Monday, September 15, 2008

a shepherd's apprentice

I pulled up to the farm that was hosting the trials around nine AM. An iron weathervane of a stalking sheepdog told us were were at the right place. So did the line of cars lining the dirt driveway up to the house and barns. I left the dogs in the car with shade and some water and headed up the hill. As I crested it, the trial came into view. A big white tent, folding chairs, black and white dogs milling about, women and men in wellies and muck boots chatting, the occasional bleat of a panicked ewe in the field. In other words - a perfect Saturday morning.

That's Gracie in the top picture, a young border who was entered in the Novice trials this weekend. Gracie comes from the lines of Warren Mick's great dog Glen, and has some big paw prints to fill. Her handler was younger than me and seemed confident that Gracie would work her way up. I didn't see her run, but I did get to sit next to them while I watched the end of the novice novice (yes, two novices) class.

Sheepdog trials for beginners, like this one, are split into three sections. Novice Novice (inexperienced handlers and inexperienced dogs), Pro Novice (experienced handlers with inexperienced dogs), and Ranch (a mid-level course you need to place in before going into the big boy Open classes). This being a Novice Trial, people were patient, expectations low, and everyone was happy to be there. So was I. This was my second time visiting a trial, and my third time at a NEBCA event since the Merck Forest Trials. I wanted to be more active, learn what was going on behind the scenes. So I volunteered. Putting myself at the mercy of the officials.

Which landed me in the sheep pen. At the top of the field there's a series of pens that let three ewes out at a time. Each dog had 4 minutes to get the ewes from us penfolk (about 100 yards or so away) and bring them back to their shepherd. To be fair, every dog gets three fresh sheep and they are released by people in the pens. It was more complicated than it sounds. We had to make sure a lamb and a Mondale were in every trio. We had to keep an eye out for the bad sheep (with a red mark on them) and try to get them over to Tot (a younger male border collie bursting with power) to take out to the course. It didn't always go as planned. Some sheep figured out how to escape us and the dogs. Others were reluctant to even step out of the holding pens. Talk about being in the thick of it. My lungs have a coating of wool in them now.

I was up there for a while, getting pushed around by the sheep, hopping over fences, herding in my own way. When I messed up or did something stupid I was harshly corrected but for my own good. Mostly I was told to slow down, that I needed to be calm around the sheep because it was unfair to send them rattled to a new sheepdog. After a while I caught onto the vibe and routine and when people realized I wasn't going to ruin everything they stopped correcting me and started giving me pointers, explaining things, pointing out why one sheep was panting so much or why that dog wasn't doing something right. I learned a lot. The sheep around my legs seemed dissonant, which was fine by me. I didn't get butted once.

Every once in a while when things were in some sort of order in the pen, I'd jump out and walk to the clearing in the Hickory trees to watch the dogs herd the course. I'd watch them lope out into the fields on their initial outrun. I'd watch them pick up the sheep in what the trialers called the lift. And then bring them back to their handler, in the term most of us already know - fetch. It sounds simple - outrun, lift, fetch - but it wasn't. It sounds boring, but it was far from it. Standing on a hill, under the shade of broad leafed trees, watching a good dog work sheep, covered in mud and wool from the flock behind me... it was a proper feeling of dirty and happy. I didn't even notice the humidity.

After my pen time was over, I checked on my own dogs, and made sure they were okay. We got fresh water, and a short walk in before I went back up the hill to watch the next class (Ranch). The rest of the afternoon was spent spectating and talking about club duties. I offered to help with the newsletter and this year's calendar. I got business cards and met some new people. Handlers gave me hints about upcoming litters and told me what they would do if they could do it all over.(Mostly everyone said get a started dog, a multi thousand dollar investment I can't make but they were earnest in their opinions.) All in all it was a fine day. I drove home tired and happy.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on my own farm chores. Relining the coop with fresh bedding straw, moving the sheep out to new pasture, cleaning rabbit cages, and baking an apple cake. By sunset I was barely still on my feet. When I went out to bring the sheep in for the night, I gabbed the livestock cane my friend Diana mailed me as a gift. I now know why people without bum knees or week legs bring these canes into the fields at sunset. They are so tired by the end of the day they need something to keep them standing up. I rested my palms on it and called Marvin, Sal, and Maude in for some grain and minerals. They trotted past me into the pen, they seemed happy and healthy so far. It's own reward to a new shepherdess. I walked back to the house ready for bed. It was a grand day at Cold Antler Farm.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

why did you bring your dogs to the trials? even in shade on a cooler day it can easily get up to over 100 degrees in a car.

September 15, 2008 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

Oh for goodness sake! The dogs weren't locked in a hot car. They were in an open-window vehicle sleeping on the back seat with fresh air, bottled water in steel bowls, and chew toys and blankets. They were more than comfortable, and parked next to dozens of other cars and trucks with dogs in crates or tied to bumpers. At these kinds of events you can't (and shouldn't) have your dogs with you at all times. It would be bedlam, and disrespectful to the competitors. So 90% of the dogs stay in crates, trailers, campers or in open-air cars while the other 10% compete. Also, it's autumn in New England here, not the middle of a heat wave in Florida. Please don't think I'd do anything so negligent. Crikey.

September 15, 2008 at 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a nice, busy but rewarding day. Would I love to have been at the trials. I love to watch them and have no clue how they do it. It always amazes me. I bought a whistle once and couldn't figure out how to work the darn thing. Do you have that down yet? You were brave to volunteer.
Apple cake sounds good right now!

September 15, 2008 at 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like the shepherd's crook came in handy! Be sure to keep it out of the weather when not in use... they can lose their bend, believe it or not!

I'm sure Jazz & Annie had a wonderful time sniffing & chatting with all the neighboring dogs around the car park.

September 15, 2008 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger Sojourner Design said...

Would a Mondale sheep be a Montadale that votes Democratic?

September 16, 2008 at 5:05 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

hey i'm new! (i messed up the name of the breed)

September 20, 2008 at 6:48 AM  

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