Photo from an early '50's Ryman Kennel Sales Brochure
By Randy Lawrence
The following are the most important lines in one of the most important modern books on gun dogs in general and English setters in particular. The authors knew it, too:
"If we accomplish nothing else with this writing, we hope to get the point across that there were no Ryman setters produced after (George) Ryman's death." ~ The Real Ryman Setter - A History by Walter A. Lesser and Lisa M. Weisse
This begs the question some of us have been asking each other for a very long time: "Then why do we persist in using 'Ryman' in describing many of the contemporary strains of English setter?"
Ask the hardest hunting, most experienced, widely traveled and discriminating pointing dog men and women you know who assiduously steer clear of any breeding with any mention of "Ryman" bloodlines. They will tell you that the "Rymans" they've seen were overly large, long-bodied, low-tailed, phlegmatic plodders who worked (too closely) to their handlers, mostly because they couldn't go any harder and wouldn't care to if they could.
"Pretty dogs," they'll say, damning with faint praise. But when they pronounce the word "Ryman," they do so as if both syllables were coated in caster oil.
Such dogs wouldn't have left a bad taste in George Ryman's mouth. Had they been in his kennel, they would abruptly have left this earth as part of the unbending, expensive, and appallingly ruthless culling program he practiced in order to breed the unicorns that bore his name.
Ryman was a bit of a unicorn himself. In the early days he won field trials. He won dog shows, including, according to Lesser and Weisse, three placements at Westminster with not only an English setter, but a Gordon setter and a Pointer as well. He hunted for the market, and built his kennel in prime game country. To keep his dogs belly deep in wild birds, Ryman made extended trips to Quebec for grouse and woodcock leaving God knows how many dogs in the care of his wife Ellen, constantly testing his breeding against a most uncompromising standard.
Ryman's bloodstock was proven on wild game at home in Pennsylvania and in Canada.
We should be grateful that Ryman was also a flamboyant entrepreneur, because it is through surviving pieces of his advertisements and sales brochures, contemporary profiles by sporting writers, and a priceless interview Ryan Frame conducted for a 1999 Pointing Dog Journal article entitled "Mrs. English Setter" that reasonable people can draw a clear picture of what George Ryman made into his life's work.
In a 1952 sales list, printed just three years before a brutally debilitating stroke virtually ended Ryman's active involvement with the kennels, is the famous description and photograph of a dog called Ryman's Birdy Anne, of whom Ryman writes "is a model in the setter type," a granddaughter of 1955 Field Trial Hall of Fame inductee Sports Peerless. Weisse and Lesser's research has Ryman turning to Sports Peerless in 1939, the same year Peerless's son, Sports Peerless Pride, won the National Championship at Ames Plantation.
Sports Peerless (photo from "George Ryman's Breeding Program" at https://octobersetters.com/rymanhistory/breeding/) )
Sports Peerless Pride
A New York Times article dated Saturday, April 6, 1935, reports on Sports Peerless's winning run at Mount Holly, NJ. The event was a "free for all" that was part of the English Setter Club's 35th annual field trial meet and Sports Peerless was entered by his owner, a future Hall of Famer named Louis Bobbit. According to the article by Henry Illsley, Sports Peerless was the first English setter to win at Mount Holly in a decade. Illsley described the winner's run this way:
"In his first race, Sports Peerless ran a brilliant ground-working heat, going wide and covering his country in approved style. Coming in to the bird field, in each of which he stood up stylishly. His bird work indicated intelligence and good sense."
Just as Ryman's breeding program drew from the speed and innate hunting ability of those classic Llewellins, so could he have been cribbing from Illsley's copy when he described Birdy Anne: "...just five years old last August, steady hard worker, powerful nose, stylish as there be on point." The photo of Birdy Anne that accompanies the description shows a close-coupled, shorter-tailed, powerfully built female, her physique belying Ryman's note of her weighing 45 lbs. She stands intensely on point as a hunter in the background waits to walk up her bird. The caption reads "A Perfect Ryman Setter."
Lesser and Weisse reference the 1999 PDJ interview with Ryman's former wife. Ellen is quoted saying that she and her late husband favored "short coupled" dogs with shorter tails that came to 9 o'clock on just above on point. Ryman himself in 1951 wrote he was intent on producing "the DUAL TYPE (caps his): which means 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."
Weisse and Lesser provide a wonderful photo excerpt from the same '51 brochure showing seven dogs on the sales list, all of them boasting an athlete's frame, tight coats, an artist's model head (well...six of them anyway), and sensible-looking attitudes. The weights of these dogs range from the mid-40's to 60 lbs.
Although allegedly Ryman "humanely destroyed" all but belton-marked puppies, the Llewellin influence from his early outcrosses is evident in this youngster from a sales list.
That sort of setter athlete didn't survive Ryman. Two years after George's death in 1961, Ellen remarried. Carl Caulkins was allegedly a longtime aficionado of Ryman's setters, and he and Ellen kept the kennels going until 1975, when they sold out to the first of a succession of those trying to revive Ryman's work, as well as others who seemed more intent on cashing in on the old man's name.
In fact, after George Ryman's stroke there were fewer and fewer dogs in the breeding shed with wild bird resumes, certainly none with the bona fides the old market hunter Ryman for decades gave his setters. The dogs got bigger. "Close working" became synonymous with slower. "Companionable disposition" was more about lack of drive, intensity and tenacity than about the elusive "off switch" that makes some gun dogs more easily lived with year 'round than others.
Breeding a line of gun dogs may be as much art as science. While Ryman's successors may have had the old man's palette in those pedigrees, they did not have the eye, the background, the technique or the talent able to consistently produce some of the most unique English setter birddogs in North America.
Speaking of color, for as long as I have known George Ryman's name, I have heard the whispers about his "creativity" in pedigree registrations as well, following in the brush strokes of many 19th century breeders in a pastiche that included select Gordon and Irish setters (and perhaps the odd Pointer) slipped under the kennel fence to eventually blend into the acknowledged Llewellin matings.
All of that art was made on a canvas of wild birds, flocks of them, coveys of them, his Quebecois coverts stiff with them, sagging stringers of them good for photography Ryman could use in his brochures. It was those grouse, woodcock, and pheasants home and away that informed Ryman's breeding practices, topped with his eye for proper working conformation that was as pleasing on the move as it was in repose.
When George Ryman's bird gun went still in 1955, it was a silent death knell for the true Ryman setter.
Within that in mind, perhaps it's time for those of us who prefer the same kind of dog George Ryman did to challenge ourselves to find a new way to describe our favorite hunting companions. Maybe using the Ryman tag is nothing more than laziness, and surely confusing for those who have come to associate the name with a very different sort of English setter, one that is enthusiastically embraced by a cadre of fans but may have difficulty translating to the scarcity of game that is modern wild bird hunting.
Rather than fight what is common perception among mainstream bird hunters (and the pretensions of those content to call themselves "Ryman" breeders and owners), why not do what George Ryman dedicated his entire life to doing - finding ways to introduce a new generation of foot hunting gun dog men and women to yet another unique sort of setter gun dog built for the 21st century gamefields?
Can we consistently produce generations of unicorns, smart, rugged athletes of healthy working conformation and coat? Dogs that can be conditioned to hunt sensibly and durably, regardless of conditions and cover? Keen dogs that train easily and work efficiently in an independent, yet purposeful, biddable, and companionable way...all while retaining classic looks straight from the art of Maud Earl, Percy Rosseau, A.B. Frost or the great Edmund Osthaus, who painted portraits of many of the dogs in George Ryman's early pedigrees?
That's a question that only thoughtful, discriminating breeding practices anchored to hunting in a contemporary wild bird reality can answer.
Meanwhile, let the old man's name rest in peace on a Pennsylvania tombstone. May the rest of us celebrate a modern English setter gundog risen from his ashes.
My admiration for the research behind The Real Ryman Setter: A History should be evident in this blog post. The book belongs in the hands of anyone interested in English setter bloodline history.
This blog post is offered up in good faith with the understanding that selection of a gun dog is as personal and as taste-driven as any other sporting activity. As my grandfather was fond of saying, "Ever'body think like me, ever'body want your grandma." Folks should have the dog that suits their hunting while maintaining integrity in how those dogs are portrayed.
Finally, several of the photos used above were gleaned from https://rymansetters.com/what-is-a-ryman-type-setter/ and https://octobersetters.com, a websites dedicated to the ethical breeding of setter gun dogs, two good places to learn more about the current state of "Ryman" affairs. While I will continue to quietly lobby against the rymansetters.com website name, I enthusiastically support the group's stated mission at https://rymansetters.com/our-mission/.