It was the much anticipated first Monday of the month of March for the members and fans of the Georgia Florida Shooting Dog Handlers Club. It was our annual Field Trial, and I was sitting on the back of a deep brown Tennessee Walker. I felt bad because I did not know his name, having borrowed him from a friend who promised he would have something for me that day, and true to his word, the horse was delivered to me just prior to the start of our Field Trial. I am certain the scout told me his name when he handed me the reins, but my mind was too preoccupied with the excitement of what was ahead, and I was busy getting my own dogs settled inside their boxes on the wagon that I did not listen, so I just called him “Horse.”
I was riding alongside Durrell Smith and his horse, Bossman, when the elephant in the room, the question of the hour came up. Would I run Benny, my German Shorthair Pointer, in the Trial if Durrell pulled his dog, Jughead, due to an injury to his paw just two days prior? I had been asked multiple times leading up to this day if I would run him if the opportunity presented itself, and I always said, “No, I just want to watch.” Having seen last year’s Field Trial from the back of a Mule Wagon I did not feel I knew the tricks of the trade, so I did not feel confident; anyway, club rules dictate that a new member must sit out his or her first year. I was new, having only been a member since October. However, if someone must drop out a new member can take his or her place, and this looked to be the situation I had found myself in.
Unbeknownst to Durrell, I had already decided that morning that if he had to scratch Jug I would step in having been convinced by my husband that the experience would be “great” for both Benny and I. This did not mean that I did not believe that there was not a chance for an epic disaster, it just meant that I was willing to take that chance to learn what I could from the experience. I told Durrell I would do it, and he immediately agreed to be my Scout, making me feel a little better that the situation would not get too out of hand.
It was a hot day in Thomasville, Georgia; too hot for it to be just the beginning of March and not ideal in the least for Benny, who easily gets warm and had been riding in the wagon all morning. I was filled with so much apprehension, I could feel my heart pounding. My hands were shaking, and dang it if I did not have the sudden need to use the restroom. The woods would have to do. I hate feeling like I am unprepared. I am a person who hates to fail, so to make myself feel better I like to over prepare. The truth is, I was ready. Benny and I had put the work in, we had hunted all season and gone to the club training days; he looked good. On several of those training days he had more finds than his bracemate, and I knew that he could do it. There really was not anything more to do than to jump on the back of “Horse” and do what we had been training for. After making myself more comfortable, I pulled Benny out to water him while Durrell let our mentor and club president, Neal Carter Jr, know that he would not be running Jug, and I would be filling in.
Neal was pleased to hear that I was running Benny. He had a big ole grin on his sweet old face, and I was feeling like I was about to vomit. Neal proudly announced to everyone that the first woman in the club and in the history of the Field Trial, was about to run a dog. You would have thought by then I would be comfortable with all eyes being on me because I am always the one and only woman, but this time I was breaking new ground for real. I heard cheers and received well wishes and encouragement from many of the members and onlookers. There were also those that regarded me with curiosity, and others, I could tell, thought Neal had lost his mind. Nevertheless, I did not have time to ponder who was for me or against me because it was go time.
As my trembling hands put my tracking collar on Benny, I could hear Neal whispering to me softly, “Just do it like we always do. There is no one else here but me and you. Listen for my voice.” I looked into his eyes and felt a slight settling of my nerves. “I can do this.” I got on “Horse,” and Neal was leading Benny to the front. I handed my handset over to the Judge and paused to look at the sight of my beloved mentor carefully getting Benny settled out in front of my horse for me. When he looked up we locked eyes, and he gave me a slight head nod, his eyes saying, “You can do this.” We were given the green light to go, and my bracemate and I blew our whistles simultaneously, sending both of our dogs flying through the woods. Neither needed encouragement, and certainly not Benny, who had been whining and eager to go all morning.
Thirty minutes! Thirty minutes was how long we had to go, and I prayed Benny could hang in there in that heat. The last thing I wanted was to be told by a judge to pick my dog up. I was so nervous. I was in a place I love, doing what I love, and I was so anxious I could not relax enough to enjoy it. Benny was running hard, and I could already tell he was hot. Rookie move on my part, I was riding hard right behind him. I heard Neal call out to me “Manda, slow down let your dog work, you are pushing both dogs.” I must be honest, I was not overly concerned about my bracemate who did not look all that thrilled to be paired with me in the first place, but Neal wanted me to slow down, so slow down I did. I paused to water Benny, who appreciated the break under Neals watchful eye. “That’s enough,” he said, “Don’t give him too much.” I jumped back on “Horse” and sent Benny back out. I caught a glimpse of Durrell and Bossman way out in the woods like a pair of ghosts parallel to us. Not very noticeable like a good scout, but in place just in case.
I thought I saw Benny getting “birdie,” and in hindsight, I knew he was. He had caught a scent and was trying to work it out in all that heat. My bracemate saw it too. Benny was circling around in his “birdie trot,” tail looking like a little propeller. If I knew then what I know now, this may be a different story, but we will chalk this up to lessons learned. My bracemate went to laying on that whistle, blowing it for all it was worth: hacking, singing, calling out, you name it. Benny looked so confused. My lack of experience was working against me because I did not even realize my dog was being “stolen” from me. Benny moved on, and I doubted myself. I doubted what I saw, and I doubted my dog, forgetting Neal’s advice of, “Always trust your dog,” or “Know your dog.”
Benny and I went on to finish the brace with no finds. You would think I would have felt like I failed, but I did not. My bracemate had no finds either; I think he may have been too worried about being beat by a girl that he forgot to run his own race. I was satisfied that we finished and not told to pick up. I was proud of myself for trying and proud of Benny for finishing. We took with us the experience and the lessons; next time we will be better. That will be the last time my dog is taken from me. I am not bitter, that is part of it, and I am smarter and more educated for having been there and done it. There is always next year, and the year after, and one year, this girl seeks to win and be the first woman to win, not just compete. No matter what, my first-year jitters are behind me, and with every year that passes, I hope to be as cool and collected as my mentors who know that it is not just about finds, but also about showmanship. They strike a nice balance of sitting back, enjoying the ride, and knowing when it is time to go to work. It is all class with those two, and I am blessed to have them.