Fri, 07/09/2021 - 1:34pm

Hazardous Duty

A field-trial judge shares some near misses

When someone says judging is a thankless job, they get no argument from me. I’ve often contended that judges should be awarded combat pay, or as it’s known these days, “hazardous duty incentive pay” since you no longer have to be shot at to collect it. 

While “thankless” is true of all judging, it’s particularly true if what’s being judged is a hunt test or field trial, and then it’s not only thankless but hazardous. You are always at the mercy of the elements, and it is almost always too hot, too cold, too rainy, too windy or too snowy for comfort. If it’s precipitation that’s making life miserable, you always find that your waterproof rain gear isn’t.

It’s also sometimes necessary to deal with irate handlers or owners who are incensed because you failed to give their dog a qualifying score. Never mind that the dog’s performance was light years away from the minimally accepted standards or because their dog didn’t get the blue ribbon. It is always necessary, at field events, to make the test run smoothly and fairly for all dogs. That means being something of a diplomat because of the need to try to keep everyone, including your staff, happy and as comfortable as possible. If your staff is unhappy, they can sabotage the most beautifully designed test or test site, and the success or failure of a test design is always ultimately the judge’s responsibility. 

But all these are merely part and parcel of field judging. What the “Field Dog Judges’ Manual” never bothers to mention are the outright perils. At the top of the list, if you happen to be judging pointing breeds, are horses. 

Let me say right away that I love horses and always have. For many years, when I was young, thin and convinced of my immortality, I rode hunters and jumpers and even galloped racehorses, including a goodly number of green two-year-olds. While some of them were pretty fractious, their antics were mainly due to high spirits and the sheer exuberance of youth rather than any sort of malice. I got along well, even with the fractious ones, because, as an old Swiss horse trainer once told me, I had “soft hands.” The same can’t be said for some of the mounts I was given to ride as a pointing breed judge; no amount of finesse or softness of hands made any difference, because they were simply too spoiled or too malevolent or both. 

I remain convinced that somewhere there are corrals filled with horses that are too ornery, too rough riding, too foul tempered, too just plain evil or any combination of these faults, including all of them, to qualify for an event at the National Finals Rodeo. These horses are the ones that get trotted out for pointing breed judges. The reason I’m convinced is because I had and saw innumerable examples that fit this description during the 15 or so years that I judged all three types of hunt tests. Two that I’ve definitely never forgotten were a quarter horse crossed with something else – American bucking bull, maybe – and a Tennessee walking horse, normally a very amiable breed as well as a very comfortable ride, whose heart was blacker than his ebony coat.

Whatever the breed that made up the other half of the quarter horse cross, it was the wrong half of both breeds. After three braces had run – that’s close to two hours when you add in the time going to and from the breakaway – that had been total rodeos, I told the test chair to get me a different horse because I could either ride this one or judge dogs, but I couldn’t do both. Even my co-judge noticed my horse issues because as we rode off the bird field after the third brace, he trotted over to a patch of marijuana. It grows wild in many parts of the country, as farmers were encouraged to plant it in WW II by the U.S. government when the Axis powers controlled much of the world’s supply of hemp.

He grabbed a handful of the weed and tried to feed it to the bronc I was riding. When I protested, he said that since the horse was already crazy, it might just as well also be stoned. He added that maybe a little laughing grass would mellow the horse out enough to make him more amenable to being ridden. 

While my initial reaction was good point and it couldn’t hurt, I opted instead to requisition the marshal’s horse, leaving the unruly one tied to a tree to contemplate his sins for the remainder of the test.

While I suspect the quarter-horse cross was trouble just for the sheer hell of it, as I never detected any malice with him, just contrariness, that was not the case with the walker. That horse was pure evil, no doubt about it. When I noticed that the wrangler had a pretty tight grip on the bridle as I mounted, I should have guessed this was not going to be a ride in the park. Before he released his grip, his casual comment – “This horse can be a little unpredictable sometimes” – should have confirmed that suspicion. But even without having my threat receptor fully activated, I still was prepared for just about anything except what initially happened.  

When the wrangler released his hold, the horse simply stood there. I smooched to him and applied a little leg pressure. No response except he became more firmly affixed to the spot. I shook the reins and squeezed harder, along with some louder verbal encouragement. Again, nothing – not so much as a twitch. 

Finally, after several futile, escalating-in-force attempts to get the horse to move, I asked the wrangler, “Okay, what’s the secret?” He said, “Ah, you jus’ need ta whack ’em a little,” and with that, he brought his whip down hard on the horse’s rump.

Well, I can’t say the horse didn’t move after that. He arched his back and jumped straight up in the air, twisting his body and shaking his head while kicking out behind with all the force he could muster, which was plenty. He landed on all fours with all his joints locked and I thought, for a second, that I might have lost another half-inch of height. 

In the second or so of pause before his next explosion, I took a death grip on him with my legs, grabbed a big handful of mane in one hand and shortened the reins in the other hand to keep his head up. This was a nick-of -time action as he began jumping, kicking and sunfishing in ever-tightening circles. This action went on for a whole lot longer than the eight seconds the bronc riders have to stick with a horse at a rodeo. What’s more, there was no pick-up man to help me get safely off this wild ride. Don’t ask how I managed to stick with the horse, because I haven’t a clue. Sheer luck is probably the best explanation.

Finally, a bit winded after what seemed like an eternity of bucking, he came to a halt for a few brief seconds, and I took advantage of his momentary fatigue to jump ship, so to speak. Unfortunately, the jump-off still left me in range of the horse, who chose that precise instant to spin and hit me with his hip. That sent me flying, only to land hard on my back several feet away. 

As I struggled to regain my feet and get some air back in my lungs, I looked up to see the horse headed in my direction, snaking his lowered head, his ears laid back and his teeth bared. “Kill” was written all over him.  

Luckily, I was able to grab a clod of dirt. While I was never a great clod thrower as a kid, perhaps aided by sheer terror and the quart of adrenalin that had suddenly been dumped in my system, my aim was straight and true. The 100-mph-fastball hard hit him squarely between his eyes. 

Startled to say the least, or perhaps temporarily blinded by the dust cloud from the exploding clod, he paused his attack just long enough for me to scramble to safety behind my truck, where I stayed until the wrangler finally roped the horse. Needless to say, I informed the test chair that if I was going to judge the test, it was going to be from a different horse.  

Horses aren’t the only hazards. Mother Nature always has a few tricks up her sleeve. Two of many fall in the not-to-ever-be-forgotten category. 

I once judged a retriever test in conditions that varied from really awful to just plain brutal, and the test was held near the end of May, for godsakes. With the temperature hovering around 35 degrees, Ma Nature hurled a combination of freezing rain, high winds and BB-sized ice balls at dogs, handlers, gunners and the judges. It was the only time I ever heard handlers say that if the dog was not going to qualify, they hoped it would happen as quickly as possible so they could get away from the elements.

During the break for lunch, my co-judge and I shivered our way into the clubhouse, hoping someone had the foresight or compassion to light a fire in the fireplace. My co-judge ruefully remarked that for several months during his time in the U.S. Air Force, he had been stationed in Alaska. Then he said, “So, I’ve been this cold at other times in my life, but then I was always being paid extra to freeze to death.”

What makes this interesting is that it was not the worst weather in which I judged. On another occasion, again judging retrievers, the diabolical Madam Nature conspired with one of the ancient rain gods to produce a frigid rainstorm of Biblical proportions. For a while, I considered asking my co-judge just how many feet actually are in a cubit. Finally, when it was pouring so heavily that we couldn’t see the dogs for more than six feet after they left the line, we stopped the test, much to the relief of the handlers, the gunners and probably the dogs. 

As I sat in my truck, shaking with the cold and wet, reminded once again that the claims of foul-weather-gear manufacturers are mainly gross exaggerations, with the heater going full blast, I can honestly say it was the only time I judged when I hoped and prayed for a clap or two of thunder so we had an excuse to close down the test and finish it the next day.  

One other problem that can plague you as a field judge is the lack of what the old Irish immigrants called a “convenience.” This happened to a friend of mine who was judging a retriever test. While there were plenty of porta potties at the test headquarters, his test site was a long way from the HQ and in a remote area. About halfway through the test, he experienced a sudden attack of the dysentery he had picked up in the last weeks of his military unit’s deployment and which he thought was cured but obviously wasn’t. As he frantically searched for a private space for some relief, he spotted an ancient outhouse on the edge of the woods bordering the test site. 

Displaying what he termed world-record speed despite his somewhat arthritic knees, he raced to the old privy, yanked open the door, jumped in, closed the door, dropped his pants and with a sigh of relief, sat down – only to leap up a nanosecond later yelping from a searing pain.  It seemed that a porcupine had left a calling card in the form of a few of its quills stuck in the wooden seat. While he was able to remove most of the quills and complete his mission, two broke off, which meant he had to do his judging from a standing position for the rest of the day.

But that was nothing compared to what lay in store, because the broken quills were dirty and bacteria infested. By the time he got home, they were festering, and within a few hours, he was so uncomfortable that his wife ordered a trip to the local hospital’s emergency room. The removal of the barbs, while plenty miserable, wasn’t nearly as painful, he said, as having to endure the laughter of the ER personnel and suffer through all the bad jokes from his buddies and his employees for the next few days as he limped around and sat down only with great reluctance – and then very, very carefully. 

The Defense Department grants hazardous-duty incentive pay to people who volunteer to perform duties designated as dangerous, based upon the inherent risks of the duty and potential for physical injury. Sounds a lot like judging hunt tests and field trials to me. That being the case, I want to know where to go to collect all my back pay!



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