Diane Ryan readily admits that horses were the first great love of her life, so it was fortunate for the shooting community that when she met her future husband, Patrick, he told her father it would be more expensive to take on a horse than his daughter.
Indeed, though Diane grew up in a family of keen fieldsportsmen and women, it is also thanks to Patrick that she started training the Labrador that was to gain second place in her first International Gundog League Retriever Championship, at Woburn, in 1969.
That early success in the sport?s blue riband event was to spark a lifelong involvement with working Labradors to the highest standard. Over the years, Diane, who is now 69 years old, has been placed in many subsequent championships, run her dogs as part of the British team at The CLA Game Fair and established herself as one of the leading authorities on Lab training and handling.
But even though she sits on both the IGL Retriever Society Committee and the IGL Pointer and Setter Committee, like her good friend Bettie Town, Diane is not predisposed to self-promotion. She, too, attributes much of her success to the respected trainers and handlers she has worked with and the help they gave her along the way. Perhaps that?s why nowadays, as a stalwart member of the picking-up team at the Earl of Leicester?s Holkham estate, in Norfolk, Diane is always willing to help other handlers.
?When I started out, there were very few women trialling, except June Atkinson, who was the greatest handler of them all,? Diane says. ?But back then, unlike now, everyone was willing to give you advice. If they saw you had a good dog they would help you.?
With strong Irish roots through her father, an army officer, Diane was supposed to have been born in County Cork, but arrived earlier than expected in Egypt, in 1937. The family then moved to Singapore and were lucky to be able to leave just after World War II began, in 1939.
After returning to the UK on a troop ship, Diane was evacuated to America; when the war was over, the family then set up home in a thatched farmhouse in Hampshire. ?Daddy had a variety of gundogs, including a Labrador, two cockers and an Alsatian,? Diane recalls. ?He was a sporting man and had a wonderful time as an officer in India, where he was master of foxhounds and played polo. I had a sister who was much older and my great love was the Alsatian. You could teach him anything.?
It wasn?t long before Diane joined the beating line on the shoot where her father was a member of a syndicate. ?In those days, the Guns used to bring out their entire family,? says Diane. ?It was always a bit chaotic actually, as there were all sorts of dogs running about, including dachshunds.?
In the early 1960s, Diane moved to London, starting work at the Emergency Bed Service, where she was required to locate hospital beds for GPs? patients, then moving into market research, where she was called upon to find out how many people in Italy had washing machines. Though she is a country girl at heart, it is clear that Diane had a marvellous time living in the capital in the swinging sixties. Life was to change dramatically, though, when she met her future husband, Patrick, on a skiing holiday. He was a solicitor working in Norfolk, and soon after their marriage, in 1963, the couple moved to their present home in Bircham Newton, near King?s Lynn, on the boundaries of the Sandringham estate.
?When we first moved here, Patrick insisted we had a puppy, but I had nothing to do with its training. When we went out shooting the animal charged about all over the place. It was really so wild, it was running 300 yards ahead of us, sending pheasants everywhere. It was so embarrassing that I decided to take on the dog and try to do something about it.?
Diane dubbed the yellow Labrador ?Black Eyed Susie?, but her kennel name was Saperton Dawn and she was to start the successful line of Barnavara dogs. Though Susie never became a field trial champion, she was the one that earned Diane that second place in her first IGL Retriever Championship.
?She was an extraordinary dog,? recalls Diane. ?I didn?t start training her until she was three years old, or start trialling her until she was four, but Susie wanted to please and she was a hugely willing and intelligent dog.?
In the early days, Diane relied on her Peter Moxon gundog-training book, which she describes as her Bible. She also went to weekly lessons with Jack Curtis, the Queen?s former dog trainer at Sandringham.
?We went to a working test and Susie won that, and someone told me I must trial her. So I went to a trial for novice dogs and novice handlers and she won that, too,? says Diane. ?Then, while trialling at Stoke-by-Nayland, in 1971, I met Bertie Greenhow, keeper on the adjoining estate, who was in the line that day. He was a natural dog man who realised the potential Susie had and told me what to do.?
Unfortunately, the lack of early training with Susie meant that Diane found it impossible to keep up the high standards that gained her that championship runner-up spot. ?When she ran-in on a bird one day I knew I?d had it. The dog knew too much,? admits Diane.
Thanks to Susie, however, Diane was able to breed Barnavara Mayfly, another yellow Labrador, which she wasted no time in making-up to a field trial champion. ?Fly and Susie were both naturally talented,? she says, simply. Aside from her many achievements with Labradors, Diane is equally proud of the fact that she also made-up a pointer, called Tara, to field trial champion standard.
?That came about by chance. We were in Caithness, shooting over a pointer one day and a setter the next, and I decided that I?d like to have a pointer of my own. Alf Manners, one of Lord Rank?s pointer and setter trainers, said to me, ?You?ll learn far more with your pointer than you will with your retrievers, as you learn about scent.? He was right and we had great fun out there on the moor, as the pointers would lean into the wind and work on air scent. People don?t understand scent: we only have an idea of how it works; it can change within half an hour.?
Over the years, Diane has picked-up on many famous Norfolk estates including Holkham, West Barsham, Pynkney and West Acre, and admits that these days, though she stills dreams of winning the championship, she prefers working her dogs on shoot days to trials. She feels that field trialling has become more about rewarding dogs that can be handled on to a bird, rather than those that can find the game themselves. ?It?s got a bit like circus tricks now,? she says. ?A toot and a hoot and you?re out!?
Asked why she enjoys working her dogs so much, Diane pauses. ?I suppose I?m a bit of a loner and I enjoy being out by myself. I still get a lot of satisfaction from working the dogs. A dog that is willing to be trained is very rewarding. ?I can still remember certain retrieves, I?m just fascinated by what these pheasants can do. It?s riveting, especially when you watch the dog working out the bird?s next move. Training dogs is just a part of one?s life, but I?m fortunate that my husband also loves dogs. I guess I?ve always had a better rapport with animals than I have with many humans; they certainly know something we don?t it?s not only the dog?s nose, it?s the brain that goes with it. I never think that one dog has a better nose than another, it?s just that they?ve got a better brain.?