At 8 a.m. they converged on Trails End Ranch near Steelville. It was only mid September, but the temperature was in the low 40s, and their breaths created foggy exclamation points as they emerged from buses, kennels and trailers.
White-and-liver colored pointers whined and shivered with excitement. A wire-haired pointing Griffon puppy barked joyously and strained at his lead, and regal Gordon setters drew great, thoughtful draughts of air into their lungs as if planning strategy for the day's challenge. Horses whinnied and pawed the ground expectantly.
People gathered in clusters nearby, mirroring their dogs' moods and movements, looking excitedly about, awaiting the order to mount up and ride.
A bird dog field trial is as much about excitement and anticipation as it is about quail... maybe more so. It's also a source of excitement most people don't have a chance to experience. Until 1995, a youngster living at Boys and Girls Town of Missouri in St. James had almost no chance to witness the excitement that ripples through a gallery of mounted hunters when bird dogs lock down on point.
Then, in 1995, civic-minded Missouri field trial groups held the first Boys and Girls Town of Missouri Educational Field Trial. It has served kids ever since.
Following the example of the businessmen who founded Boys and Girls Town, St. Louis area field trialers decided to combine the things they were most passionate about. They wanted to involve residents of the Boys and Girls Town campus in a real field trial, reasoning that such an event would serve several purposes. First, it would expose Boys and Girls Town residents, most of whom end up in the residential program after brushes with the law, to an exciting pastime that emphasizes ethics.
Second, it would show young participants the importance of trust and cooperation in the context of friendly competition. Conservation principles are part of the experience, too.
Finally, the event increases the awareness of field trialing, and will, perhaps, increase participation and understanding of this traditional sport. Youths who had no previous experience gain a better understanding of bird hunting. That increases acceptance, even among those who may have had strong anti hunting attitudes before the Educational Field Trial.
Field trialing is a natural fit for Boys and Girls Town, which uses horseback riding as an incentive. The organization's 127-acre campus at St. James has stables with 300 horses. Good behavior and hard work earn residents the privilege of learning to ride and taking part in trail rides.
Not all Boys and Girls Town's 250 residents get to take part in the field trial, and those chosen are excited about the prospect. Naturally, all hope for the chance to ride in the event.
The program begins on Friday evening with a wild game dinner of quail and buffalo burger donated by the field trialers. After dinner, about 100 girls and boys attend a program where sponsors show them bird dogs, horses and equipment. They also explain how field trialing got started and how it works.
The kids' preconceptions and prejudices begin to dissolve immediately. One dog owner remembers a kindergarten-aged boy in the audience who had a burning question about the bird dog. "Where," the wide-eyed child asked, "are his feathers?"
The kids are eager for a chance to handle a dog or sit atop a horse, so requests for volunteers produce a sea of raised hands. During an informal question-and-answer session following the program, boys and girls crowd around the field trialers to stroke and pet their animals. Questions fly like a flushed covey of quail."Can I feed your horse?"
"Will we ride horses like this tomorrow?"
Kelly LaHay, 16, recalled laughingly how she felt the first time she climbed atop a horse. "He acted wild when they were getting him ready," she said. "I was so scared, I was crying."
Seventeen-year-old Greg Gamble was amazed at how dogs could be posed atop a table in picture-perfect points and held there indefinitely with only the command, "Whoa."
Early the next morning, a select group of 50 Boys and Girls Towners galloped out of buses at Trails End Ranch. Some would start the day by staffing a refreshment tent serving coffee and pastries. Others paired with sponsors who walked them through the action of a field trial.
Some had the opportunity to handle the dogs, controlling them with whistles, voice commands and gestures. Others were chosen to be scouts, helping the handlers identify the best places to work their dogs. Kids also got to be judges, awarding points or penalties based on dogs' performance in finding quail and "honoring" the points of other dogs in the field. The remainder of youths constituted the "gallery," riding their horses behind the scouts and handlers to observe, just as spectators do in sanctioned field trials.
Beth Fulton, 15, got to be a handler. When her dog went on point, she dismounted and walked in to steady the dog. Once the gallery was in place, she walked in to flush the birds, taking care to approach at the angle most likely to give gunners a good shot.
"It was cool how the dogs snuck up on the birds when they smelled them," Fulton said. "It was weird. When he got close, he just stopped. I didn't have to tell him; he just knew what to do."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch headquarters, other youngsters were learning to handle dogs that accompany hunters on foot. Here, hunter and handler worked together, giving young participants an intimate look at bird dogs at work. The contrast between a five-month-old puppy's performance and the quick, sure tracking of a finished dog showed how training and experience fine-tune instincts carefully cultivated through hundreds of generations of selective breeding.
Taking part in the Educational Field Trial has a dramatic effect on some youths. The experience convinced Aaron Coffey, 16, that he wants to own a pointer. Others learned how horses can enhance the enjoyment of outdoor recreation.
All come away with altered perspectives on life, work and recreation. If nothing else, they learn that the world is full of strange and wonderful experiences that are available to those with the maturity, wisdom and courage to find productive niches in the world. That's a life-changing lesson that can take them from the field trial to their own personal field of dreams.
Boys and Girls Town of Missouri provides facilities for the Educational Field Trial, but sporting groups actually put on the show. Organizations involved in the event, and contacts for more information about field trialing include:
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer