I haven't blogged here since way back last spring, mainly because I'm not very bloggery, but today I have something to say.
This past weekend, our local sheepdogging club, the High Desert Sheep Dog Association, hosted its first-ever sanctioned USBCHA field trial. Very little about the Open trial went as planned and I've winced and cringed and moaned. But now I want to write about it one more time and be done with it.
First of all, our Open handlers are not alone in thinking, "Wow, that didn't go very well." Of our 29 to 30 Open competitors, only 9 or 10 per day walked away with scores. That is absolutely not what we had in mind!
But our trial did not suck. Let me go over this with a few bullet points.
- The exhaust pen was in an awkward, inconvenient place, creating a crappy draw for dogs bringing sheep down the fetch. Why didn't we put it back in the corner behind the handler's post and the judge?
Well, that was the plan. The ranch recently sold and all those acres of beautiful grass hay fields are being ripped and replanted with alfalfa, but they were reserving that particular field for our use. We reckoned on maybe 60-70 acres. The exhaust pen doubled as our night pen, so it had to be where someone could park an RV and keep watch over the sheep at night. However, with all that acreage, we could just put the pen at the end of the blacktop and the handler's post would be out away from it. The course itself would lay east-ish well beyond that.
But a couple weeks before the trial, I got a phone call: "Will 40 acres be enough for your trial?"
Errr ... oops. Now we had a little square field into which we must squeeze an Open course and still allow for an RV to watch sheep. We daren't risk someone bogging down in the field, nor could we camp someone on the trial course, so the exhaust pen had to stay where it was. That, we are well aware, was not ideal. But that didn't make our trial suck.
- What the *bleep* was going on at set out, with a crowd of half a dozen people and two or three dogs on the field at once?
Well, simply put, dogs alone could not pull those sheep away from the set out pens, nor hold them once at the drop off point. They simply were not very impressed by dogs, and we learned that people actually exerted more influence than our dogs. Maybe that's how the Rafter 7 flock is handled at home. I don't know. But I have never seen (and certainly never set) sheep so adamant about running back to set out. Once these yearlings broke and bolted back, they would run right over a dog - and if the dog gripped to stop them, they would just drag it along behind. So, we had to march them out like a platoon of Marines because not one other damn thing worked. But that didn't make our trial suck.
- Yeah, and what about those sheep? Most of our dogs couldn't even finish the course with those lousy things.
Yeah, we kind of noticed that. Especially when we took our turns at the post and fared as poorly as everyone else. They had two speeds: run like hell or stand there and stare.
But you know ... we had no idea. We hired range ewes. We got range ewes. I've worked set out for a few trials so I thought I knew a little bit, but these were different. Rafter 7 has also sold and these sheep will be moving to some other ranch, so maybe with all the sorting and selling they've been doing lately, these ewes just kind of went dead-headed. Heaven knows, because I don't. But we truly wish more people could have enjoyed success and come away happy. That right there is suck.
- So, why didn't you put them out in sets of 5? Maybe that would have settled them down a little.
True. But we only leased so many sheep and allowed for sets of 4, so had we tried to change to sets of 5, it would have meant re-running some of the sheep each day. I don't think anybody would have liked that. If done, that would have been suck.
- Alright, then why didn't you get the sheep a couple days early and move them around the course in groups with dogs?
You're kidding, right? The HDSDA spent over $900 to lease those sheep for 2 days, plus the cost of hay at about $20 a bale. If we'd got them two days early, those expenses would have doubled. I guess we could have doubled our entry fees, but who really wants to see that? Plus we'd need someone to camp out there to babysit the sheep those nights, too. Simply put, getting the sheep early was a financial and logistical impossibility. But that did not make our trial suck.
Did elements of our trial suck? You bet they did.
But did the trial itself suck? I say NO. We did the best we could with the situation we had. The trial field shrank, the sheep were difficult, the exhaust was in the wrong place and set out looked like a circle jerk. There are a number of things we'd love to have done differently, and things we'd change and improve if we do this again.
But for this first time ... by golly, we pulled the damn thing off. We held our first Open trial and handlers went to the post and dogs went up the field, and some of the time they came back down with sheep. I'm proud as hell of our crew and all the volunteers who stepped in to keep things rolling. From our judge who dragged and fed hay Saturday evening to the handlers who came up to help at set out, from folks who fed the sheep Sunday morning before the trial crew even got there and stayed to help tear down pens Sunday afternoon, to everyone who, in countless ways, offered help and kindness and hard work ... our trial freakin' rocked.
So, maybe it wasn't pretty and maybe our dogs got sucked into the Vortex of Wrongness, and what should have been good runs just died out there in the grass. But so it goes. I saw a lot of good happening out there, even if it didn't involve the sheep's behavior. I'm proud of everyone who stepped in and pulled together and did their bit to make things right.
If you were there and you are unhappy with how things went for you and your dog, I understand. Believe me, the trial we got is NOT the trial the HDSDA planned, wanted or envisioned. But we tried. We tried our damnedest and worked our butts off, and good people showed what they were really made of.
That's what I'm taking home from this. Our trial did not suck. Maybe the sheep did. We had no control over that. But given the situation, I think we did pretty damn good.
And that's all I'm gonna say about that.