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It’s a chilly February morning at the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee. The air hangs at a crisp 44 degrees, draping the expansive 18,653-square foot grounds of the historic plantation in an eerie silence. Soon, the clock strikes one and the ground begins to quake underneath the furious fervor of 39 finely-trained bird dogs, hundreds of purebred Tennessee Walking horses and scores of dumbfounded spectators. The 2013 National Field Dog Trials had begun.

“The first time I went to Grand Junction, I was about 15 or 16 years old and the year was 1946,” says Joe Walker, retired meteorologist and current board member of the National Field Trials.  “I rode my uncle’s horse around the grounds for a day. I soon got carried away with the whole program and have been here every year since.”

The National Trials run for 11 days each year, while participants spend much of the remaining 354 preparing to return. It’s a competition of companionship that tests the bond between veteran hunters and man’s best friend centered on speed, accuracy and communication. Typical field trials consist of groups of dogs running in braces of two or three at a time in search of quail, the bird of choice for this Middle Tennessee hunter’s paradise. The contestants are hardy, man and beast alike. And with so much time and money invested in the event, they have to be. A successful showing requires intensive training year round. However, there are no rookies on Ames ground. The participants, dogs and humans alike, typically comprise generations of natural hunters with an inclination to score big. 

 “I’ve been a bird hunter all my life and I’ve had dogs all my life,” Walker says. “For many people, that’s all it takes.” There’s an element of recreation in the sport, but the pursuit of wild game isn’t all fun and games. Because competent dogs that can seek out a bird without much guidance are scored higher than those who require assistance, obedience is paramount. “Most of the judges have been around this their whole life,” says Walker. “They have a built-in knowledge of what they’re looking for, just like the dogs.”

While the participants may not resemble the average athlete, there’s an extreme degree of focus like that found in any sporting event. It’s a test of intelligence and stamina, of guts and tenacity — months, even years of breeding, training and preparation devoted to a scant and fast-paced two weeks. 

“There are 80 qualifying events in the US and Canada. For a dog to initially qualify for the national championship, he needs at least two first-place wins,” says Rick Carlisle, center director for the Ames Plantation. “To re-qualify after reaching the nationals, a dog must have a first, second or third place in any of the subsequent qualifying events throughout the year.”

A string of qualifying events presents a cross-country tour that begins in Canada at the close of the National Championships and migrates across the continent based on crop patterns and weather. But among field trials, Ames is the Super Bowl. The qualifying trials run right to the nationals, as little as two weeks before and after the big meet, which draws owners from across the country to converge on the sleepy town of Grand Junction. National championships run an all-age race, which packs a variety of dogs of all ages, sizes and sexes. Spurred on by the multitude of seasoned hunters at the helm of the competition, an entire industry has sprung up devoted to raising, breeding and training these talented canines.

“A lot of dogs just love to get out there and run. But a good bird dog is a hunter through and through. He works for the handler, he’ll find game and point it with style,” says Walker, who has judged field trials all over the country, from Mexico to Canada. “They get used to the horses. They get used to the crowds. They’re strong and able to do the job.”

In many ways, Ames is its own teacher.  “I had never heard of a field trial before I came here,” says Rick Carlisle, center director for the Ames Plantation and longtime outdoor enthusiast. “My education was from the school of hard knocks and I’ve learned a bit along the way.” Yet for others, it’s the canine companions who provide the true learning experience. “The dogs teach me more than I teach them,” says trainer Nick Thompson. “Every one of them is different.”

The Ames Plantation oozes history, which is more than apparent after surveying the lay of the land and its scores of natural and pen-raised quail. “We have a large native population in addition to some pen-raised birds. We try to restock them by the middle of September,” says Carlisle, who has spent 31 years working the land at Ames. His day-to-day duties include rowing 2,500 acres of crop, tending to the third-largest Angus herd in the country and serving as a liaison with the resident biologist. The forest surrounding the plantation is required to be a working forest under federal law, so handling the 13,000 acres of timber also falls on Carlisle.  “I spent about 90 percent of my time outdoors for the first 30 years, but now I’m pushing a pencil most days,” he says. The cost of birds and feed strips alone totals nearly $100,000 and   row crops are harvested annually to open up a natural, breathtaking vista. In addition, Ames boasts substantial Turkey and deer hunting clubs who stalk the land during the field trials off-season.

The first sanctioned field trial in the U.S. was held in 1874 just outside of Memphis. Ames Plantation hosted its first national championship in 1904 before the then-semiannual event found a permanent home in 1915. Ames now garners several thousand visitors year round, from prospective field trailers to Civil War-era history buffs. People come from all over to view the national championship, from Tennessee locals who frequent the plantations to ride horseback, to rubbernecking reporters, hunting enthusiasts and dog lovers. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of tradition in this land. Everything is just as it was way back when,” says former two-time National Field Trial champion Larry Huffman.

And with such volume, crowd management is a must. The Ames Plantation security patrol is comprised of local law enforcement enjoying a vacation from overseeing Fayette County. For them, the field trials provide a brief respite from the slow pace of small-town law enforcement. “You have riders who become hunters and hunters who become riders,” Walker says. “Many just want to come out here and see the beautiful landscape surrounding the Ames Plantation.”

While some might argue that Ames represents the proving ground for bird dogs and hunters, each is a champion in its own right. “A dog that runs at Grand Junction has to win field trials at other locations across the country,” says Walker. “He has to be proven.”

In addition to dog owners, judges and spectators, each contestant is accompanied by a handler whose job entails staying behind the judges at all times and watching out for horses that might not be as keenly trained as their canine counterparts. Many dogs are trained specifically to work alongside certain horses, which serve as the primary method of transport across the sprawling plantation. Equipment varies, but the majority of participants pack rope, a harness, water, a tracking collar provided by Ames staff and little else.  

Finding the right dog is always a challenge, especially when it comes to competing on a national level. There’s a certain tenacity in these breeds that doesn’t come easily. Prospective owners must account for the nose, the pads, temperament and threshold of each prospective pooch. This year, a setter took home the grand prize, a rare field trial anomaly that hasn’t happened since 1972. In the early years, the setter was the go-to breed for field trials. As years passed, many began to lean toward pointers because of their speed and a bit more aptness to the overall world of field trials. Today, setters are the literal underdogs in the competition. “I probably train 10 pointers for every other breed of dog I work with,” says trainer Nick Thompson. While the sport is geared toward pointers and setters, official rules state that any breed is welcome. However, few hunters would be daring enough to venture outside the realm of established breeds. “That’d be like taking a beagle to a greyhound track,” says Huffman. This year’s champion, Shadow Oak Bo, is owned by Butch Houston of Nashville, Georgia and John Dorminy of Fitzgerald, Georgia. This focused setter landed seven perfect finds in the 2013 competition, soaring above the offerings of his peers. The National Championship bracket typically amounts to 95 percent pointers and 5 percent setters. “You can see how rare such a thing is. But I guess it’s the law of averages,” Walker says. “Every so often, a setter comes along with everything it takes to be a national champion. But overall, the pointer had been proven to be a better field trial dog.”  

However, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what the judges define as a stellar, regardless of the breed. “If you’ve got a dog with birds on his mind big enough to run in the race, that’s all it takes,” says Carlisle. Judges are looking for a dog that, above all else, pays attention to their handler—a dog who hunts birds and finds his quarry. This includes a nature to stay ahead of the pack and a temperament that’s not easily spooked by the thunderous hooves of accompanying horses or distracted by the occasional wayward deer or squirrel. Owners are often looking for strong runners that are willing to brave the cold across the three-hour endurance run and power through the 11-mile established course more than once. “A dog will run somewhere between 22 and 25 miles between that time period,” Carlisle says. “He’s got to be in perfect physical condition to handle that.” Carlisle ensures the strict rules and administers the guidelines instated by the National Field Trial Champion Association’s 6,000-acre field trial courses. 

As soon as the year’s winner is announced, business picks back up. Planning and preparation for next year begins as early as six weeks after the National Championships. Qualifying events for the next year begin in August and go all the way until two weeks before the National Championship. Carlisle has run every trial over the past 31 years, from the Amateur Run in November to the high-profile grand finale in February. “You couldn’t pay a person enough to do this. You really have to love the dogs and love the sport,” Huffman says.

It is perhaps a love of the animals associated with the trials that led Nick Thompson to his current profession. As a bird dog trainer, Thompson lays the foundation for future champions. A Benton County, Mississippi native who works as a scouter, Thompson lives the field trial life daily. He shoes horses and raises bird dog pups for a living, many of which attain greatness in the annals of the Ames Plantation. “I raise puppies for a lot of the competitors—get them acclimated to gunshots, birds, teaching ‘em ‘come here,’” he says. Thompson has worked closely alongside several former winners including Larry Huffman and two-time champion Steve Hurdle, a pair of Mississippi sportsmen who have made quite a name for themselves in the field trial world. 

Thompson’s aim is to get owners in sync with dogs and horses, both of which tend to get pretty excited. “I had to learn to settle down myself at the trials. Dogs can feel that, horses too,” he says. “A good dog not only has to have it all, but it has to be the right day for him.” His fondest memories of the field trials include scouting three national championship winners for Huffman and Hurdle. But chief among these memories is a standout experience at the National Championships in 1991 when Collin Davis won. “He was one of the first ones that made me feel welcome. When he won, he took me up, shook my hand and told everyone ‘this is the man that shoed the horse and trained the dog that won this SOB,’” he says.

The training process takes about two months for Thompson and is often a delicate affair. “If you push them too hard, it takes some of their pride away,” he says. “A happy dog wins prizes. An unhappy dog might do everything he should, but he won’t look pretty doing it.” But training is just the first step. Championship dogs require a good bit of luck on their side. A well-heeled and talented dog may run perfectly solo, but the heat of the competition and the chill of the wind can affect even the fiercest competitors. “It costs a lot of money to raise and train these dogs. It’s a weighty investment and pretty expensive operation overall,” says Walker. While these dogs were once trained exclusively around horses, many modern competitors now train from four-wheelers with several dogs at once. “You can’t do that in a field trial, but it’s a good way to keep your dog in shape and get them used to the other dogs you’re training,” says Walker. “And of course, it’s a lot easier to ride a four-wheeler than a horse as you get older.” 

However, no amount of training can prepare for February. Conditions are rarely ideal. Contestants must traverse cold, often frozen ground and rain is a frequent occurrence. In extreme cases, judges call it off for the day. “A dog can’t run in freezing rain for three hours. It just isn’t possible,” says Walker. “It gets to where they really can’t function well.”

And few know the limits of these dogs as well as Larry Huffman. Many dogs have the Whippoorwill prefix attached to their registered name, which denotes their point of origin. A 27-year National Championship veteran and two-time winner, Huffman took home the grand prize once in ’99 with his pointer, Whippoorwill Wildcard, and yet again in 2008 with Wildcard’s grandson, Whippoorwill Wildagin. The name comes from his Whippoorwill Farms, Huffman’s home base of sorts, where he breeds, raises and trains bird dogs. The 53-year-old former champion has been immersed in the world of field trials since the age of 12. “My dad ran dogs with the amateurs for years,” he says. “I eventually picked up on it and this year will mark my 40th trip out that way.” 

For Huffman, field trials are just a small part of a grand family legacy. The Walnut, Mississippi native works as a professional dog trainer and has raised five national champions. He hosts qualifying rounds at his place, the largest avenue for such an endeavor in Benton County. Every year, Huffman embarks on a whirlwind tour with his family across the country where he heads a caravan of 28 dogs and 5 horses across various field trial destinations for qualifying rounds and training.  “I like to squirrel hunt with my dogs a lot and my boys hunt anything that can be hunted.” He says of his two sons, “They’ve headed north with me their entire lives.” Huffman’s winning dog in ‘98 descended from one of his father’s standouts, making the ordeal a family affair in more ways than one. His father, Steve, focuses on breeding while he works to train and raise young pups. In addition, his wife Piper works as secretary of the Amateur Field Trial Club of America. “You see a lot of families getting involved and there’s a lot of tradition involved,” Carlisle says, noting that much of the growing presence at Ames over the years is due to family tradition.

This sentiment is echoed in Joe Walker. “You keep the bloodline going at all times. Winning dogs sire winning puppies and a new generation of champions takes over for past hall of famers. With our new litter, my son has pretty much taken over our operations,” he says of Kent Walker, an aspiring amateur field trainer with dreams of competing with the big names. “It kind of gets in your blood, I think.”

Thompson recalls coming to Grand Junction from a very young age and receiving his first dog, Donjon, at age three. “She was a part of some very good bloodlines but she wasn’t registered. They found me when I was three years old, sleeping under the house with our family dog and her puppies,” he says. “They thought I had drowned!” In his teenage years, he began training dogs before discovering that horses were in higher demand and more suited to his unique talents. “During the winter, the field trials were a good place I could find work and make a little bit of money to pay for groceries,” he says. “It looked like a lot of fun. A lot of people took a lot of time to answer my questions, let me ride and show me a thing or two.” 

Thompson made annual trips alongside his father and grandfather. His first official field trial duties involved riding his horse toward the back of the group trying to keep the braces up. “I was the kind of person I don’t like to see coming nowadays,” Thompson laughs. Now 51, he proudly proclaims that Donjon’s descendants are still around, though the bloodline may be a bit muddled. “The bloodline is still there, but it’s so far distant now that it’d be like I was saying I was kin to Adam,” he says.

As the scale of the National Championship continues to grow over the years, things have changed. For one thing, dogs aren’t as cheap as they used to be. “Folks are paying a lot more for dogs than they’re used to,” says Carlisle. “Pre-qualified dogs run owners up to $40,000. With that much of an investment running around, people tend to get a little nervous.” Concessions were eventually made in the form of locator collars that aren’t enacted until after the dogs’ allotted time is up. “Today, handlers and judges like to see the dogs at all times. If the dog is out of sight for more than a few minutes, they tend to get worried. But for the most part, the dogs aren’t lost — they’re out hunting,” says Carlisle. However, the peace of mind provided by the equipment is more than enough to put some owners’ minds at ease. “I wouldn’t turn a dog loose without one. For one thing, it saves a lot of horse flesh. Less wandering and less guesswork,” Huffman says of GPS-enabled gear.

However, despite the changes in structure, some things never change — the devotion to tradition, the fleeting feeling of victory and the long-lasting bond of camaraderie between man and canine. “The national championship will continue,” says Carlisle. “We’ve been here since 1915 and there’s no plans of stopping.”

Fields of Glory

The Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee, serves as proving ground for hunters and their canine companions

 

Story by Casey Hilder  |  Photos by John hoffman and

Casey Hilder

Feature | October 2013

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