By Alicia Johnson
It is the morning of a Field Trial and as dawn breaks horses are being saddled. The wind whips through the sage colored, winter grass and the pine tree limbs softly creak with every gust. The horses stand quietly as if they know to conserve their energy for the next few hours when they will pace behind the English Pointers and Setters who are searching for their Covey.
The ideal Field Trial horse is known to be obedient, graceful and one that has enough endurance to cover hundreds of acres in a single brace. When pacing behind the dogs at work, a rider must have an intuitive, dependable horse in order to produce a successful and pleasurable brace and ride. A closer look at what makes an ideal Field Trial horse reveals exactly what characteristics riders and trainers are looking for in their mounts.
Jacob Parks, professional trainer and owner of Gaited Horsemanship, attests that the Tennessee Walking horse (TWH) is traditionally the most sought after horse in the Field Trial world. Known for its natural gait, the TWH is both willing and easy to train. The breed is known for its role as the original “Plantation Horse.” It was bred to be ridden for hours at a time, through hundreds of acres and with a smooth gait that keeps the rider comfortable in the saddle. Still, today, the breed is used to gait over hundreds of acres and through muddy, rough, hilly and unexpected terrain. Although the TWH is the most common breed used in Field Trials, any naturally gaited horse, including Spotted Saddle Horses and Rocky Mountain Horses are ridden.
No matter what gaited breed, the ideal Field Trial horse has a smooth, collected, and calm four-beat gait. According to Jacob, a horse that paces or trots too much is frowned upon in a Field Trial. Excessive pacing and trotting is uncomfortable for the rider who will spend multiple hours in the saddle. Jacob states a horse with a “nice, smooth ‘rocking chair canter’ is a necessity for handlers, judges, and riders.” Not only is this collected canter comfortable, but it enables the horse to move into a faster gallop if the dogs get ahead.
Riders in several disciplines seek horses with a pretty head, set on a nice neck, quality bloodlines and conformation, but these are not always the first traits Field Trialers seek in their horses. Typically, a bigger horse around 16h is preferred. This allows the rider to see the dogs more easily when mounted. A taller horse is also more capable of a longer, ground-covering stride. “A strong-boned horse with good feet” is integral to handling the physical demands of the brace Jacob states.
One of the most unique aspects to a Field Trial is the combination of gun fire, dogs, and a large gallery of horses all working through open fields. Tolerance to gunfire and dogs are absolute necessities in a Field Trial horse. Dogs running up from behind, through the gallery and under foot must be tolerated by the horse. Spooking of any kind is undesirable. And a good Field Trial horse must be fit, but also know how to conserve energy. Field Trial horses are ridden for multiple hours during a single brace, and at times back to back days. It is not uncommon for handlers, judges and avid riders to have three to five horses they rotate throughout Field Trial competitions.
During a brace horses work through large, open fields and are very close to other horses and riders. Horses may be nudged or bumped by others so it is key for a horse to be tolerant of other horses in its space. Stallions are not ridden in a gallery of horses and traditionally geldings are preferred due to the close nature of the ride. Mares are not always frowned upon, but a mare should not kick out or squeal when in the gallery of horses. Being able to ground tie is another key attribute of a Field Trial horse. When the dog is on point and the handler or scout dismounts the horse must be obedient and stand quietly when reins are dropped. It wouldn’t be a good day for a handler if his horse spooked at the gun fire and left him or her stranded in the field.
A horse trained for Field Trials should only be lacking one thing: experience. A trainer like Jacob can mimic numerous possible scenarios the horse and rider may encounter during a brace. He or she can ride on different types of terrain, cross water, and traverse hills to prepare the horse; however, only experience will truly finish a Field Trial horse out. One or two years of Field Trial experience in the elements, such as snow, sleet, rain, and even heat provides the horse with its finishing touches.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful traits of a Field Trial horse is the grace it has while carrying its rider over hundreds of acres. It is obvious these horses love their job as their ears are perked forward and their heads bob with their smooth gait. They eagerly carry their rider through any element the unpredictable winter weather can have on their terrain. Whether they pace over ice, mud, water, rocks at the bottom of a creek, or through a thicket of brush and pine forests, these horses keep their heads high and eyes forward as if they are watching the pointers or setters search for their quail.