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For me, it's all in the dogs. How about you?

For me, it’s all in the dogs. How about you?

… about bird hunting?

Yep, we talk a good game about the wonders of the natural world, cycle of life, camaraderie, miracles large and small performed by our dogs. But if you had to narrow it down to a single, specific item that would stop you from hunting any more if it were absent … what would it be?

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No matter the language, we can all relate to this.

No matter the language, we can all relate to this.

Howdy. Buongiorno. Hola’

I was digging around on my Facebook page’s “Insights” and was struck by the number – and variety – of fans from around the world. From Iraq to Indonesia, Iran to Brazil, Canada, the U.K., Italy, Mexico and Pakistan we are talking daily to fellows-of-the-scattergun via the miracle of the Internet. These are people who you would likely get along with despite language differences should you encounter them in the field.

After all, they love the same things you do. We do. I do. Wide skies, rambunctious dogs, wild birds and primordial environs.

We might pursue different species (chukars in Paki, exotic pheasants in Indonesia), but the pursuit is universal. Our passion bridges language and social divides. To a degree, we have our friends across the miles to thank. After all, hunting was born in many of these places millennia ago … chronicled in stone, tapestries and ancient song. The descendants of those ancient hunters are our brothers and sisters, sharing the bond of chase and smell of blood. Their hearts race too, when a dog’s tail stiffens and the thunder of wings breaks the silence.

Some use antique firearms, others stones and sticks, a few point army surplus shotguns at their prey. They dwell in the famed valleys where artistry in steel and walnut are practiced, and in dusty villages. Their birds are driven, or pass-shot, or flushed by village kids and mongrel dogs.

But at the end of the day, we all celebrate the same thing: fellowship of like-minded people, the dogs that honor us with their hard work, and the feast that celebrates the conclusion of our days afield.

To you all, wherever you are, صيد جيدة, buena caza, berburu baik, and “good hunting.”

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Our opening weekend destination.

Our opening weekend destination.

Pretending to be attentive to my company, I had a hard time keeping my eyes off the single, fluttering yellow leaf as it drifted to the ground. It was the first of millions, but at least to my eye it was a sign.

I wore a jacket for the first time this morning. Then Manny’s exhalations created clouds in the brisk morning air. And the ground exhaled too, showing moisture in the sandy soil for the first time since March. Buddy smiled as he raced through the sage – at least it looked like a smile to me. And both dogs ran with a verve fueled by the bracing air.

I’m ready. Are you?

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What, if anything, do you say now?

What, if anything, do you say now?

I’m pretty well whoa-trained. When telling a dog to stop, I slam on the brakes too. It’s one of the funny things about that word that got me wondering how differently we think – and act – about the whoa command than we do about other commands.

Along with the barrel, gut hitch, place board, half-hitch, training table, pinch collar, e-collar on the flank or whatever strategy you use, something often gets lost – our ability to speak. If you subscribe to the belief that once a dog scents a bird “whoa” is an obedience command, why do we clam up once the dog obeys?

Check yourself: Fido is coursing a field and slams into a point. If you’re me, you’d also lock up, eventually realizing you’re in charge and need to do something – hopefully while the dog remains staunch. You might skulk toward the dog and bird, or stride purposefully, but how many of us proceed silently, hoping against hope that our dog holds still?

Meanwhile, the dog considers his options: he’s done what comes naturally (point) and wants to do what next comes naturally (pounce). He might have been taught a pounce is verboten, but without feedback, there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll get what he wants.

Is that okay with you?

Instead, quit expecting your mouth to “whoa” when he does. After all, Gunner heels in the yard, you praise. Coming back with a bird in his (soft) mouth merits a scratch behind the ears. But that end-swapping point on sketchy bobwhites is met by a silence as heavy as the moment between sermon‘s conclusion and congregation’s “amen.”

To a young dog torn between primitive passion and desire to please you, a word of praise may mean all the difference. I know Manny’s steadiness improved once I began delivering positive feedback instead of zipping my lips.

How about you? Does a cat get your tongue when your dog scents a bird?

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horse blogSome psychologists say we measure our life by a tally of our “peak experiences.” I was reviewing the rough cut of an upcoming episode from South Dakota, writing the script and reminiscing, when I was reminded that one of my peak experiences included horses. And sharptails and South Dakota. It’s an unbeatable trifecta, and while putting words to it I finally figured out why:

For you it might be Maine woodcock, New Brunswick ruffies or Alaska ptarmigan, doesn’t matter. What counts is that you take the journey, live the experience toe to head … inhale it, let it fill your lungs, oxygenate your blood and transform to life force. Straddling a Tennessee Walking Horse does it for me.

I know enough about horses to stay far from the kicking end and on top as often as possible. That’s the first lesson everyone learns, sometimes the hard way, sometimes not. If you own horses, you’d likely agree – even a mature horse acts like a two-year-old kid – easily spooked, unpredictable, but this two-year-old weighs in at 800 pounds. Theory meets application when you’re stuck in a stall with a freaked-out horse.

Beyond the clear and present danger of concussion or lung puncture, horses are beautiful animals. We’ve lionized them in literature and cinema for good reason. They are (in their way) loyal and noble partners in so many of humanity’s triumphs and tragedies, rightfully the subject of our admiration. Since the Spanish Conquistadors brought them back to North America in the late 1400’s we’ve partnered with Equus ferus caballus on exploration and migration, adventure and duty … at times trusting our lives to them.

I’ve spent a couple decades around them, as have most of my dogs. They are elegant animals that seem to dial down the stress level whenever one sets foot in a paddock. Their calming influence is universal, chores become less of a drudgery, dogs in their adjacent yard also mellow in their presence. At rest, horses breathe deep, slowing our own heartbeat. Their size is comforting much like an aesthetically pleasing building makes a welcoming home.

When you saddle up in search of prairie grouse, those factors combine, transporting you back in time and across rolling hills. Your mental pace slackens and you become, for a bit, a pioneer. Your perspective is different, literally, being eight feet in the air. Once you get the hang of staying in the saddle, your outlook is also altered. It’s another reason for you to try a horseback hunt – you come back changed for the better.

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