Of all the post-covid lessons learned, the inestimable value of time outdoors was one of the greatest. As schools and businesses shuttered (some for longer than others), isolation grew and more and more children became consumed with life spent on a tiny screen. We are certainly seeing the damage done to developing brains done in this brief but impactful period of time. There is no doubt that children who had encouragement and access to safe places to play outside have thrived more than their peers. This is especially apparent in this corner of the world, where quail hunts and field trial handling is taking off with the next generation of sportsmen, faster than you can shout “Bird!”
As author, artist, podcaster upland hunter and bird dog fanatic, The Sporting Life Notebook’s Durrell Smith, fervently concurs: “It’s an urgent matter that we take the time to recognize that one of the greatest responsibilities — in an age of increasing conservation and climate awareness — that we lend a giving and generous hand to the younger generations of outdoor kids and engage them in the lifestyle that we love so much and is so dear to our hearts.”
As founder and one of three directors of Youth Field Trial Alliance (an organization which has applied for its 501©3 non-profit status), Chris Mathan agrees. She will be the first to tell you about the positive benefits of the field trialing sport which has seen incredible growth in recent years:
- Promotes physical and mental health and wellbeing by having kids active and outdoors — and off their digital devices!
- Teaches responsibility through caring for and working with animals.
- Instills confidence and healthy competition while fostering real life social skills — friendship, cooperation, and sharing.
- Promotes a lifelong love of the outdoors, dogs, horses and wildlife and good sportsmanship.
- Engages young people in local community activities and builds their understanding and appreciation of longtime traditions.
- Nurtures an interest, support and involvement in wildlife conservation.
The timing around this organization’s formation is especially noteworthy. Since 2008, Mathan has been producing an on-line publication, Strideaway, dedicated to covering adult field trial events. Inspired by a growing interest and a surge in regional clubs hosting youth-centric events, she started the Youth Field Trial Alliance Facebook page in 2019, “to promote field trials and training days for youth handlers” across the country. She notes, “traditionally, kids would get involved in the sport when they’d attend clubs’ weekend events with their parents. Or plantation managers would bring their kids – the ones who grow up around bird dogs – would come to watch.”
Field trialing often takes place astride a horse and “when some parents learn their kid is interested in a sport where they need their own horse…” well, they might just balk. But field trialing can also be done on foot. No need to have your own horse to participate. “What we are trying to promote down here are trials where you don’t need a horse. We want them to get them hooked from the beginning.”
Naturally, the next question is, “Don’t you have to have a dog to do field trialing?” Field trial dogs are supreme athletic canines, with lineages that are as impressive as the rippling muscles and fierce focus each possesses. Mathan smiles as she says, “Not having a dog is NOT a barrier to entry for these kids. If they want to participate in field trialing, we will get them a dog (to participate with).” By way of example, in an event last fall, it was a retired all-age liver-and-white pointer named Belle who took home first place in the Tommy Traylor Memorial Youth Field Trial with her handler, Shelby Street. These retired pointers find new life working with youth handlers, making it a win-win situation, all the way around.
In years past, field trialing has been a male-dominated sport but there are growing ranks of female field trailers. Mathan says, “traditionally, this has been a very male-oriented sport. That had to do with fewer women at bird hunts or upland bird hunting, but that is changing. Yes, women have been involved in this sport which has been around since 1863, but now at least half of the kids in youth field trials, are girls.” She has been watching and observing many of these kids over the past four years and is astounded at their progress and growth. “There is a young woman from Moultrie, Daley Dalton, who I first met when she was 14 years old. When she began, she was so nervous and anxious but to see her now? This past spring, I watched her run a dog at the national amateur derby championship at Livingston Place and she is just filled with confidence.”
Durrell’s sentiments dovetail those: “The gains that are made when young stewards of the outdoors can experience a bird dog on point, practice animal husbandry, and learn about our impact on nature is not only exponential, but a revelation into the future of our joy.” Working his dogs with his own children, he has experienced these results firsthand: “To pass the knowledge and wisdom of wing-shooting and bird dogs from forefathers to the children of our futures is one of the greatest joys I’ve experienced in the Red Hills.”
To learn more about youth field trials and how you can support getting more youth involved in this precious time afield, go to YouthFieldTrialAlliance.org. To learn more about Durrell Smith’s work, go to TheSportingLifeNotbebook.com and MinorityOutdoorAlliance.org