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Open Outrun - Too Short vs Just Right?

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Howdy all ~

I was talking to a friend the other day about Open trials and we got into a bit of a debate about outrun length for Open trials. I know that some of the the big trials may have Nursery or Pro Novice outruns of 300+ yards and Open outruns of 500+ yards or more. But not every trial organizer has access to a gorgeous huge field.

So, at what point would you regard a field as just too small to offer a good contest for Open dogs? 300 yards? 250 yards? 200 yards? Less?

I'm thinking here of a mainly-flat field in moderate weather, not a hill field and not hot weather with high humidity or scorching summer temps.

Given this hypothetical scenario, what is your ideal length of outrun? What would you find as disappointingly small?

Then throw into this also consideration of the length of the Open drive: how much is enough? How little is too little?

Discuss! :)

~ Gloria

PLEASE NOTE: This is research, not just a perverse desire to spark debate over extreme vs modest trial courses. B)

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Some farms are certainly limited by the size and shape of their own fields. One concern I have about that, in the East, is that there are dogs that can amass qualifying points on fields that are in no way representative of what a dog needs to be able to handle in a National Finals. Sometimes, I think that can lead to (at least) bragging rights for dogs that while they have "qualifying" points, are in no way "qualified".


I've been to three National Finals and the Bluegrass for almost ten years - it's not often that a qualified dog can't find its sheep but it does happen, but that could be for several reasons and not just having trialed on smaller venues. I've seen it more at Bluegrass and one other trial with a more rolling terrain than at Finals but some dogs just get "sucked" into swales and never make it out to the sheep. Maybe that's lack of experience looking for sheep in big fields and fields with varying elevations.


I do think that working smaller fields also is a test of different abilities as each trial offers its own challenges. I am looking forward to the discussion your questions inspire!

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Dear Aspiring Sheepdoggers,


Ms. Atwater asks some interesting questions. Although, on balance, I prefer longer outruns because distance tests the link between dog and handler and the dog's wisdom, I ran in two enjoyable trials last year with 220? yard outruns.


I avoid trials where results depend on running order - those trials where you MUST run early or late. I avoid trials where sheep are so dog-savvy, they can beat the dog when the dog is correct.


My avoidances depend, thus, on the sheep, not on the course. I have run on and returned to courses I thought could be better designed. I rarely return to trials that don't have enough sheep or are indifferent to them.


For many years with a flock of 80 wool sheep, we had a one day 3 sheep trial with a 60 dog (all classes) limit because our sheep could run well three times in one day - provided they didn't run the next.


To address Ms. Atwater's points more directly:


Flat fields are tricky because it's harder to estimate distances from panels. Short outruns can be compensated for by longer drives/crossdrives and/or more complicated sheds (marked sheep) or more difficult pens (gate restrictions/sheep-unfriendly pens). How long may not be the issue - Lexington 1's crossdrive was enormous (350?) because the field was a jump field and a long ditch forced the issue. My trial's outrun is long but the crossdrive's short and oblique. Sheep pressure to familiar areas dictates one panel and pressure to the exhaust dictates the other.


A field the sheep routinely graze (usually the case in the east) will have unique sheep pressures which can change the trial calculus if sheep are run too many times during the day.


Generally: if you arrange your course so it's challenging (fun) and fair, you'll have a good trial. Don't leave too little room for the sheep at the top or too little room to make the turns in order to add ten yards to the distance.


Hosting your first sheepdog trial is worrysome and a hell of a lot of hard work. Do ask for help. Every field is different and you'll want an experienced handler to help you set up your course. Your judge may do so the night before. We sheepdoggers are eager for new trials and grateful for them. If we expected perfection we'd be in some other sport.


Donald McCaig

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I'm giving the standard "it depends" answer. Much depends on where you are located and the timing of the trial. As Donald noted, if you are constrained by field size, there are ways to increase the difficulty of the trial by making the drive more difficult or the pen and the shed or all three. Small fields with shorter outruns don't always = easy outruns/gimme courses, although people do make that assumption at times.


There's one trial I know of on a small field that has the dog on a blind outrun at least part of the way, plus blind areas (down in gullies) on the fetch. Such a field can be a good test of a dog's ability because the handler can't always see what's going on to be able to help the dog. And that's not a bad thing.


Ideally, one would like to have access to all sorts of fields (flat, hilly, large, small, with and without natural obstacles) and all sorts of different types of sheep. All of these will make for a more well-rounded working dog and variety in testing (trials) isn't a bad thing either. The outrun is important, but it's not the only aspect of a good working dog.


I don't fear people qualifying for the finals strictly on small fields and broke sheep. It could happen, but those same folks aren't going to show well at a finals, so as an argument, it's really a non-starter for me (sort of like the cattle arena trials qualifying for finals argument, or the nursery dog who competes against noncompetitive dogs to get the nursery qualifications--yes, people will do all of these things, but the cream will always rise to the top, and it will be evident to the experienced folks that unqualified dogs are just that).


Location/timing also plays a big role. Edgeworth has a long outrun (~600 yards) and is held in mid-October. There are times in Virginia when mid-October can be quite unseasonably warm. A huge course in hot weather can be dangerous. Fields with tall grass hold humidity and are an effort for a dog to slog through. Although you specifically eliminated the possibility of high temperatures, I just wanted to point out that other natural "obstacles" like really long grass, rough terrain, etc., can affect a course (and also the dog) and should be considered when planning a trial.


I think any trial host just needs to work with what they have available, make adjustments so that the course is challenging but not dangerous and learn from experience. I think most handlers don't want little tiny outruns or easy courses, at least not those who aspire to be successful open handlers, and most hosts I know with small fields are not offering such outruns/courses anyway. Those that do usually do so because of a tradition (for example, at Montpelier in VA, the field is small, but there is a lot of pressure that the handler/dog team have to deal with, but more important, the trial is a big part or the fiber festival that occurs on the same weekend and the trial is a huge hit with festival goers. It's an important venue for getting the dogs and the work out in front of the public. It's one trial and entries are limited by the fact that all classes are run, so it's unlikely to greatly influence who gets to go to the finals).


And since you asked the question, I have seen nursery outruns/courses that I thought were disappointingly small, but then again, the terrain was tricky and I noted that a significant number of young dogs had difficulty, so perhaps the smaller size wasn't a "gift" to the dogs who were running.



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While the gather is 50points, other than a cross over, the bulk of the points are about how the dog interacts with the sheep. The top of the outrun is about the dog reading the sheep and being the right distance off; the lift is about right right pace, attitude, and direction of the approach to the sheep; the fetch is about pace and controlling the direction of the sheep.


The test is mostly about the sheep.


Depending upon the sheep, a 200yd outrun (and fetch) can seem longer/harder than a 500yd outrun.




You make the best with what you have.

We don't have a large trial field; our outrun is no more than 250yds. But we have hills and I try to layout courses that use the hills to test dog and handler. We have enough sheep so that they run no more than 2x a day.

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