Yesterday Hannah and I competed in our first trial ever.  I have been training border collies for various sports and venues for just shy of 20 years now.  I got my first border collie in 1989, and attended my first sheepdog trial (as a spectator) at that time.  I have wanted to learn to herd, and to compete in such a trial, ever since.  Unfortunately, until I got Hannah a little over 2 years ago, I never had the opportunity.  

Once I finally started herding, I discovered just how hard it is!  Despite all my training experience, herding left me feeling like I’d never seen a dog before.  I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit.  To keep going I needed a goal.  The goal I set myself was to get on the trial field and compete at the novice level.  I told myself that I was not allowed to quit until I got to that point, as I didn’t want to quit just because it was hard.  After 18 months of ups and downs, frustrations and triumphs, leaps forward and back, we did it.  I actually stepped out onto the field, walked up to the post and sent my dog.  And there’s no way I’m quitting now…

Our first run wasn’t pretty.  It started well as Hannah has a beautiful outrun.  She went huge and deep – so much so that at one point I thought perhaps she was going to gather the sheep from the exhaust.  I was worried because the sheep I sent her for were brown and black and she has only seen white sheep before.  What if she didn’t know what they were?  I was worrying for nothing.  Hannah came in perfectly at the top and lifted her sheep beautifully.  Too bad I stood there in amazement instead of flanking her come-bye to keep them in a straight line.  They drifted right and missed the fetch panels.  Hannah was also right on their butts and they came flying to the post.  I got them around in the correct direction (clockwise) but then they blasted past me.  At this point I was supposed to start wearing, but it’s hard to wear when the sheep are running down the field ahead of you!  I sent Hannah to gather them but she ignored my flank and crossed her course.  I stopped her and sent her the other way, and she retrieved the sheep.  By then we had missed the drive panels as well.  

Fortunately the sheep settled pretty well once I figured out to keep Hannah further back.  We wore down the field to the pen and penned the sheep without too much trouble.  Overall the run wasn’t great from a purely objective perspective, but considering it was our first run ever away from home, on a new breed of sheep and in a new field, I was pretty darn happy!  I was happy to even warrant being there, and thrilled that our first run wasn’t a complete train wreck.  That our score was sufficient to earn us first place left me ecstatic!  

While I should have relaxed after that, I actually became more stressed about our second run.  I am not a particularly competitive person – I hate competing in fact – but I compete with myself.  I won the first class, so now I had to win the second!  Silly, I know, but that’s how I get.  So waiting for the second class to begin a few hours later was hell.  It didn’t help that I somehow missed the handler’s meeting – despite being right there waiting for it – which earned me a scolding by my instructor (who was there watching it all!).  By the time the class started, I was having an anxiety attack.

I stepped back from the viewer’s area and stood off on my own, with Hannah, in the shade.  I did yoga breathing and focused on being calm.  I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and was a little shaky all over.  

Hannah, in sharp contrast to her handler, was cool as a cucumber.  She was keen to work but lay calmly watching while we waited.  She showed absolutely no trial nerves and hadn’t even been rattled by spending the night in her crate in my car while thunderstorm after thunderstorm blew threw.  What a trooper.  As my instructor pointed out, she is a trial dog who is going to really enjoy trialing.  She loved all the people and all the dogs, but most of all, she loved going to the post.

By the time it was our turn, I had my nerves under control.  I was focused and relatively calm and totally determined to keep Hannah off the sheep and have a calm steady run.  And that’s exactly what we did.  Other than a redirect on the outrun (she came up a bit short – on pressure to the exhaust) and a somewhat crooked lift, the run went very, very well.  We hit the fetch panels for the first time ever (I’ve never made it once in practice), calmly turned around the post where I got in front of my sheep and started wearing out to the drive panels (well, cones actually).  This is where I made my biggest mistake as I looked over the wrong shoulder and took us off course.  By the time I realized it, we were quite off-line.  I took us back and we went through the panels without any trouble.  But the judge hit us hard for that.  The rest of the run went smoothly and the pen was pretty straight forward other than the rope being caught when I tried to open the gate.  

Overall, I was thrilled with how it went.  One thing I am going to have to learn is to BREATH while running my dog.  I came off the field more winded than Hannah, quite literally.  It took me several minutes to catch my breath, as if I had been the one running around after the sheep!

Our second run also landed us in first place, making us overall novice champions for the trial!  I am so proud of my dog.  I’m proud of our teamwork as well.  We have worked hard for this and the road has often been bumpy.  We still have a long way to go and there is much room for improvement, but I couldn’t have asked for a better start to trialing.  This has really boosted my confidence, although it has also set the bar high for my personal expectations.  The next trial we are in (in 4 weeks) is bigger and will have more competitors.  I think the sheep and field are tougher as well.  We are going to have to work hard to make sure we do well there.  But for a day or two, I’m going to relax and enjoy our accomplishment.