Limited success, but valuable lessons learned!

Kingsland Trial's a reminder of an important point

I've been looking forward to Kingsland Sheepdog Trial for some time. The trials field is less than an hour from home, and I remember really enjoying myself when I ran Glen, several years ago, on its unusually-shaped course.

An unusual layout for a trails ground showing both drive gates on the left and the fetch gates on the right.
The picture doesn't show the "L" shape of the field very well but the left and right drive gates are to the left and the fetch gates on the right. (Click images to enlarge)

When I arrived, soon after 7.30 in the morning, the ground was immediately familiar to me, but later I was told that the trial had only just returned to this field after other nearby locations had been tried in recent years.

The field resembles a letter "L" with the drive gates on the vertical part and the outrun lift and fetch on the base - a decidedly unusual layout which I rather like, but the feelings of other handlers were definitely mixed.

It's a tricky little course. Some handlers felt that the outrun section was too narrow for the dog to cast out wide enough, but I saw no problem with this at all. It's not common to bring the sheep down through fetch gates with both drive gates off to the left, and the arrangement of the pen with its gate facing away from the direction in which the sheep would approach it was certainly controversial, but as we were to see later, neither presented any difficulty that a good handler / dog combination couldn't cope with.

Kingsland SDT
Saturday 31st May 2014

Morning Session

Judge: Aubrey Lloyd
Open Class (Points lost)

  1. Ian Jones - Tom 5
  2. Kevin Evans - Caleb 6
  3. David Evans - Moss 7
  4. Sophie Holt - Bet 9
  5. Ross Games - Roy 9
  6. Mervyn Lewis - Gel 10

Novice class

  1. Mervyn Lewis - Gel 10
  2. Sophia Vedniapine-Pugh - Nan 13
  3. Rhys Jones - Jock 14

Afternoon Session

Judge: Arran Games
Open Class (Points lost).

  1. John Bowen - Jet 5
  2. Daniel Karman - Taff 6 (OLF)
  3. Kevin Evans - Jim 6
  4. David Evans - Silk 9 (OLF)
  5. Alison Smith - Bethan 9
  6. Paul Tomkins - Bess 10

Novice Class

  1. Alison Smith - Bethan 9
  2. Steve Lewis - Jake 10
  3. Austin Bennett - Jan 13

My daughter, Ruth and her partner, Will were due to shear our few sheep later that day, so I was keen to run Kay and Carew fairly early and get back home in plenty of time to help. I booked Carew to run at number four, and Kay at nine.

I always advise handlers to study the runs before their own, but it would seem practising what I preach isn't always my strongest point. The first two runs I observed both ended in retirement, and the third started badly with the dog cutting in tight at the top and disturbing the sheep, but by then I was concentrating on preparing Carew.

I wanted to be certain Carew knew where the sheep were and, in an effort to prevent her running back towards the exhaust pen (as she did at a recent trial) making sure she didn't see where the sheep were taken when they left the course. With all this demanding my attention I really hadn't learned much by the time Carew and I walked out to the post.

I'd noticed that the sheep pulled strongly to the left on the fetch, and that they seemed determined not to be penned, but the handler before Carew's run managed to pen quite quickly, so it was perfectly possible. The three previous runners had sent their dogs off to the right, possibly to avoid the possibility of the dog running off to the drive section on the left, but I thought this was a mistake because the dogs approaching from the right were causing the sheep to run back towards the holding pen.

I decided to risk sending Carew to the left as this had the added benefit of being away from the exhaust pen. She went out perfectly, but stopped when she was about three quarters of the way up the field. I whistled and shouted her on (losing points of course) but she was sticking again.

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I was quickly able to get her moving though and, for the rest of the run, she did well although the sheep were not really behaving as I expected. It wasn't a great run, and despite Carew doing precisely what I wanted at the pen we simply couldn't coax the sheep in. Eventually the judge sounded his vehicle horn, and we were timed out. I was disappointed with Carew for stopping at the top of the field (we've been working on this at home with some success) and with myself for some shaky handling, but at the pen I thought we'd done everything right and yet still failed to complete the course.

Sheep passing through the fetch gates - with the drive gates in the background
An unusual sight. As the sheep pass through the fetch gates you can see the right-hand drive gates in the background. The left drive gates are out of the picture further to the left.

Interestingly, once Carew had broken the ice by successfully running to the left, most handlers sent their dogs that way.

Unfortunately, after Carew's run I didn't take advantage of the time I had before Kay's run. Instead of talking, and dissecting my run with other handlers, my time would have been better spent in more carefully watching the runs before Kay's turn but, all too soon, I was at the post again.

I decided to send Kay to the left, as I had with Carew, and sure enough, Kay did a pretty good outrun - perhaps a little tight at the top, but her main problem was over-enthusiasm. Kay approached the sheep a little fast, and will certainly have lost points for the sheep sprinting off down the course towards me.

All seemed to be going well on the fetch until the sheep stopped at the fetch gates and tried to dart around them. I flanked Kay quickly and three of the four went through, but then they ran out a long way to the left. I visualised our valuable points disappearing down the plughole!

Kay had brought the sheep back on line by the time they reached me at the post, but then I tried to bring them around the post a little too tightly. They nipped round to the left instead of the right, and tried to run back up the course.

I managed to stop them quickly and brought them back around the post as they should have gone, but as they completed the turn towards the drive gates they went off line again. More correction was required and, of course, more points lost.

We negotiated the first drive gates reasonably well, but then the sheep ran at full speed past the second gates, which were close to the fence and shaded by trees. Although Kay got ahead of the sheep and turned them back through the gates, I suspected they'd already passed the line of the gates. Retries are not allowed, so if I was right we will have lost many more points for this.

sheep coming through the fetch gates at a sheepdog trial
Although it's well to the left, this dog is balancing the sheep perfectly. They want to go to the left of the picture but the dog's positioned to keep them on line for the fetch gates.

Kay was pushing hard and I was holding her back all the way around the course, but when she brought the sheep to the pen she was a little better (being closer to me of course). Even so, we were unable to pen them in the allocated time so, just as Carew had been, we were timed out.

I was disappointed. Clearly I'd made several errors around the course; I hadn't "read" the sheep correctly and Kay hadn't been stopping well either. It was not a great run!

This was brought home to me very clearly when Kevin Evans stepped up to the post with Caleb.

Kevin is clearly one of the top handlers in the country, if not the world, at the moment, and having watched some experienced handlers struggle with these sheep - particularly at the pen - I was looking forward to seeing what the young Welshman and his dog could do.

Caleb did an excellent outrun, and lifted the sheep nicely before balancing them neatly to the fetch gates. They required a little persuasion to go through the gates but, from then on, the run became a masterclass.

I watched in disbelief as Caleb held the tricky sheep in complete control around the post and onto the drive section, through both gates and back to the pen.

I expected to see some problems here, so many other handlers had found the sheep very difficult to pen, but Caleb held the sheep to Kevin for just a moment before they conceded, and walked in.

What an astonishing run! I learned so much from watching it.

Kevin Evans flanks Caleb in anticipation of the sheep pulling right
A masterful demonstration of sheep handling. Kevin Evans flanks Caleb to the inside in anticipation of the sheep pulling to the right.

Perhaps most notable was that Kevin had spotted that the sheep were pulling uphill towards the holding pens after they came around the post. Instead of following convention and allowing the dog to continue around the outside as the sheep went round (thus exacerbating the problem) Kevin flanked Caleb back to the inside in anticipation and held the sheep to a perfect line.

This is precisely what I have in mind when I advise handlers to watch the other runs. It certainly hadn't occurred to me to be so bold, but it's something I'll be looking out for at later trials. If Kevin had been wrong, and the sheep had not "pulled" back up towards the holding pens, they would have gone off course, but his prediction was perfect - and his handling as good as any I've seen at a sheepdog trial.

It's so easy to watch other runs and just enjoy them, without actually analysing what's happening, and why. Successful handlers "read" the way the sheep are behaving and can turn this knowledge to their advantage.

View of the fetch and drive gates at Kingsland sheepdog trial
Click to enlarge the picture and you'll be able to see both sets of drive gates (left) and the fetch gates on the right.

Speaking to a friend the next day, I mentioned that the sheep had been difficult to pen but that those who'd successfully completed it seemed to do it very quickly indeed. She replied that, from her experience, that's often the best way to pen the sheep at some trials.

If we watch and learn, those of us who strive for perfection - keeping the dog well back, holding the sheep at the mouth of the pen and patiently giving them plenty of time to settle in the hope that they'll feel happy to walk into the pen - will realise that sometimes it's not the best way.

Some sheep clearly respond better to simply being "shoved" into the pen before they have too much time to think about it, and that certainly seemed to be the case at Kingsland on Saturday. Time and time again, I saw sheep that were, apparently, settled at the pen suddenly darting back up the field for no apparent reason, whereas those who "wangled" them in quickly seemed to have far greater success.

I had to leave soon after Kevin's run with Caleb so I don't know how much sheep wangling was in later evidence at the pen. However, with Kevin and Caleb taking second place and only 5 points separating the first to sixth places, there were clearly many excellent runs that I didn't see or haven't described.

Next Saturday (7th June) - Ivy House Trial in Shropshire. This will be a challenge because the dog has to set off on its outrun from one field, go through a gate, and gather the sheep from another! Carew and Kay both have very limited experience of this, so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

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