by Keith Schopp
It’s June 2020, and if you’re looking for a bright spot in a sea of COVID, look no further than that splash of pink in the North Dakota switchgrass.
The pink belongs to 10-year-old Serena Horak, the smallest person competing in the largest cocker spaniel field trial ever – aside from the Nationals. Serena stands out in the crowd despite her 54-inch stature; she’s wearing pink Crocs, a pink watch, ballet slipper earrings and a glittery unicorn t-shirt to match her shorts. Serena is preparing to handle her 3-year-old cocker named Boom in the first brace of the Amateur stake held in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Serena’s dad is professional trainer and handler Jordan Horak. Jordan won the Open stake the day before with his National Amateur Field Champion Juggernaut Cool Breeze. Today Jordan is minding his own business and giving Serena space, but she’s as cool as a pink cucumber.
“It’s funny,” Serena said. “I’m never nervous in the first or second series. If I get to the third series, I’m really nervous. I think it would be fun to run Boom in the National. It’s here in October. I might be nervous, but I’d like to find out.”
Fast forward to October 2020, and the now 11-year-old Serena is back in Bismarck for the National Cocker Championship, which is sponsored in part by Purina Pro Plan. To qualify for the National, dogs must place first, second, third or fourth in an Open All-Age Stake at a licensed AKC trial. Jordan and Serena made the 11-hour drive from Fremont, Wisconsin, with a trailer full of dogs and high hopes.
“I’m not nervous,” Serena said. “Boom and I are here to have fun.”
Temperatures are in the teens, and the ground is covered by light snow. No pink Crocs this week – Serena sports mostly blaze orange, including an official 2020 National Cocker Championship stocking cap.
“Dad is running seven dogs. I’m running Boom. It’s time to get ready,” Serena said.
Jordan had a breakout field trial year in 2018, winning the National Amateur Cocker Championship in April with Breeze and the National Open Cocker Championship with NFC Warrener’s Sky Lark (Cato) in October. The successes convinced Jordan to turn pro.
Cato’s win at the 2018 National Open in Southport, New York, was significant for Jordan – and not just because Cato topped 87 of the best cockers in the country. “It was special because Serena was there with me,” Jordan remembers. “It was a grueling week, but Serena was engaged every step of the way. She was up early and still going at the end of the day, every day. She refuses to miss any of the experience.”
Jordan’s wife Jennifer and sons Axel, Brett and Cody also are involved with the dogs and the new business venture Cato Outdoors, but older sister Serena seems to have found a sweet spot with Dad and English cocker spaniels.
“I like being with my Dad. It’s just fun to be with the dogs, and good to have some work to do,” said Serena.
Boom is her pet project, thanks to a challenge from Dad.
“Dad told me I could either train Boom or he’d sell him,” Serena remembers. “I said I’d train him, of course.”
Serena followed through.
“She’s pretty amazing,” Jordan said. “She has a work ethic. I’ll look over, and she’ll be doing drills with Boom in the yard. You don’t see a lot of young boys and girls at trials. Some come along for the ride, and that’s great, but there’s not that many kids her age who are actually doing it.”
The Boom and Serena bond is evident. Lots of eye contact.
“I like how he snuggles with me, but he loves birds, and he runs hard. Usually, I can control him,” Serena said.
The 2020 National would be their biggest test so far.
Serena and Boom were among 96 cockers entered at the National. Boom was number 15 to run. Serena showed poise and confidence beyond her years as she released Boom for the first series. He covered his ground and promptly flushed a pheasant, then sat through the fall. Serena mustered as big a voice as she had to yell “BOOM!” and send her dog for the retrieve. Textbook.
“I think he did pretty good,” Serena said, after Boom had two pheasant contacts. The judge agreed, and Boom was called back for the second series the next day. And Serena and Boom were called back to the third series. And the fourth series. Lots of great dogs were dropped along the way.
“I know I’m a little biased,” Jordan said. “But it’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old made it through four series and to the water.” Serena and Boom were among only 16 that were called back to the water series. And Serena was the only Horak!
For the water series, cockers must swim and retrieve. Most will, but the cold temperatures and intimidating water are too much for some. Jordan was hopeful but realistic.
“He doesn’t like the water too much,” Jordan said of Boom. “We’ll see.”
Serena and Boom were sixth to the water. The gallery watched in silence, hoping for a swim. It didn’t happen. After several attempts to send Boom, the little cocker still balked at the water’s edge. Serena had to pick him up. No fifth series for Boom, and no finishing the National. But what a field trial performance and what a team!
Jordan hugged Serena. Disappointment. No tears.
It’s an 11-hour drive home to Fremont, Wisconsin.
“She rarely sleeps during the trips,” Jordan said. “She likes to look out the window or crochet, and she’s a prolific reader. She might read 800 pages a day.”
Serena said she really likes animals, especially dogs, and would love to do something with animals when she grows up.
“For a while, she wanted to be a veterinarian,” Jordan said while Serena airs the dogs before the ride home.
Serena’s take on the field trial?
“It was fun to be with people I know and like. Boom didn’t win, but we tried and had fun. Not this time, maybe next time,” she said. And clearly, there will be a next time.