thrive and carry on
With my dog by my side, my NEBCA pin on my shirt collar, and my eyes on the field I must look like a competing handler to the new folks in the crowd, but I am nothing of the sort. Gibson and I are rookies in training, just learning the basics and soaking up the conversations by proximity. But damn if it doesn't feel good to sit with your border collie at a sheepdog trial.
Experience aside, I was beginning to feel like a part of the club. I may have never entered even a practice trial yet, but I was no longer the new kid. I had taken lessons from people under that tent with me, drove to clinics, bought a ram lamb from one and was picking up ewe lambs from another. I talked with people I knew about sheep, dogs, and past trials. I knew a lot of folks' first names now, and had handlers I cheered for with gusto.
While sitting there, taking in the big show, I was trying to remember what brought me to herding? At what point did passing for an Open Handler to second-home owning tourist become a huge boost to my ego? I couldn't place it. Like mushing, dressage, and draft horses: this was working with animals. And I don't mean "working with animals" like vets and dog trainers work with animals: I mean physically laboring beside them, doing work a human can not do alone. That teamwork is timeless and perfect. It is what built and created civilization and culture. There is no place a road goes through that didn't once know wagon wheels. To do the work that connects me to my past, to animals, to other people: this was what I wanted to spend my life doing.
Wanted to, being the key phrase. I realized anyone with huskies and a sled could give that a go, and horse stables with lessons are all over the nation....but I didn't realize civilians could get into sheepdog trials. I thought you had to look like James Cromwell, wear tweed, and live somewhere along the Devon Coast. But as it turns out, you just have to be a little crazy and not mind driving. Last year at this trial a handler ran her dog wearing a maroon and gold Sunnydale High t-shirt.
It was at that moment I fell in love with the sport.
It's certainly not the competition that intrigues me. I could care less about winning, but entering, now that gets me going. It's the inclusion in that community, that feeling of being on the team bus again. Sheepdog Trials are a sport, however eccentric. It has its own subculture and quirks, but I adore the history, the individuals, and the variety of people it brings in. The parking lot has Mercedes and Mechanics in it. Hard Scrabble farmers, affluent hobbyists, and dreamers like me make up the scene. All of us dedicated to our dogs, agriculture, and dreaming of some day walking off that field with a smile so big on our faces no level of self control could hide. Today I watched a man score a 92 (out of 100) with his dog and leave the field calmly. I would have been doing a touchdown dance with Gibson circling around me barking. Then picked him up, hollered, and spiked my crook. Not because I wanted to boast, but because I can not fathom that sort of thing ever happening. If it did, the sky might open up and a war dance might be the only thing that could tame it.
I was asked to scribe today, and was thrilled to do so. For those of you unfamiliar with the parlance of the sheepdoggin' world: scribing is a fancy term for score keeping. It puts you in a folding chair right next to the judge. For me, this is like taking the wide-eyed kid with the giant foam finger out of the cheap seats and planting her in the announcer's skybox. While each dog runs the course, you run the stopwatch, mark down the points removed, and listen to the judge's comments. Sometimes they'll make kind conversation, and encourage you along your own path in the game. The judge this weekend was a woman from North Carolina and friendly as hell, explaining new terms to me like "ran across his work." She judged the trial with her clogs off, eating an apple in unshod glory under a big straw hat. Thems my people I said in my head, channeling the last Michael Perry book I read (which was also propping up my plastic chair on the unlevel ground). I had a fine time under that tent.
After scribing, lunch was a godsend. Pulled pork and cole slaw, fire-roasted corn brushed with a buttery herb coating, and vanilla ice cream with raspberries and maple syrup. If maple syrup does not sound like an ice cream topping to you then you are in for a pleasant surprise, son. The three flavors were perfect: creamy, sugary, and tart.
The whole day was familiar and happy. This sheepdog trial is mine. It is the first ever shepherding event I ever attended, and this weekend made it my fourth year. It's become a Holiday to this farmer, and it has always fallen on my birthday. I look forward to the Haflingers and big draft horses. I like catching up with Jim McRae who always does the shearing demo (and is also the CAF shearer).
Things have changed since it started, but all for the better. The crowd keeps growing and the food is now beyond the ol' burgers and dogs. They opened the Sap House to be a farmy craft mall. Come to a sheepdog trial and leave with artisan cheese, yarn, hooked rugs, sweaters and knick knacks. There was a silent auction, syrup tasting, and kids in a big field playing game outside. Not a bad way for a family to spend a Saturday.
During all this hootenanny I saw a pair of little girls run up the the sheep shearing demonstration—each with a stuffed sheep under their arms. Those toys might as well have been Mickey Mouse dolls as they scrambled to Space Mountain. It made me grin, seeing a bunch of kids psyched about a sheepdog trial like that. And let's be honest...Space Mountain only lasts a few minutes. This sheepdoggin' thing scoops up whole lives.
May those plush-sheep-toting rug rats thrive. Thrive and carry on.