This weekend, Hannah and I competed in our second herding trial. I was much, much less nervous this time and as a result was able to enjoy the experience a little more. I also learned a lot more than the first time too.
Our first run was on Saturday morning. I won’t bore you with the details of how I arrived there the night before after dark, couldn’t figure out how to get to the designated camping area and ended up driving around back country roads until nearly midnight until I found a camp ground where I could pitch my tent. Needless to say, I was a little rattled and sleep deprived when I arrived back at the trial first thing Saturday morning. Fortunately my class was third so I had time to set up camp, let my dogs out to stretch their legs, and get some food into all of us.
The Novice-Novice class was quite small: there were only 8 competitors. This was smaller than the first trial I was in, but the competition was stiffer. There were a number of handler-dog teams who were at or above my level, and I felt I really had a good run for my money! I like the idea of competing against people who are better and more experienced than I am so I can see where I measure up, and how we progress with time.
The sheep were really bad that morning. I was told we’d be running very heavy wool sheep, but they saved those for the open dogs and gave the novice classes lighter sheep. Well, these light sheep split and bolted and did their best to get away from the dog and back to the barn. The first few runs I watched where complete train wrecks, with the sheep blasting down the field and ending up in the handlers and spectator tents! (a fence was put up after our class was over). Several even got away from not only the dog on the trial field but the dozen or so watching as well, and ended up on the pond. So good entertainment if nothing else
Nevertheless, all I could think of was how to NOT let that happen with our sheep! Fortunately, Hannah is very kind to sheep, and doesn’t have a lot of presence. While this can be a problem moving heavy sheep, it came in very handy Saturday morning. She lifted the sheep quietly and brought them nicely down the field. Our drive was perfect (10 out of 10) and our pen nearly so as well.
The one big problem we had was on the outrun. This caught me off-guard because normally Hannah has an incredible outrun that I can absolutely count on. But this time she came up short and had to be redirected three times, and then leading the sheep to lift crookedly. When I asked why later, some open handlers who had been watching told me that it was because I sent her to the pressure side, which I shouldn’t have done with a dog with so much eye. I had sent her that way because I was worried she’d cross over if I sent her the other way. At home this is how we had practiced, i.e. sending her to the pressure side to keep her from crossing over. But pressure back to the barn there is perpendicular to the line I send her on, so she would only come in a little short (around 11 o’clock). At this trial, pressure was in a line towards 7 o’clock, which is exactly where she stopped. Twice.
Sending her the wrong way cost me first place, but it was a very good lesson to learn. My instructor had explained to me many times how important it is to strategically decide which way to send your dog (which will be different with different types of dogs) on its outrun, but I could never remember or really understand. Now it’s perfectly clear, let me tell you!
I was determined not to do the same mistake the next day. Interestingly – and as everyone predicted – the next day everything was different. The sheep were quiet and well behaved. The dogs were as well. Every single dog-hanlder team made it around the course, some with extremely good runs. Hannah and I actually also had a really good run. A really, really good run in fact. I sent her the other way on her outrun and we got 18 out of 20. Our lift was similarly good and I think our drive was perfect. We were certainly in the lead throughout. Until we got to the pen that is. This is where I experienced ‘unforgettable trial lesson #2’ of the weekend.
At home, penning is really easy most of the time. You get the sheep to the pen (Hannah and I are very good at wearing by now), open the door, and they run in. At this trial, the sheep weren’t so cooperative. We got them in a perfectly straight line to the pen, and into the mouth of the pen in fact. And we never lost one, or had them split or circle the pen. So things were looking good. But I just couldn’t get them to go IN the pen. I stomped my feet, and banged my stick, but they refused to move. Apparently I actually moved back when they tried to step out – I guess I was afraid they’d touch me and I’d be DQ’d, which I later learned only happens if I touch them. It’s fine if they run into me. They also turned to face Hannah at one point, who immediately froze. Damn eye. I had to give her a flank quite a few times, then yell at her to snap her out of her trance before she took it. Finally in place, she walked up and the sheep went in and I closed the gate. Well, almost. When the gate was about 18 inches from being closed, the judge called time.
ARGH!!! All that work, and possibly a 9 or 10 pen (out of 10), and we ended up with zero. And that dropped us from first to third place.
While I was frustrated, I realized after the fact that missing the pen taught me way more than getting it ever would have. Had I gotten the door shut 2 seconds earlier, I would never have been as acutely aware of how much we need to practice this, or all the things I could have done to speed things up. I also probably wouldn’t have had all the open handlers come over and give me tips on improving my penning so that won’t happen again. Invaluable advice like “watch your sheep, not your dog”, “it’s ok to move the sheep yourself and just have the dog hold the opening” and so on. Too bad our sheep at home are so compliant because this scenario will be hard to replicate. Maybe I can find some less obliging sheep to work with somewhere else.
The good news, however, is that while we missed first place both days, different teams beat us each time so our cumulative score gave us high in trial and won us the weekend championship. So Hannah and I have two more lovely ribbons, as well as a pretty sketch of a border collie and a treat jar for the kitchen counter. Oh, and we actually won money! Not a lot, but enough to cover our entry fees, so very much appreciated. I didn’t expect to win any money until we got to higher levels, but I guess they have different rules in this club. That certainly works for me!