Louise Thayer finds—and savors—a moment when nature and humans exist in harmony.
This week I’ve been mostly training and competing field trial dogs. It’s a thing. I’m fortunate enough to do it for a living. Many (at least partially) crazy individuals with a passion for developing and training all kinds of pointing breeds of bird-hunting dog come together routinely in remote and inhospitable locations around the country.
We unload between 15 and 30 dogs (give or take ten) and we camp out for a weekend or a week or ten days or three months. Time loses meaning and I find that I don’t mind that at all.
We run the dogs off horseback when they compete—they hunt quail or, if we’re lucky, some larger upland wild game birds. We set them up for success in the field by various means and it’s most definitely a patience game. We’re talking at least two years of initial steady, and then consistently more challenging training, not to mention a whole lot of improvisation and creativity as we help to find ways to craft these animals into happy, bird-finding machines who still miraculously want to hunt for us.
There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie, at least in the South, for the sport we’re all involved in. What we do is difficult and not without peril. There are extremely long hours involved and every single thing out here bites, stings or stabs you. Tempers fray and words are exchanged but at the end of the day there’s some good whiskey to be drunk and daily chores to be done that involve more physical labor than most people undertake in a week and that’s before we even start the real work.
There are the hours spent in the saddle—not just in competition but in consistent training scenarios. There are ridiculously early mornings and even more ridiculously early nights where you fall asleep with a book on your face and can’t remember if you bathed. It doesn’t matter anyway because you don’t have anything you can do about it now. You pass back out and then the alarm goes off and you start all over again because nothing drives you like the fulfillment of potential.
This morning was misty enough that it felt like real rain as we walked it into our faces. Not the British rain I grew up with, but the warm damp of far South Texas heavy coastal fog that slides in with no warning and soaks the saddle blankets you left out on the flatbed truck to dry the previous night.
It hovers, the mist. It sits heavily in the spotlights of many illuminated horse trailers and it accentuates the sound of the purring generators for those folks who slept in their rigs. The horses’ heads pick up as we emerge, semi-zombified, inevitable coffee cups in hand. They see us and they start their anticipatory pacing, waiting for their food to arrive and for another day to begin.
Nobody talks much as we get the dogs out of their boxes and stake them out for the day. They bounce and wrestle with one another as they bark and celebrate the morning into life. We let them. It’s chilly and all they really want to do is go hunt. We move around them as though they call all the shots and I supposed they do. To have the trust of a highly sensitive animal is one thing…to have it out here, with all the obstacles we face as they run their best, is priceless.
Today, before the fog cleared, I sat around with a thoroughly disparate group of people and the mutual storytelling began. Person after person added their own drops to the bucket of history of the sport and the people within it. Each re-telling saw an embellishment of hysterical detail or a remembered fact of the day and event in question.
What stood out the most for me was how keenly the stories were heard. A hush would settle over the whole group of us as someone recounted a moment of such precision … of a dog on point in the last moment of competition and of birds flying out and around them from every direction as they never moved a muscle, or of that one accomplishment that got away. We also talk about those animals we memorialize as we remember feats of accomplishment from good dogs (and horses and people) of the past. Ours isn’t a sport you can even easily capture on film … we have out traditions passed down the old fashioned way … and sure, a little bias creeps into the stories, but the bias comes from a place of love.
I can still vividly recall this early morning, where the sun flared with that particular variation of amber orange fire that only happens as it crests the horizon and is gone before you can define it. I have numerous fully seared memories of horses silhouetted against web-laden, dripping tree branches and the puff of a dog’s breath as he charges on down a tree line in search of his quarry.
This is where I find my moments. When nature and man coalesce in perfect harmony. My boss has been in this game for more than fifty years and I remember asking him once “Why dogs? What is it about field trials and these dogs that made you want to spend your whole life dedicated to them?” I remember that he first stopped and looked at me and then said, in his inimitable fashion “Young lady, that’s a very good question. I’m going to have to think about it.”
And he did.
The next day he casually said (as we went about feeding the dogs) – “It’s because it’s just me and the dog and the horse.”.
I understood immediately. It’s so easy to become lost in life. Too much to do … too many things on our minds and too many hidden agendas in the minds of other people that we simply know nothing about. Out here, with the animals, it’s just simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple and there’s a perfection to that I haven’t found anywhere else in my life.
It’s just too easy to let life slip away. To be injured and cranky, to be tired and sad. To be overwhelmed and have whole weeks pass you by without any recognition of individual moments of awe.
This particular version of craziness is my very happy place. Maybe it’s precisely because of the frenetic pace of life that we come to appreciate the small moments when they present themselves. Those little encapsulated slices of the day can be where, just for a while, we get lost in something magnificent and life affirming enough that we can turn to our hard work renewed.
We need other people who get it. Whatever our “it” is. Those who truly share our passions. Who don’t mind geeking out with us until late in the night and starting all over again in the morning. The siren call of the thing we most want to be doing in the world is not to be ignored. That voice that tells you what it is you need to do in order for your soul to be happy is always right and always there even when we can’t hear it for the noise.
Putting it off is tempting, there’s always too much to do, but I think that if we can learn to value ourselves and the things that we hold dear, we can be liberated from the self inflicted chains that bind us to mundanity and misery. For me, that’s the joy in a dog who knows he’s done a great job. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know that it’s well worth your time to find it.
Photo courtesy of author