend Fred Leggett opening days several years running. In recent years the farm became running grounds for the Virginia Amateur and other trials thanks to Fred’s generosity.
Bill introduced me to Arthur Bean of High Point, an old school trainer and pioneer shooting dog handler to whom I sent a setter pup for training. Arthur called me in a few days and said, “This pup is no account. You need to get rid of it — give it to someone wants a pet — and get you another dog.” I was impressed with Arthur’s candor, the start of a friendship that lasted through the rest of Arthur’s life and gave me a graduate education in class in bird dogs and integrity among trialers of whom Arthur was an exemplar and a grand story teller.
For the next twenty plus years I attended trials occasionally in Virginia and North Carolina and owned a few dogs for Arthur, none serious contenders. For a while I kept two Walkers in my three acre home pasture. I was an avid shoe leather quail and grouse hunter on weekends and struggling to make a living for a wife and three youngsters practicing law. My dogs and the hunting kept me sane and attending occasional trials and following the sport in the Field made icing for the cake.
In 1984 I was lucky in landing a client owning one of the nation’s four sweat suit makers, Pannill Knitting Company of Martinsville. The business was booming thanks to Jimmy Carter’s edict that home thermostats should be lowered in winter, the fitness craze and the casual dress fad sweeping the land. The client saw the prosperity couldn’t last (no barriers to entry and a commodity product) and wisely sought a “liquidity event.” On April 17, 1984 we closed a leveraged buyout and the client had a nice payday and ended up owning 49% of the buying entity’s common equity along with his management team. Two years later the entity went public yielding a second “liquidity event” for 40 % of his reinvestment at 21 for 1. As a thank you he took me to Scotland to shoot driven grouse, an unforgettable spectacle for an old farm boy bird hunter.
Among the nine “guns” in the shooting party was Edward L Baker. At breakfast first day in the inn at Braemar I introduced myself to Mr. Baker with “Sure loved your Builder’s Addition.” Afterwards I wrote up the trip and sent everyone a copy with many snapshots. Ted called to thank me and suggested I come report the Florida Championship. I did in 1995 and thus began my serious addiction to field trials.
Other invitations to report followed and for several years I was spending 40 plus days in the saddle each season. I would take nothing for the experience which has brought me countless hours of pure fun and adventure and several friendships with fellow bird dog addicts that are priceless. A side benefit has been material for another addiction, writing fiction and non fiction pieces set in the sport. How lucky can a man be?
Reflecting on why I love trials leads to these observations. It’s a combination of beautiful places unspoiled by the heavy hand of civilization, noble bird dogs and horses, the drama of competition and the sheer beauty of a great performance, and lastly odd talented humans obsessed as I am with the dogs and the sport. Field trials are in one sense a dependable unchanging ritual, in another a drama that’s never twice the same. A deep forward cast, a sudden point, the flight of wild birds before the dog, the crack of the gun in salute: these things never cease to thrill. How lucky we are, and what a debt we owe to those who make their lands and facilities available to us for trials and those who work countless hours to put on the contests.
Field trial people are as a lot no better or worse than the rest of humanity. And field trialing has its ugly dark side as demonstrated by a fictional story I just wrote with that name. As one Hall of Famer, also a federal judge, says, half in jest, “you can meet a better class of people on average in a pool hall.” But in spite of their faults, field trial people are usually fun to be with, if they are not taking themselves too seriously. I will be eternally grateful for my luck in discovering trials and getting the chance to ride and report some of the best and to be around some unforgettable characters, canine, equine and human.