Field Trials Past Reflections - Future Concerns




First published in
The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991
ĎA Celebration of 75 Yearsí

Page updated



by Wilson Stephens

The story of field trials is also the story of the Labrador. For 40 years before Labradors burst out of their long seclusion in the ownership of a few noble families, field trials had been for the pointing breeds only. They ante-dated the Kennel Club, the first of them being held in the 1860's - the last decade in which game-shooting was held down to the pace of muzzle loading. Thereafter, breech-loading guns led to driven game, which in turn led to specialist retrievers, and these needed performance-testing as much as the pointing breeds did.

A retriever trialís format, not very different from today's, was introduced in the 1890's. The early stakes were few but exhaustive, and were ,dominated by Flatcoats - the setter-based breed evolved to meet the new task of quick recovery of game killed in much greater numbers than formerly; not until then had more than a brace or two of birds been on the ground simultaneously. Later the Labradors came into the public eye and under the judges. Only a few stakes in the early 1900's were enough to change the picture fundamentally.

Being setter-based, the Flatcoats had inherited little ability in marking, hunted air scent, and quested wide downwind sweeps in doing so. As a result they took too long to make their finds and flushed too many other birds which flew out of the beat unshot. How little the world changes. The tighter-hunting, nose-down Labradors went the shortest way to the fall, worked their ground tightly, and used their interior lines to save time, leaving ,surrounding ground undisturbed, so that more birds were shot at and finished up in the bag. The Labrador supremacy has never since been challenged by Flatcoats, and though the best - and best handled - Goldens are sometimes too good for them, no other retriever is their equal in sustained excellence breed-wide.

Elegantly attired spectators watching the dogs work in the IGL Field Trial 1911 - note the handlers carrying guns.
Before the first World War the days were gone when 60% of retrievers had to be regarded as necessary evils. Flatcoats, renowned then as now for exuberance, were not always rock steady, and ground anchors or dog-men in attendance were normal at almost every peg. Muscular Curly-coats tugged at their moorings. Labradors - biddable, reliable, ever-willing - proved that such artificial aids were not only inelegant but could easily be made unnecessary. Field trial after field trial raised their standard, mating after mating passed the improvement on. Field trials became not only the cause but the proof of an advance in the science of dog usage as far-reaching as the advance from muzzle-loading to breech-loading shotguns had been.

We field trial people of today are the heirs to what has happened since.  The same decade that established the hegemony of the Labrador saw also first Spaniel trials. Field trials themselves advanced from being esoteric mysteries to becoming a subsidiary sport in their own right as picking-up became a parallel pastime to shooting them, separate though dependent. In all this the Labrador was the trigger for advance from the reign of Edward VII to that of Elizabeth II.

As driven game superseded walking-up, as combine-shaved harvest fields replaced the horse-reaper's partridge-holding stubble, and as shooters lost the use of their legs, most Pointers and Setters retreated to the great open spaces and the grouse. There leaner, harder breeds of dog-handlers and guns still follow the original field trials' format in the incomparable splendour of the moors, preserving not only the scene but the courtesies of times long past. The great landowners who brought field trials into being by lending their ground and providing the game, continued their patronage into the present which nevertheless now sees a significant shifting of its fundamentals.

The improvement of performance by better training of ever more purpose-tested and genetically perfected gundogs still continues to be hailed as the prime objective, but has in fact been superseded by the will to win - more for the immediate thrill in victory than for any effect on the breeding of future generations. Just as the aims and enjoyments of point-to-pointers are only partly those of foxhunters, so field trial owners and handlers have values which are only partly those of shooters. Labrador-led, field trials have come to a parting of the ways, and this reflects itself in their "organisation and conduct.

We have inflation in the number of stakes and would-be entrants to them. Strangely, both the fact and the implications of this seem little appreciated even by participants, and until very recently was unrealized by their governing body, the Kennel Club. Under the generous private patronage of landowners to whom shooting was a combination of hereditary right, social grace, and participant sport, field trials had passed through three phases.

Before the first World War they were novelties and rare, a mere dozen a year. Until the second World War they grew steadily in numbers and in the development of conventions in testing and judging gun dog work most of the inherent wisdom which now permeates field trials dates from that time.  After the second World War a new start from scratch had to be made, and was followed by a ten year rebuild-up leading to an explosion (the word is not too strong) in and since the 1960's. The questions must be answered. Is there a danger of field trials outgrowing their strength, their purpose, their integrity, or all three? Will the bubble burst?

The inflation in numbers took those closely concerned with their organisation by surprise. There is still a tendency for old triallers (memories going back to the 1960's or earlier) to think that the field trial world is the same now as it was when they formed their first impression of it. Newcomers to the scene do not realize that it has not always been what it is now. To give some idea of how things have changed, these figures are quoted.

In1960-61 (the start of the brave new world, the re-building process being complete) the season consisted of 96 field trial meetings. In the last completed season there were 422. The number of licenced retriever stakes alone, 193, was thus nearly double the total of all stakes in 1960. The number of spaniel stakes, 138, also greatly exceeded the earlier all-breeds total.  With 32 meetings, Pointer and Setter trials had also much expanded. The 46 pointer-retriever meetings recorded in the latest return are a new element, none having been run in this discipline in 1960. There were also 10 Utility stakes (in which spaniels and pointer-retrievers compete against retrievers at retrieving only).

In 1960-61 the Field Trials Committee met three times per year. Now, with more than four times the work load, it still meets three times per year; with four times the work load and no increase in the committee hours allocated, it is reasonable to expect 25% of the efficiency, and this is about what we have been getting. The Field Trials Council, designedly the channel for grass-roots opinion, met once annually then as now.

Whether the internal staffing effort for the administration of field trials has been similarly left static is an open question (so seasonal an activity makes quantification difficult). All that can be said is that an improvement in awareness and response quality has been noticeable over the past year. My personal experience is that briefing papers and fact sheets, normal to meetings of other deliberative bodies in business and in the Forces, have very seldom been furnished to Kennel Club committees, and never to the Field Trials Committee. Decisions and discussions are therefore taken at first sight, without opportunity for fact analysis, reflection, or consultation, with the consequent risks, sometimes realised, of hasty decisions and of insufficiently thought-out measures becoming law.

Rapid expansion has combined with a change in the foundations of field trials to produce an instability which has yet to be rectified. Formerly the sport was balanced and orientated by the influence of its hosts who provided the trial grounds. Those days are going, may soon be gone. The reasons for this are inevitable in the existing social and financial climate, and if the sport is to survive unscathed they must be recognised, reacted to, perhaps guarded against; but certainly not ignored as though reference to them were in some way impious.

The IGL Open Stake at Gwernyfed,Brecon 1911.

Field trials could not continue for ever on the basis of other people's charity. What had begun as an exercise in gundog quality control, became long ago an exercise in which competition was itself the main driving force, quality control a side-issue. It is right that the participants in what is de facto an amusement should pay the real price for the privilege of indulging in it. The wheel has turned 180o from the old style of the 1960' s, when generous patrons provided not only the ground, the game, the Guns, and the man-power to stage the contest, but very often the lunch as well. Now the practice spreads of the ground, the game, and the manpower being hired, the cost being underwritten through the entry fees and, sometimes, by the Guns paying for the right to shoot. It has yet to be proved whether this is a wholly satisfactory pattern.

At such a time as this - one of celebration for the Labrador Retriever Club and of critical change in the field trials which have been a formulating factor of the modern breed - something needs saying well beyond a conventional recapitulation of famous winners, breeders, owners, handlers, judges and hosts. These would necessarily be figures of the past, and it is of the future that we should be thinking. A future, moreover, which the governing body cannot always focus because its limited time-scale is too full of short-term detail for a long view to be taken and in which, latterly, the public riding of private hobby horses has become a distraction.

An example, it was the theoretically desirable stipulation that major stakes should be judged only by A judges which exposed the fact, long existent but previously unnoticed, that the number of A judges was insufficient to cover the stakes to be judged without grievously overworking those still active. Hence the need for accelerated promotions from the B list. This obscured the truth of the matter, which was that those newly graded A would be the same people, who as B judges, the stipulation had been designed to debar. Nothing was changed except the initial letters. What was needed was not that the judges should be graded as A standard but that they should be capable of judging to A standard, which does not necessarily follow. The stipulation would have looked less ludicrous had the A list been strengthened without undue haste and with proper regard to assessment before, not after, the new stipulation was agreed.

Something better than this level of thought will be needed in arriving at a revised structure for field trials in the years ahead. For the present, the .existing order still has some steam left in it - enough to last perhaps, for another half-decade. But five years hence radical reform will be needed to take account of new driving forces and, one hopes, new braking systems in the sport as a new order of money flow and power bases becomes dominant. If proper groundwork is to be done in research and foresight, five years is barely long enough to meet the need in time.

No look ahead is meaningful unless combined with enough retrospect to incorporate the view of experience. That voice must not, of course, predominate; if it does, progress is impossible. But it should mediate. My experience is much less than that of some, and I make no claim to special wisdom in interpreting it. But I now have the opportunity of expressing it and take leave to do so.

For much of the past I have a keen nostalgia; for some of it I have regrets. I am thankful for the luck of being absorbed into a marvellously sporting community of men and women, united in the love of dogs and tempered by taking the rough with the smooth. Memory is wide and long enough to quote samples only. God be thanked (I mean precisely that) for my partaking of the steady wisdom of Andrew Wylie and John Lukies; the sense of fun (sometimes more real than apparent) of John Kent and Reg Hill; the candour of Lady Joan Hill-Wood and Harry Hardwicke (identical though differently expressed); the uprightness of Bob Baldwin and Danny Mackenzie; sharing the eye-flash of humour at solemn moments with Keith Chudley and Ian Bateson; the ambassadorial style of Alf Manners and (in days long past) George Abbot. It has been a companionship of many hundreds all of whom, save two exceptions, I have hoped to meet again.


 The high style of the 1920's at The Retriever Championship. Lynford. Norfolk 1922

The regrets creep in when I think of some of the things we tolerate, but should not; and other things which we did, but now no longer do. Yet ours is a sport with a short history. We cannot afford to dispense unthinkingly with its emergent traditions. Little things mean a lot, manners makyth man, and woman too.

I regret that the Kennel Club Stud Book no longer recognises the hosts by whose generosity most field trials still take place; there may be a reason for this, if so I regret that too. For may it ever be so despite the swing from the patrician to the mercenary, that field trials still draw sustenance from their natural roots. I regret the non-observance of that once-accepted, but now fading custom whereby a handler entering or leaving the line always raised his hat to the judge, whether a lady or not; I would similarly regret serving in an army which abolished saluting - respect should be signalled, even if only temporary. One effect of not doing this is that the door is opened more widely to arguing with judges. 'You ought to do a bit of it', a friend advised me recently when he thought me unlucky, 'if you don't make a bit of a do, they don't take you seriously; never get yourself a reputation for not kicking up a fuss'. So we have come to that partly by not reminding ourselves that for the time being we are under the judges, not merely in their presence and that even in this egalitarian age the judges are more equal than others at field trials.

Outdoor clothing is not dressy, but I regret seeing a field trial assembly looking like a gang of oppressed Russian kulaks out beet-topping in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. I am grateful to the senior professional who remarked to me last season that, viewed from behind, my leggings were bringing the game into disrepute. I replaced them. In turn-out, the professionals set a good example to the amateurs (such few as are left, in the .strict sense); they should not have to. I do not like to see unshaven chins or cheeks; we are asked to join our hosts or our companions in a day's sport, and should present ourselves accordingly. We would not take our place at a peg for a day's shooting with yesterday's bristle in evidence; whatever else, we are a cut above the Wimbledon tennis players.

I do not regret the passing of the old-style field trial lunch from which judges emerged eventually, in the gloaming, some of them half-seas-over and incapable of sense. But I do regret the growing absence of number boards; not merely because they tell those not in the line, and even the host, what is going on, but for a further reason. It symptomises a current trend in field trials that when confronted by a difficulty, to forget it is a permissible solution. It requires effort - not much, but some - to provide numbers and to find somebody strong enough to hoist them. That being the case, so modern trialling goes, don't let's have any numbers. That is why spaniel referees were abandoned; it was easier to do that than find capable ones.

Any undertaking, even a sport, which allows itself to get frayed at the edges ends by being split down the middle. In minor respects - which major respects will assuredly follow, field trials need to smarten themselves up.  Who better than that formative element, the Labrador people, to set the example. Even the leadership would then follow, if only by force of habit.