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Poplarville SDT, or, "How I'm learning to Shed"

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I've searched through the various subforums to find where this might fit best, but it seems my topics don't fit into the structure outlined here. I've chosen this subforum as my experience and take-aways pertain to trialing, with a bit of levity as well. Please move this thread as needed if it does belong elsewhere.




I've meant to write this earlier, but work demands have kept me from my hobby. Also: the holidays.

So a couple weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to be a helper at Ms P. Tose's trial, held in Poplarville MS. I spent the weekend assisting two ranch hands, Mr J. Garcia and Mr P. Mojica, with setting out sheep during all phases of the trial and learned a ton in the process. I feel my experience is worth sharing for those just getting started, or perhaps to remind those who've come before as to the miracle of the working border collie.
Brief History
I got into sheepdogging several years back when I helped train a BC mix rescue. In very short order, this dog learned everything I had to offer that would take other dogs from other breeds weeks and months to learn. Instead of challenging the dog, the dog was challenging me. Coupling their intelligence with their athleticism and loyalty, I knew I'd never own another breed for the rest of my life. I dove in: I got informed about the history of the breed, what it truly means to be a sheepdog, how sheepdogs are measured against one another, and networking with trainers and breeders across the Southeast US and even a handful abroad (BEL, NDL). I joined these forums and met a penpal, Ms T. Toney, with whom I've corresponded now for years. Fast forward to present day and I've attended a clinic and now a trial with her, albeit not as a competitor.
Lesson 1: Border collies are awesome
I've been around dogs my entire life, and for the past 6 years focused on borders. But watching these set-out dogs is a completely different perspective than watching them work sheep, compete on the trial field, or fetch a ball for twenty minutes before your arm gets tired. There's a certain admiration I've always felt with watching a fresh border sent Away from the handler's post, making an arcing Outrun at full tilt. But I now have a new appreciation for the set out: it's a miniature trial in its own right: Outrun, Gather, then setting them. The neatest thing to me is that it requires another element not seen on the trial field: the grace of allowing another dog to take one's sheep from them. To have the ability to 'hand off' the work that had been done. Furthermore, some of the set out dogs I was fortunate to watch work were so eager, while also being so calm. They were swift in their duties, but seemed fresh every time.
Most memorable was at the end of the second day, there had been a coordination mix-up with set-out duties against the running order. All while the trial field was being converted from Open to Pro to Novice (the set out point being further and further from the pens). Mr S. Johnson was stuck asking his dog to make 200+ yard Outruns to Gather and then set sheep.. for two dozen or so runs before his replacement could get up-field. And the dog dutifully carried out his Master's requests. Tirelessly. Dutifully.
This breed never ceases to amaze me. They are awesome.
Lesson 2: Sheep suck
I've been around dogs my whole life, but livestock less frequently. County fairs and some horseback riding peppered here and there, but never, ever have I handled livestock. Being able to work alongside Ms P. Tose's ranch hands, I learned quickly how to grab unruly ewes and get them into the set pen in preparation for set out. It felt good as a young man to roll up my sleeves, get a little dirty and sweaty from the ordeal, but even a 50 lb ewe, when lifted throughout a day, becomes quite heavy. Once is no big deal at all, but by day's end, I was ready for bed.
The work is possible solo, but by merely having a dog nearby just standing up/lying down would move ewes that otherwise were obstinate and heavy. I now have appreciation for the benefit a dog provides to farm chores. The different was night and day. Truly night and day.
Lesson 3: Blink, and you'll miss it
When I first stepped into the pen to try and separate 4 ewes from the flock to put into the prep area, my positioning was off. My balance was off. I was doing everything incorrectly (my fellow ranch hands quietly judged me.. in Spanish). By the end of the weekend, I was learning the importance of positioning, eye contact and 'feeling' when the 4th ewe was about to run to the 3 already prepped girls. But with ewes 5 and 6 glued the 4, there was a very, very tight window in which stepping forward allows the 1 ewe to escape and to corner the others. Too soon and she doesn't budge. Too late and you now have 6 ewes in the prep pen instead of 4.
In addition to learning for myself how to recognize the brief opportunity to make a Shed, it was great to pick up pointers from all the set out handlers who came to chew the fat with us in the back of the field. While watching all the trial dogs Gather the set out sheep, it was great to hear input here and there about how well a given dog performed the task. Or, while prepping the sheep for set out, be offered pointers on how to recognize 'sticky' sheep. How to find the ewe who was most domineering. Cowardly. Things that no classroom instruction or raw experience would provide. Just being in the moment, picking up a pearl of wisdom from a handler who probably learned it in the same setting I was experiencing: priceless.
Lesson 4: Don't take sheep for granted
I think at some point, every dog lover has been hit by a dog running full tilt and gotten knocked over. The power that a 40lb creature on 4 legs can transfer to the ground is unbelievable. Sheep are no different. Having now worked with ewes weighing upwards of 100 lbs, if they don't want to move, they aren't moving. If they want to move past you, by moving through you, they will. You can't pussyfoot around and expect these ladies to listen. Being 100% assertive is the only way to go.
No group of 3/4/5 sheep are the same. No set out was the same. Conditions were continuously evolving throughout the day, the weekend. And the changes couldn't be predicted.
At one point, two handlers were prepped for set out (Ms T. Toney was going to take over for Ms L. Scruggs) with both ladies having 1 each of the dogs chained, 1 each of their dogs out. The 4 ewes were released and and the set out process began.. except 1 of the ewes wasn't having any of this whole dog controlling it. While her 3 sisters waited around the set out point, she scrambled back and forth in front of the pens, passed 2 chained dogs (twice), and cornered by both active set out dogs. With nowhere left to go, this 80-90lb ewe stops and realizes her predicament with two chained dogs to her right, a fence in front of her, a set out dog to her left, and a set out dog behind her. Without warning, she decides to make a standing leap clear over a 4-5 ft fence, inches from where I was standing (had I not sidestepped, I would have been clipped on my right shoulder).
Fences don't stop these ewes if flight mode is engaged. Be alert at all times.
Lesson 5: Comraderie
The benefits of sheepdogging are much more than the competition. This is a community. It was great to meet many new people and see some familiar faces as well. A big shout out to Ms P. Tose, Ms T. Toney, Ms D. Barrentine, Ms K. Watson, Ms M. Schreeder, Ms L. Scruggs, Ms R. McKowen, Mr J. Nopsinger, Mr S. Johnson, Mr J. Garcia, Mr P. Mojica, and more I have forgotten (I am not good with names, forgive me).

And the dogs were all great. I'm still torn between Ms T. Toney's Annie, Ms M. Schreeder's Lass and Ms L. Scruggs' Hopper as being the belle of the ball. Perhaps at the March trial I will be able to better judge and render a verdict on the matter.

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Brian was a real trooper and a great help in the pens. Trials are put on by a small village of workers, those footsore, body aching teams of workers who do the work simply because they love the sport.

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As someone who has done a lot of set out, it's nice to read how you gained an appreciation for the work the set out dogs do (especially since I think so few people ever really even think about it), as well as the work in the pens. Learning how to move livestock yourself, efficiently and without a lot of fuss, will go a long way toward making you a better handler. Thanks for sharing!



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