The Hunting English Setters
“Ryman-type” is used to describe the type of foot hunting English setter developed by George Ryman during the first half of the 1900s. His dogs were originally developed by crossing early show and field trial/Llewellin lines to create a distinct type of setter, specialized for hunting rather than competition.
Many hunters of the early 1900s already wanted a setter in between the extremes of the show and field trial types, which are even further apart today. Ryman was by far the most successful breeder of his era to meet this demand for a middle ground setter, and the only breeder to develop a recognized “hunting type” of English setter, one which has become indelibly associated with his name.
The Rymans were famous for their natural foot hunting range and bird handling instincts, good looks, and laid back affectionate personalities. In that tradition, today’s Ryman-types are expected to be the kind of dog that just “does it”- naturals that need little training to take them out and shoot birds over points. Hunting companions that work in a partnership with their “owner”, without the urge to run off and do their own thing.
In George Ryman’s words:
“…the kind that are fit to shoot over in the field on game, and the kind that are fit to look at or have about the home the balance of the year and be appreciated.”
Geo. H. Ryman
So how do you define a Ryman-type setter?
Ryman-type setters have the hunting abilities and conformation of the setters George Ryman bred.
Although Ryman setters have been gone since Ryman’s passing more than half a century ago, many breeders have based their kennels on “Ryman lines” since then. By selecting for their own tastes in size, conformation, and performance, in some cases breeders have transformed their setters into a type that Ryman would not recognize as descendants of his kennel.
The true Ryman-type has been kept alive by a small network of hunter/breeders who have found through experience that breeding for closer working setters that excel in the field with grace, stamina, and athleticism, plus classic looks and style, leads to setters similar to those of George Ryman.
Ryman Hunted His Dogs
Ryman was a fanatical hunter who early in his life hunted grouse for the market. As a breeder he spent many weeks each year testing his dogs hunting at home in Pennsylvania and at his grouse camp in Canada. Because of his hunting experience he knew the instincts and abilities required in a great hunting setter.
Serious hunters who focus on wild birds and how their dogs perform on them understand what Ryman did. Unless driven by this same passion and experience, a breeder isn’t even aware of the skills that define a hunting dog, much less how to evaluate them in his breeding stock. This aspect of Ryman’s breeding program is what really set him apart, and was crucial to producing the setters he was so famous for.
Ryman produced superior hunting dogs because he didn’t prove them in competition or on planted birds. He hunted them.
“If you want to make a good bird dog that will work with you in the field, and not for himself, you must then have that great foundation of bird sense, nose, brains and endurance. Then you must build on that great foundation.”
Geo. H. Ryman
Size of the Rymans
The majority of Ryman’s males were 50 to 60 lbs, females 40 to 50. These examples from his fall 1954 sales list are typical:
“No. 3. Here we are! Medium size perfect blue belton. Young setter bitch…45 pounds will be her weight when fully matured…”
“No. 5. …A son of Racket Boy. Used as stud and shooting dog. Weighs about 60 lbs…”
“No. 12. Handsome, Stylish perfect Blue Belton male….Weighs about 55 pounds…”
“No. 21. …Blue belton stud and shooting dog…a producer of natural gun dogs at an early age. Weighs 50 lbs…”
“No. 25. …rich Orange Belton female…Weighs about 45 pounds…Has bred one litter of the best in the kennel…”
This is the size Ryman bred because that’s what works best for this type of hunting dog. Too small and you lose the grace and classic style, too large risks losing the athleticism and stamina.
“I wonder where all these small, poor, runty types came from. Speed demons, hard to handle, hard to keep in condition, kennel fence runners. Some prantz like a lion in a cage. Have to hunt them 2 or 3 seasons to get them to handle game.”
“Now that I have made mention of the small runty breeds, of poor types, I can also mention of the over-sized setters. Over-bred into a new type, birdless as they come, clumsy in their gate, as an ox in the field. Breeders, breeders, you now have the proof, which is the dogs you bred for many generations without keeping the breeding stock both sires and dam trained, experienced or educated on game birds. It will take you years to put back what you took out — bird sense, nose pointing instinct, brains and endurance.”
Geo. H. Ryman
The influence of the early show dogs could be seen as well, especially in the heads, with their square muzzles and softer expression. There was variety in the kennel, particularly in the first generations following a field trial cross, but the goal was always evident.
Photos from the Ryman Kennel sales literature are the definitive source of the Ryman-type conformation.
“All stock offered for sale will in most ways resemble the dogs that are pictured on our stationery and sales list in color and type and size.”
Geo. H. Ryman
Changes in the dogs after Ryman was gone
George Ryman was incapacitated by a stroke in 1955 and died in 1961. His widow Ellen and her second husband Carl Calkins operated the Ryman kennel until 1975.
During the Calkins era the dogs in the kennel became much larger, reflecting Carl Calkins’ personal taste. These later setters were typically 20 to 30 lbs heavier (some were well over 100 lbs), and they were not proven in the field like the original Rymans were.
Although dissimilar in many ways to the setters George Ryman bred, the Calkins type became the modern perception of what a Ryman setter was.
A true Ryman-type setter, regardless of its pedigree, is one that George Ryman would recognize.
All of today’s active breeders began well into the Calkins era of the kennel, or later, under that modern mis-perception of the Ryman setters. However, through experience hunting the dogs and evaluating them on real birds, along with selecting for better abilities and performance, the serious hunter/breeders have tended to drift away from the Calkins type.
The breeder members here at RymanSetters.com have independently, and without realizing we were doing it, chosen to breed our dogs to a size and body conformation much closer to the ideals of George Ryman. We have ended up in the same general place for the same reason Ryman did. Because we hunt.
At RymanSetters.com we are dedicated to furthering the true Ryman-type setter. Our group’s goal is to ensure a future for English setters with the natural abilities, conformation, personality, and classic good looks of those that George Ryman bred.
“No. 9. Birdy Anne. Very light in color, white and orange ticked English setter bitch, medium size about 45 lbs in weight, she is a model in the setter type, has it all body head and tail, just five years old last August, steady hard worker, powerful nose, stylish as there be on point, note her style on point with gunner ready to flush the bird and make the kill. She is a grouse woodcock and pheasant dog, she is a direct Granddaughter of Sports Peerless on her sires side, on her Dams side she is all DeCoverly MacAllister and Imported blood lines of the old day bred setters just out of season. She is both house and car broken, have bred two good litters from her, a gun dog of the best and rarest blood lines left in setters. $550.”
Geo. H. Ryman, 1952