Ryman-Type Breeders Are Focused On Maintaining The Ryman-Type Setter That We Already Have
The answer to the question of whether the Rymans could be re-created from today’s field trial and show dogs is that it will never happen. Could somebody do it if they devoted a lifetime to working on it? Maybe, but chances of success aren’t very good.
Fortunately there is no need for anyone to try because Ryman-types have persisted and, critically, our focus needs to be on maintaining and improving what we already have. A quick overview of Ryman’s breeding program will help clarify why it would be virtually impossible to repeat what he did, and what it will take to maintain the Ryman-type into the future.
The Essential Ingredient:
The most important aspect of Ryman’s breeding practices is that he evaluated his dogs’ genes by exposing them to wild birds and watching their innate abilities develop naturally.
Before he became a breeder, Ryman hunted grouse for the market, giving him an understanding of the birds and the abilities a dog needs to consistently find and handle them. With that background he had a jump start in acquiring the expertise to select for, amplify, and fix those genetic, innate traits in the type.
Ryman’s kennel was located in the middle of large expanses of prolific grouse cover that he could hunt year round before the days of regulated hunting seasons. He stressed the necessity of keeping all of his breeding stock, in a kennel of between 50 and 150 dogs, experienced on “all four” game birds (grouse, woodcock, pheasant, and quail). Even if there weren’t additional obstacles preventing a repeat of what Ryman accomplished, this one aspect of his development of the type, by itself, would be fundamentally insurmountable. Especially for a single breeder.
The Ryman Breeding Program
Ryman’s first registered litter was born in 1913. His earliest show/field crosses utilized dogs like these two (both are in the background of the Rymans). Note the similarities in body proportions and angulation.
Because Ryman began breeding at a time when field trial and show dogs were not far removed from their origins as hunting dogs many of them weren’t that different than what he wanted. Using various mixes of field trial and show lines he built up a population of dogs that he found acceptable during the early years. As time went on he gradually mixed in different lines/dogs to add something he felt was missing or could make an improvement on what he had. He didn’t just keep starting over with crosses between new versions of the show and field trial dogs as they evolved.
Many, if not most, of Ryman’s crosses didn’t produce well enough to continue with so were discarded. He wrote that the first time he tried a new breeding he would keep all of the pups until they were 6 months old to see if they were good enough (note that Ryman could tell by that age). If not, he disposed of them and abandoned the breeding. For example, only three of the eight sons and grandsons of Sport’s Peerless that Ryman experimented with in the early 1940s produced dogs he kept in the breeding program.
As competition drove more extreme changes in field trial and show types it became more difficult to find new dogs that mixed well with the dogs Ryman had, or produced the type he was shooting for. Eventually he gave up on show dogs completely. The Ryman kennel and the definitive type peaked in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, before Ryman was incapacitated by a stroke in 1955.
Ryman’s Field Trial and Show Crosses Really Can’t Be Duplicated Today
Starting with these two dogs is not the same as starting with the lines Ryman used.
If you didn’t know better, they might appear to be different breeds. Unlike the dogs Ryman started with, neither one is close to what he wanted. Far from it.
The problem with mixing their conformation is obvious. Starting with a cross between dogs that have such widely divergent conformation will most likely be an exercise in producing oddball mishmashes of structure rather than anything close to the Rymans. You don’t have to look further than setters descended from some of the show crosses “Ryman” breeders have tried in recent years to see the effects of combining wildly different structures—a mismatch of conformation features that in some cases has produced a lack of athleticism and endurance to the point where the dog can barely hold up for an hour’s hunt.
The bigger problem is that neither one of these dogs carries the same hunting instincts of a Ryman. These are genetic traits that were still present in the dogs Ryman began with, but 100 years of ignoring, or even selectively breeding against them, has resulted in many of those genes having been lost in today’s competition setters. These genes aren’t going to magically appear in the offspring of dogs that don’t carry them just because Ryman crossed show and field trial lines that still had them in the early 1900s.
Ryman-Type Breeders Don’t Breed Based on Pedigree Formulas. They Breed Based on an Understanding of Their Dogs and What They Produce
There will never be another George Ryman, but all along there have been a few hunters who have followed in his footsteps in one respect—developing a foundation of knowledge about game birds and hunting them with pointing dogs; a keen interest in, and a focus on, fully understanding their dogs’ performance; and then a transition into a breeder who hunts in order to evaluate his/her dogs. These are the breeders who will maintain the Ryman-type.
How will they do it? By applying their knowledge to objectively evaluating the innate abilities of the dogs they produce and continuing forward with the best breedings. By carefully choosing outcrosses to lines that have something to add but aren’t so different as to be overly detrimental, and then mixing the crosses that work back into the gene pool. And every breeder takes the dogs in a slightly different direction, helping to keep the gene pool diverse.
Consider Ryman’s breeding program. Collectively, small breeders can function much like Ryman did with his large kennel. That’s how the Ryman-type is being maintained now, and that’s how it will be sustained into the future.
Cliff and Lisa