Just outside of Camden, under a wide open blue sky, the air was filled with the sound of barking dogs, snorting horses and cooing pigeons.
Tom Hall and a couple of members from the Mid Carolina Field Trial Club were exercising their bird dogs on this recent afternoon, running through 30-minute mini-field trials designed to show off the dog’s ability to find birds and hold a point.
What began as a gentleman’s hunting sport in the late 1800s in the open English countryside has today become a pure, non-kill competitive sport showcasing the art of dog and horse and rider working together.
In the United States, field trials became popular in the post-Civil War era, too, especially in South Carolina, where there was a large native population of bobwhite quail. Field Trial Clubs were organized and events could last an entire weekend, with dogs and horses running over huge tracts of rural land along a continuous course.
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This weekend, the Association of South Carolina Field Trial Clubs hopes to raise more interest and bring in new generations into this sport, whose season kicks off in October.
“The time is right, the Association is a treasure,” said Hall, the club’s secretary. “We are trying to revive a deserving South Carolina tradition.”
There are many kinds of field trials, depending on the dog breed and organization. But generally, dogs compete against each other, in a hunt for hidden or strategically placed birds along a course, with several criteria determining a winner. The dog’s handler and a scout ride along on horseback, spotting the dog along the course, while a judge oversees the trial. Homing pigeons and blank guns are used to train the dogs to point and hold and simulate a hunt.
In Southern field trials, English Pointers and English Setters are the traditional dogs used because of their speed, endurance and ability to withstand the heat. Tennessee Walkers are the gaited horse of choice.
‘Let her go!’
Charles Young, a charter member of Mid Carolina Field Trial Club and involved with the sport since he weas 25 years old, was out on the recent afternoon, following the action in his pickup truck.
Young, now a spry 80 years old, acted as judge and starter for the mini-trial exercise for fellow club member Ross Callaway and his pointer, Sue. Calloway and Dennis Lemoine, acting as scout for the dog, lined up Sue at the start of the course.
Calloway stroked the dog once more before climbing into his saddle.
Young yelled “Let her go!,” and Sue took off at full speed.
Calloway and Lemoine took off on horseback at full gallop behind Sue, with the dog quickly disappearing through the tall grass. Hall followed in an ATV and Young in his truck, up and over hills and gullies and through tall grass and scrub brush for what seemed at least a half mile before the horses were spotted cresting a small rise about 100 yards ahead.
Sue had gone on point at the far edge of a harvested corn field and the horses were just coming to a halt at her location as the ATV topped the hill.
Calloway raised his cap to signal Sue’s point, with her discovery of the homing pigeon, and the dog held position until Hall and Young caught up.
At the judges’ arrival, Calloway released the pigeon and fired a blank round, simulating a true hunt, then Sue was allowed to relax and get some water before setting off to find the next bird.
Although homing pigeons are used for training, live quail are used in an actual trial. They are captured and released, not killed. Natural coveys of quail can be found along some courses, and Field Trial Club members try to encourage their development by spreading feed corn.
After Sue came to point two more times over the course, it was time for a rest.
A hunt for new fans
Hall said field trials are one of the oldest organized sporting events in South Carolina. He said you don’t have to have a dog or horse to be able to enjoy the sport. The fun is in watching the interaction of the dog, horses and riders.
Inside the Mid Carolina clubhouse, not far from Cassatt, photographs from past trials and laminated copies of newspaper articles reporting field trial results adorn the walls.
Under the results from the Sandlapper Field Trial Club’s Amateur Shooting Dog Stake a few years back is a passage: “The top dog was Bopper’s Shadow, handled by her proud owner, Charles K. Young, age 74 ... The bottom dog was Klee’s Sweet Pye under the whistle of 15-year-old junior handler Marian Huggins.”
It illustrates Hall’s contention that people of all ages can get involved, compete and enjoy field trials.
Field trial season in the South usually runs October through March, when the weather is cooler.
At the S.C. Bird Dog Revival this weekend at Hall’s Magnolia Plantation, in Ridgeway, Hall will be hosting a group of field trial professionals, including three-time National Champion and Hall of Fame member John Ray Kimbrell, a Fort Mill native.
Hall hopes to draw new fans into the sport of field trials, just in time for the start of a new season.
The first official Association of South Carolina Field Trial Club event of the 2015-16 season is the Kershaw FTC, scheduled for Oct. 2-4 at the Mid Carolina Field Trial Club grounds in Camden.
Rules of a field trial
It’s all about the dog and showing off the dog’s skill to find live birds that have been “planted” or situated in strategic spots over a single course.
A brace consists of two randomly paired dogs competing against each other. Braces run 60 minutes in length, covering hundreds of acres of land.
Each dog is accompanied by a handler and one or two scouts. The handler, scout(s) and judges are on horseback and will follow the dog through the course.
At the start of the course, dogs and horses line up and at the judge’s signal are told to go. Dogs take off, and riders on horseback follow.
When a dog finds the bird, he must stay on point while the birds are flushed and the handler fires a blank gun. The first dog in the brace to point is considered lead and then the second dog in the brace is judged on how well he honors the lead by staying off point at a distance.
Dogs are judged on their hunting skill, speed and endurance. The dog with the most points at the end of the day is declared the winner.
Dogs and handlers can compete as Amateur or Pro (Open), All Ages, Novice, Derby or Puppy.
South Carolina Field Trial Clubs
The Association of South Carolina Field Trial Clubs lists the following traditional horseback trial clubs in South Carolina:
Mid Carolina, Sandlapper, Fort Mill, Chesterfield, SC Open Shooting Dog Championship (SCOSD), Pittsburg FTC, Palmetto Quail Club, Carolina Pointing Dog Club, Bulls Bay FTC, Kershaw County FTC, and The Sumter Gamecock FTC (the oldest in South Carolina, having organized in 1935)
Continuous Course vs. Single Course: Continuous courses were run in the early days of field trials over large tracts of land. Basically, after a dog came to the final point in a brace, the next brace would begin at that location and continue on an open course. With the landscape changing due to development, single course trials were implemented, in which each brace has the same starting point on a smaller portion of land (usually a few hundred acres).
Singing the dog: The sing-song call of the handler communicating commands to the dog.
Scout: A mounted rider whose job is to keep the dog on the course.
Gallery: The guests or attendees to a field trial. They can be on horseback or ride in a wagon but must stay back about 100 feet from the dogs and handlers.
If you go
SC Bird Dog Revival, a benefit for the Association of South Carolina Field Trial Clubs:
When: Noon-6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Magnolia Plantation, 631 Longtown Road, Ridgeway
What: An afternoon of bird dogs, bluegrass with the Mustache Brothers, barbecue and roasted quail. Meet professional handlers John Ray Kimbrell, Ross Calloway, Steve Browder, Mark Fulmer and Charles Timmerman.
Tickets at gate: $10 per adult, children free
Details: (803) 767-5305