Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Ginny McCarley | Photographed by Joe Worthem
A 38-year-old event brings sporting dog enthusiasts and animals together from all over the nation.
On a frigid morning, the trials begin. Contestants and their dogs gather in fields, everyone tense with excitement, before the dogs are let loose to sniff the air for the scent of quail. Scouts follow on horseback as the dogs move boldly and purposefully through the field, with a larger group observing on horseback behind. Once the dogs catch a whiff of quail, they stop on a dime, holding the point position perfectly. Blank shots are fired into the air, after which the dog is touched lightly on the top of the head by its handler and allowed to break form. The National Amateur All-age Invitational Championship, a much-anticipated bird dog competition, is underway.
The event takes place annually in December, under the auspices of the American Field Trial Clubs of America, at the historic Ames Plantation, just a little over 50 miles north of Oxford. Each year select dogs and horses from all over the country trek with their owners to take part in the trials. The stunning 18,400 acres of land dotted with row-crops, purebred Angus cattle, forests and horses has been home to bird dog championships for over 100 years.
Twelve dogs from eight states qualified to compete in the all-age invitational, one of the three most prestigious amateur stakes in nation. Behind the graceful movements of the dogs and handlers in the field are countless hours of hard work and training.
Pat McInteer, who has been attending field trial competitions with her husband for more than 40 years, said the sport is “truly a passion.” The couple, who live in Nebraska, train their dogs for hours every day, even in the dead of winter.
“[Our children] say, ‘Dad’s gonna die on a horse working a bird dog,’” McInteer said with a laugh. “But he’d die happy.”
In 2018, all of the dogs that qualified for and competed in the championship were English Pointers. Gary McKibbon of Hernando, a field trial enthusiast and judge in the 2018 National Amateur Invitational Championship, said judges are looking for a dog that stands out and can hunt, find game and have good manners around the game.
For David Williams, who was judging the competition for the eighth time, the championship is a chance to see the powerful possibility of a well-trained bird dog.
“It’s a true test of a dog’s intelligence, stamina and intensity,” Williams said, noting that since the trial is three days long it offers ample opportunities for mistakes and triumphs. “You get to see all of the flaws of the dog, but also the best of [the dog’s] training and breeding.”
Since the championship is an invitation-only event open to the very top ranking amateur dogs in the field, all of the performances are impressive.
Dr. Rick Carlisle, who manages Ames Plantation, said the level of competition at the championship makes it always enjoyable to watch.
“[For those observing], it’s always less than an hour before you see another set of good dogs,” Carlisle said. “You’re already a winner if you’re here.”
“Everybody here that’s invited is great,” Williams agreed. “This is one of the best trials I go to every year. I see more camaraderie here than anywhere.”
It’s this sense of comradeship that many of the participants credit with making the hobby — which they all admit is expensive and time consuming — so enjoyable and entertaining. Contestants traveled from Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Nebraska and Missouri for this year’s national championship, and the close-knit group is infused with a sense of conviviality.
“These guys are very competitive,” McInteer said. “But once they’re done running, they’re the best of friends.”
“It’s like a brotherhood,” McKibbon said, echoing McInteer’s sentiment.
For Piper Huffman, secretary of the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America, attending the trials is a chance to both watch the dogs in action and see friends.
“It’s kind of like one big family,” Huffman said.
James Atchison has been field trialing for 56 years, and his wife Charlotte for 32 years. Atchison, who has been reporting on the trials for the Chicago-based publication The American Field since he retired from banking, has only missed two of 56 national field trial championships held at Ames Plantation. Though the couple does not train dogs, they return every year for the chance to ride and see their friends.
“We keep several horses and we trail ride, so field trialing gives us a chance to use our horses year round,” Atchison said. “In the course of having done that we’ve just made so many wonderful friends.”
Atchison loves to watch the dogs, all of whom he describes as outstanding athletes, and he especially appreciates the relationship and trust that develops between a dog and its handler. However, it’s the relationships between field trial contestants that keep the Atchisons returning year after year.
“There’s really wonderful camaraderie [in field trialing],” Atchison said. “Something about this sport is that even people that are competing against one another help each other. That kind of sportsmanship is not alive in most sports anymore.”
The competitors are so friendly, it might seem unimportant who wins. But at the end of the three-day championship in December 2018, when the judging was over, Touch’s Firedancer, a 4-year-old female English Pointer owned by Keith Wright of Covington, Indiana, emerged victorious.
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