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Horses and Dogs
First Posted: Jan 10, 2010
Apr 14, 2011

Field Trials/Dogs and Horses

You might ask the questions: "What are field trials, and what does the horse have to do with field trials?" It is first important to understand what field trials are and then understand why horses often play an important part in this sport even though the dogs are the animals competing. Even though field trials do not involve judging horses, the horses often do play a critical role. The horse's role will be visited below. First, there is an explanation of what field trials are all about--different in various countries and often complicated to understand. However, before you start reading one might say that field trials, simply stated, are a competition to determine who has the best performing bird dog on a particular day of competition. In the southern United States the term bird dog refers to dog breeds such as the pointer, English setter, Red setter, German short hair pointer, Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever, Brittany, and other pointing breeds.

All About Field Trials

A field trial is a competitive event at which hunting dogs compete against one another. There are field trials for retrievers, pointing dogs and flushing dogs. Field trials are usually organized by kennel clubs or other gun dog organizations. Field trials are generally considered more competitive than hunt tests in that success at a field trial requires a higher level of training than success at a hunt test requires. For example, in Retriever Field Trials, dogs retrieve over longer distances with a more complex path than a Retriever Hunt Test would generally provide. Field trial dogs must be "finished" in order to enter. Their purpose is also different, as they exist mainly for breeders, while hunting tests are made for users.

The term is confusing as it means different things to different breed organizations. Spaniel field trials demand that dogs compete against one another, whereas retriever field trials are more similar to hunt tests among other breeds. In most hunt tests, on the other hand, dogs are evaluated against a written standard and all of the dogs in the hunt test may qualify if they meet the standard. To further complicate the issue, various kennel organizations have differing definitions of field trial.

Field trials come in various grades including Open, Amateur, Sanctioned and non-sanctioned. An Open field trial permits entry from any handler or trainer while an Amateur trial only permits non-professional handlers/trainers. Sanctioned trials are ones that are held under the control of a national kennel club or organization, while the non-sanctioned can be organized by a local club.

Field Trials in the UK and Ireland

A field trial that is held under the auspices of the Kennel Club, the UK's governing body in respect of working gun dogs, can be described as a competition to assess the work of gun dogs in the field. By definition this means that all field trials are held on live, unhandled game that is shot for the purpose of that field trial. Game that has been handled in any way, whether it be live or dead game, may not be used for testing dogs in any part of a field trial. The only exception to this rule is where dead game may be used in the conduct of a water test at a field trial. The reason this exception exists it to acknowledge the fact that game will not necessarily be shot over water, although for dogs to qualify for titles in field trials will be required to demonstrate their ability to retrieve from water.

Gun dog clubs and societies that are registered with the Kennel Club and which have been authorized to org anise and run field trials may do so, provided that a licence is issued to that club or society for every field trial. Field trials not licensed by the Kennel Club are liable to be deemed as unrecognized canine events.


Field trials can consist of one or more stakes, which can be considered as separate competitions within a field trial. Such stakes can be run for any of the four sub-groups of gun dogs recognized by the Kennel Club. The four sub-groups are;

  1. Retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels
  2. Sporting Spaniels other than Irish Water Spaniels
  3. Pointers and Setters
  4. Breeds that Hunt, Point and Retrieve
Open Stake

This is a stake in which the dogs have the opportunity of gaining a qualification towards the title of Field Trial Champion (FTCh) and towards entry in the Championships or Champion Stake for its breed.

All Age Stake

This is open to all dogs of a specified breed or breeds without restriction as to the age of the dog, but which may be restricted by other conditions that are deemed necessary by the organ ising club or society. Four placements plus a Reserve JAM and JAMs (Judges Award of Merit).

Novice Stake

This stake is confined to dogs that not have gained the following awards:

Retrievers; First, second, third or fourth award in a 24 dog Open Stake; or first, second or third award in a 12 dog Open Stake; or first award in an All Aged or Novice Stake Spaniels; First, second or third in Open Stakes; or first in an All Age or Novice Stake

Puppy Stake

Confined to dogs whelped not earlier than 1 January in the year preceding the date of the field trial. If a Puppy Stake is run in January then a dog that was a puppy in the previous year is deemed to still be a puppy.


The judges at field trials are appointed by the Field Trial Secretary of the organ ising club or society, after having been instructed to do so by the committee of the club or society. It is considered and honour to be asked to judge at a field trial and the highest standard of judging is expected from appointed judges. The club or society running the trial must satisfy itself that the persons being invited to judge at a trial have practical experience of both field trials and sporting shooting. Judges may not shoot at a stake at which they are judging nor may they enter a dog for competition at that trial (except for retriever stakes where someone else may handle their dog in a stake other than the one the owner has been asked to judge).

Judges are classified as either A or B Panel Judges and Non-panel (NP). However, an A Panel Judge must be present at all field trials. Judges are appointed to panels after recommendation from a Field Trial Secretary of a club or society which is approved to hold Open Stakes for the appropriate sub-group of gun dogs for which he or she has judged within the past three years. The opinion of all previous A Panel judges with whom he or she has judged field trials over the previous three years will be sought by the Kennel Club's Field Trial Sub-Committee. The experience of the perspective Panel Judge over the last number of years is taken into account but this must include having judged at trials for at least two different clubs or societies and with at least five different A Panel co-judges.

In addition, judges appointed to the B Panel must have a minimum of three years judging experience and six stakes, with at least five A Panel Judges. For appointment to the A Panel, judges must have served at least three years as a B Panel Judge, judging at a minimum of six stakes of which three must have been Open Stakes and with at least five different A Panel Judges.

Awards and Prizes

It is the judges at field trials who decide whether or not awards are to be made. In tests where the dog and handler team are judged against a standard, in some instances it has been adjudged that none of the dogs reached the required standard and awards have been withheld. This is, however, an unusual occurrence. It is more common for awards to be limited to one or two places than not to be awarded.

An award is any placing in a stake decided by the judges which may be first, second, third or fourth position. The following can also be conferred at the discretion of judges:

  1. At a Championship Stake
  2. Diploma of Merit
  3. In Other Stakes
  4. Certificates of Merit
Regulations for Retriever and Spaniel Breeds

Dogs competing in retriever or spaniel field trials must not wear a collar of any kind when under the order of the judges. Leads can be used when dogs are not under the order of the judges, but these must be removed prior to the dogs entering the competition line. Any dog that, in the opinion of the judges, does not reach the required standard for the breed will not receive an award. Judges will eliminate dogs from the trial if they have committed and "eliminating fault." Where the judges eliminate a dog for hard mouth, the handler must be given the opportunity of examining the game in the presence of the judges. Their decision, however, is final and binding.

In general, all dogs must be steady to the shot and the fall of game and should have the ability to retrieve on command. Handlers at field trials must not send their dog on a retrieve until they have been instructed to do so by a judge. Because all field trials in the UK are conducted in live shooting environments, judges will have instructed their guns not to shoot directly over a dog when it is already out working on a retrieve. All wounded game is gathered and dispatched at the earliest possible opportunity and is normally retrieved before dead game. It is possible that game cannot be gathered by the dogs in competition and in such cases the judges would assign this task to picker-up appointed for this purpose.

As good marking is essential in a retrieving breed to avoid the disturbance of game in the vicinity, judges will give full credit to a dog that goes directly to the fall of the game and gets on with the job of locating and retrieving. A clean pick up is preferred but judges will normally not penalize too heavily dogs that set game down to get a better grip. They will, of course, make a distinction between this and dogs that are guilty of sloppy retrieving or that deliver short of the handler.

Whilst dogs are required to be obedient and respond to its handler's signals, good game finding dogs will be scored higher than those dogs that need handled to the game. Usually the better dogs require less handling, appear to have an instinctive knowledge of direction and make a difficult find look simple. In the UK, Judges will call up dogs that are performing indifferently on a runner and another dog will be tried on it. The work of subsequent dogs on the runner will be assessed in the order in which they are tried. Missed game that is picked by the second or subsequent dog constitutes an "eye wipe." All "eye wipes" will be treated on their merits but dogs that have had their "eye wiped" during the body of the stake will be discarded by the judges. Where a dog shows ability by acknowledging the fall of game and making a workmanlike job of the line to the fall, it should not be barred from the awards by failing to retrieve the game if that game is not collected by another dog, tried by the judges on the same game.

All retrieved game is examined by the judges for signs of "hard mouth." Because hard mouthed dogs seldom give a visible sign of hardness by damaging the skin of game, the retrieved game should be placed in the palm of the hand, breast upwards and head forwards. Judges will examine the rib gage of the game, looking for any signs of the ribs being crushed by running the index finger and thumb along each side of the rib cage. If a judges suspects hard mouth, he or she would normally consult with their co-judge who will also examine the game. Where judges are in agreement that the damage has been caused by the dog crushing and not by the fall or the shot, the handler will be given the opportunity of inspecting the game in the presence of the judges. The decision of the judges is final and the dog will be eliminated from the trial.

FDSB / AFTCA Field Trials

Definitions of field trials differ based on the organizations that sanction them. The above definition for trials in Great Britain, for example, is quite different from, for example, FDSB (Field Dog Stud Book) field trials for pointers, English setters, German short hair pointers and Brittanys in the United States. The FDSB is the oldest stud book in the USA. The American Field publishes a weekly newspaper announcing field trials (open and amateur) in the USA, Canada and Japan and reporting the results of previous trials. Stakes in field trials are for puppies, derbies and mature dogs for which there are several placements in each stake. There are also championships for which dogs must qualify by winning field trial placements in order to compete in them. They generally award a winner and runner-up winner but not always. There are primarily walking Shooting Dog trials (including grouse and woodcock trials, sometimes called 'coverdog' trials held in areas where those birds exist), Horseback Shooting Dog and All Age trials. Today, All Age generally refers to a particular type of stake and the dogs that run in those stakes which include open championships run on the Canadian prairies (i.e., Dominion and The Manitoba All Age Championships), the endurance championships of the south (i.e. The Southern, The Continental, The Free-for-All, The Alabama, The National Field Trial Championships) Many of these championships are over 100 years old. The National Field Trial Championship is perhaps the most famous endurance trial. It has, for many years been run on the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee. Grand Junction is the home of the Bird Dog Foundation and the Bird Dog Museum. The National Championship is a three hour long stake for which the dogs must qualify in other trials throughout the year in order to compete. Each year there is only one champion. A dog's field trial wins are recorded with the FDSB and are a permanent part of their record shown on their pedigree. Please visit The AFTCA and the American Field websites for more information on FDSB field trials for pointing dogs.

Horses and Dogs Working Together

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that horses and dogs work well together. The famous dalmatians were known as fire dogs. They followed coaches pulled by horses. Jack Russell Terriers are used in fox hunting to ferret out the fox. The working terrier comes in many forms from the specialized breeds like the Patterdale, Fell types, Jack Russell, Border, Staffordshire and Pitbull--to the hybrids of these breeds. English Foxhounds run in front of the hunter horses. Horses carry riders to track people for many reasons. Hounds are used to pick up the scent. The list goes on and on.

Now that field trials have been explained above, we can visit the importance of using the horse in this endeavor. Even though field trials do not involve judging the horses, the horses play a critical role and must be up to the task. All gaited breeds are represented: Paso Fino, Spotted Saddle Horses, Rocky Mountain Horses, Kentucky Mountain Horses and Mountain Pleasure Horses. Even gaited mules and grade crosses (such as the Walkaloosa and others) are used. However, the Tennessee Walking Horse is the most commonly used breed for Field Trails It should be noted that although pacers are gaited they are considered undesirable for use in field trials as are trotting breeds in most quarters. A 4-beat gait is the gait of choice. Mechanized modes of transportation are forbidden, so the horse is the perfect mode of transportation.

The Horse
  1. Gaited horses (4-beat gait) are the mount of choice.
  2. The horse is a partner for the individual handling the dog.
  3. Long hours are spent in the saddle by the handler. Comfort is important.
  4. Gaited horses are smooth and cover lots of terrain rapidly.
  5. The horse must be sure-footed.
  6. The horse must be able to lead, be in a pack or fall back.
  7. The horse must leave the group when asked.
  8. The horse must negotiate all obstacles without hesitation.
  9. The horse must interact with the dogs without problems.
  10. The horse must be hardened off to gun fire.
  11. The horse must stand quietly when asked under all circumstances.
  12. The horse must not kick or have other vices.
  13. The horses must be road safe.
  14. The horses must learn to stay for long hours on a picket line.
  15. Horses must tie to a trailer without any problem.
  16. The horse must accept objects tied around their neck and packs.
  17. The horse must not spook. Fluttering birds, noises, activity, etc. abound.
  18. The horse must have an even temperament.
  19. The horse must be fit.
  20. The horse must be sound.
  21. The horse must have good endurance.
  22. The horse must be easy to trailer. No bad habits in this regard!
Who Uses the Horse in Field Trials?

The judges, handler's, bird planter's and Field Marshall (gallery horse - The field Marshall's job is to control the gallery use a horse in field trials. Field trials where horses are used are almost exclusively for pointer breeds. Field Trials that use Beagles, on occasion, for pack trials. The quick movement of the dog often require the judges to follow on horseback. It is difficult to keep up on foot. The vantage point from on top of the horse provides the judges with a better view of how each dog works within the pack. Field Trials using Spaniels and Retrievers do not uses horses.

"Of all the dog field trials, horses are most common in the Pointing dog field trials, governed by the AKC or the American Field. Both organizations have set up rules as to how the trials are run and what the dog must do. Trials have what are known as "Stakes" such as the "Gun Dog Stakes" and the "Open All Age Stakes" which are for dogs who are adults and are trained to stay point through the flush and shot. The handler flushes the bird and fires a blank; the dog is expected to stay on point throughout the process. These dogs are known a "Broke Dogs," and the sakes the run in are often known a "Broke Dog Stakes." Puppies also have stakes, but they are not expected to be broke or point, just to indicate the bird by flushing or pointing. Derby stakes require a dog up to two years of age point, but they do not have to stay on point. They can break and flush the bird, just as long as they have established a point. In all these Stakes, handlers, judges, field Marshall, bird planters and gallery follow behind the dog on horseback. The speed of travel behind the dog will depend on the type of trial, breed of dog, that particular brace of dogs, Stake rules and terrain. Braces can run from 15 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the type of brace. National Champion trials often run up to one week in length. The trial season is spring and fall in the temperate areas of the USA, with winter trials not being uncommon in the southern states and California. It is too hot in most states to hold summer trials." Field Trials and the Horse's Role

Horses are used by The American Kennel Club Hunting Tests for the pointing breeds. Only the judges and bird planters in these events use horses. Judges are often on the course all day, following the dogs. The horse offers a better view to the judge and eliminates all that walking for them.

Some Terminology

Beagling Terminology
Retriever Trial Terminology
Dachshund Terminology
United Kennel Club: Glossary of Pointing Dog Terms

  • Roading - Roading is a method to condition a dog. The dog wears a harness. A thirty-foot rope is attached to the harness. Then the rope is attached to the saddle. The dog is encouraged to lean into the rope and harness and pull hard. The rider and horse follow. Thirty minutes of roading is the equivalent of an hour of free running. The dog usually stays out in front of the horse so the horse must tolerate the rope crossing over his chest as the dog moves from the left to the right. Roading is also used to excite and educate the dogs. In American Field Trails you can road dogs in the gallery behind the dogs in a brace. The dogs being roaded become fired up by watching the other dogs work as the gun is fired and the bird is flushed. Roading is also used when a dog makes a mistake and you are far out on the course. If the judge orders you up, the dog can be roaded back to the club house. A dog that has been lost on the course and later found can be roaded back. This does not interfere with the new brace of dogs.
  • Gallery - The gallery may be as large as sixty or seventy riders on some of the more prestigious trials. He has to watch each brace and be ready to step in and judge, in the event something happens to one of the judges. He may also be the time keeper. The Marshall knows the course and shows the first brace where to go, most trials run over the same course all day. Some have two courses going at once, some may use a continuous course.
  • Brace - A brace trial is called a "brace" because there are two hounds that are put on the trail of game together. You do not get to choose whom you are braced with, it is done at random.
  • Field Marshall - This individual is in charge of finding the game in the field. He has to watch each brace and be ready to judge in case something happens to one of the judges. The Field Marsahall may also be the time keeper. The Marshall knows the course and shows the first brace where to go, most trials run over the same course all day. Some have two courses going at once, some may use a continuous course.
For More Information:

The Hunting Life

Horses and Dogs