Field trialling: breaking the glass ceiling
Female handlers are holding their own in this once male-dominated sport, says Ellena Swift
I once read that to write well, one must write what they know. This is something I try to live by. So when I saw David Tomlinson’s article some months ago on women’s apparent lack of success in field trialling, I did wonder why a person who doesn’t trial but is also, I believe, not a woman, felt they were the individual to tackle such a topic.
I have trialled for seven years and worked and trained dogs for 20. Not only that, but I am a woman. Despite competing regularly in this sport for getting close to a decade, I know watching those who are nearing 30 years’ experience that I still have a lot to learn. However, I can without a shadow of a doubt confirm that the theory of toilet facilities (or lack of) at a trial is not the reason for apparently fewer successes for women.
Mr Tomlinson did make some correct points, such as there being fewer female professional handlers than men. This is certainly the case, although there are not a huge number of male professional handlers either. I can think of five professional retriever handlers off the top of my head, all men. In the past two decades, some of the winners of the championship have been what I would consider professional. But just as many were not and one of them was a woman.
Tess Lawrence is arguably one of the best female competitive handlers of the past several decades. Despite this, she has only won the championship once. While the professional handlers certainly stand out in terms of achievement, particularly at the championship, it is important to remember that those who are not professional trial considerably less.
Those who compete and are paid for it will be out competing five days a week and running multiple dogs. They also have the ability to be training full-time. But competitive handling is not about one competition alone. The IGL Championship certainly is an achievement most can only dream of, but you cannot judge achievement on the basis of winning just one competition.
If this is how success is measured, it is not only women handlers who we would assume are less than successful. There are an unbelievable number of male handlers who have never won the championship who continue to be some of the best handlers and trainers in the world. Just because there is one trial they have not yet won, I do not consider them any less talented.
Field trialling is unforgiving
Anyone in the trialling world will know that this is one of the most unforgiving sports. There are so many variables out of a handler’s control. Sometimes it is simply just not your day. You are never guaranteed the same retrieve — any retrieve offered to the handler is essentially down to the gods (and Guns).
You are sent in numerical order, meaning that when your turn arises, if a Gun only clips the end of a wing and the bird runs like Usain Bolt, this is your retrieve and you must roll with it. Much like a shoot day, you do not have a choice of how many easy and difficult retrieves you get. If the Guns shoot well, it is likely you will have fewer difficult retrieves.
With this uncertainty in mind, it is clear why perhaps a lot of extremely talented male and female handlers do not come out with the win at the championship. Three days is a very long time for a single handler and dog to keep their cool, remain near-perfect at all times and have that little bit of luck needed. The phrase “every dog has its day” is so relevant, and just because that particular day was not theirs does not in any way take away the skill, talent and success of that dog and handler.
In order to measure success of the females, I firstly decided to look at current retriever success. This is relatively easy thanks to technology. There is a Facebook page that contains nearly all the results from field trials and working tests. I went through them, looking from December only. This included 29 results covering both retrievers and spaniels at novice and open level. Of those 29 events, seven were won by women and there were 21 women in the awards. Some were heavily dominated by women and there were fewer than 10 trials that did not feature women at all.
So if women are featuring in well over 50% of trial results, where is the lack of success? Perhaps a better measure of success is to look at consistency. In order to make up a retriever field trial champion, a dog must win at open level over three days of competition. For example, they could win a two-day open and then a one-day open, or win three one-day opens. However this is done, it demonstrates consistency above all else.
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On the spaniel side, women have plenty of success and this is certainly on the rise. While I do not trial spaniels myself, I have spoken to many women who do. Again, the handlers are consistently holding their own. Natalie Cannon was second in the 2019 Cocker Championship, and Sam Thatcher has been in the awards twice. Wendy Openshaw, Victoria Williams, Anita Jones, Margaret Cox and countless more have all made up field trial champions and many of them are A-panel judges.
Mr Tomlinson does touch on the fact that fewer women shoot over their dogs, and while that would seem to be the case, fewer women shoot than men full stop. It still remains a male-dominated sport. However, this does not mean by any stretch that women are put off running spaniels because they perhaps shoot less. A lot of keepers run spaniels, and with the job comes a great deal more opportunity and contacts, giving them the ability to train and shoot over their dogs more. Just like the retrievers, although fewer woman compete, they hold their own at every turn.
Looking to female retriever handlers this year, there have been several female handlers making their dogs up. Diana Stevens with her own dog Callum won his first trial in November 2019. He then went on to win the Utility Gundog Society all-aged area finals in 2021 and the Essex Field Trial Society open two-day in 2022, making him up to a field trial champion. Before winning that two-day open, he was placed consecutively in three other two-day open trials. Where is the lack of success?
Jayne Coley is another wonderful example of the best. She has, to date, made up 10 field trial champions, seven of which were home-bred, and bred 11 field trial champions. With one of her dogs she won no less than 11 Open Stakes and was placed in the IGL Championship in 2012 and 2014. Jayne is also an A-panel judge and was one of the judges at last year’s championship.
At a trial I attended towards the end of this season, of the 15 dogs on the card, 10 were handled by women. While this isn’t always the case, it is rare to see trials with no women running. Years ago the sport was certainly more male-dominated. Traditionally, women only handled or ran dogs on a shoot day rather than competitively. But as women began competing, there has not been a time in history when they did not consistently hold their own against their male counterparts.
Having spoken to some of the older generation of female handlers, I was told to speak to a very good golden retriever trainer and breeder called Robert Atkinson. He has made up several field trial champions, all descendants of his mother June’s Holway golden retriever line.
June Atkinson was truly one of the most phenomenal field trial handlers of all time. She made up no less than 14 Holway field trial champions, won the IGL Retriever Championship and judged it nine times. All of this with what is considered a minority breed. All of her dogs were picking-up dogs and family pets that lived in the house. This was her hobby, not her profession. Her achievements are surely some that will never be equalled by anyone, man or woman.
Sandra Halstead has handled and trained dogs for years. Her and her husband John’s Drakeshead line speaks for itself. Sandra is an A-panel judge and between her and John they have made up over 30 field trial champions. She won the championship herself in 1979. When I spoke to her, she explained that the gender of handler never even crossed her mind. This is a sport where the young and old, male and female are all on the same level. She explained that it is all to do with the work you put into the dog. Hard work, training and a proper game-finding dog is what wins trials, and it has absolutely nothing to do with gender. (Read more on the Halsteads here.)
I was lucky enough to have my first labrador from a retired handler called Janet Webb. Her success is still talked about, and rightly so. She judged the championship four times and made up seven field trial champions. Her late husband Richard Webb also ran dogs and made up two field trial champions. They competed together and ran against each other in all levels of trials, including the championship, and Janet was placed several times. She explained that throughout her career it made no odds whether the handler was male or female.
I must admit that as I researched this topic, even I was surprised by the number of female successes — and happily, they are growing. There are little girls out there in the beating and picking-up lines with their parents who are set to be the field trialling heroes of the future.