The trial was a lot of fun! I actually had a better time than i was expecting. It can be hot and crowded with spectators, and the sheep and field can be frustrating, but it was a beautiful weekend with good friends, the sheep were relatively well behaved and all in all, it was a very enjoyable trip.
I arrived Friday afternoon after an easy trip up, in brilliant sunshine, and pulled right onto a nice level camping spot. The trial field looked very good, deep in lush green grass. In years past, there has been a boggy, grown up area to the right of the set out point for Open. Dogs sent that way on the outrun would have to either be really tight or choose to go well around the mess and pop out to the side of the sheep. This year it was well mowed and made for an attractive right hand outrun. That was very nice since there's a fenceline on the left that can push dogs into the sheep, though it's not usually much of a problem with more room on that side to work.
The trial started Saturday morning with the Novice classes and the standard of running was pretty poor for the most part. There were a few nicer runs but mostly it was quite bad, with dogs circling sheep and chasing and just generally looking like the handlers were being a bit ambitious in entering the trial. Fortunately there weren't many spectators around yet. I was somewhat surprised as I thought the quality of the Novice classes had gotten better in recent years. There were a few good runs though, with most of the runs by my friends and training buddies being pretty good, and some great!
Open started after the lunch break. The sheep gave us handlers a good bit to think about as they'd be heavy one minute and bolting the next, depending on where you were on the course. Some groups were splitting because of a particulary "runny" individual, and some because there would be a hard lagger in the group. The lift was a tough one because the sheep were set on a large amount of grain and many of them would get their heads down and just chow down until a dog was practically touching noses with them. There were many "popcorn" lifts, as the sheep jumped straight in the air to begin the fetch. Fetches were generally pretty straightforward without a lot of fighting to keep the line. The sheep would try to lean off to the left (towards the exhaust in the rear left corner) as they passed the fetch gates but were fairly easy to keep on line with a bit of flanking. The left hand drive away involved protecting the hard lean to the exhaust for the first 2/3s of the way out, then a quick switch to covering the draw to the right of the panels as the sheep felt their friends at the top of the field and began breaking hard that way. It was a tricky panel to hit with the draw to either side like that - a little late flank or a bit of over flank and you were flying around trying to get the sheep back in the mouth of the panels. The crossdrive was pretty straightforward with just a bit of draw to the top of the field. Lining up the panel was tricky and many people very carefully drove just around the top or bottom thinking they were right on line. The pen was a gimme - step out of the way and the sheep ran in. Since the sheep were so very dog broke, shedding could be difficult, especially if you had a big ewe who wanted to lead out and run off, but it was manageable for the most part. Raymond MacPherson judged and i felt did a very nice job.
I was pretty pleased with my dogs' performance. We were definitely rusty the first day. Gael ran first and was on the muscle on the fetch, not taking any stops the whole way in. That's not too surprising really, we are talking about Gael, who i haven't run much the last few years for just that reason! This was her first trial in a year and i was very pleased with her. Once we began the drive, she was pretty good. A little tough to hold, but definitely controlling herself with some sheep that were doing their best to wind her up. When i saw all that grain being tossed out to hold the sheep at the top, i really expected to have two days of outrun, lift, grip out of her - she builds up tension when her eye kicks in from the sheep not responding, such as when they have their heads down in grain. She blew into them a little but no grip and we got around the full course both days. Actually, on this first run, the exhaust dog came out to "help" while we were shedding and Gael just kept working to keep the sheep on the field while he was trying to take them away (and his handler was trying to get him off). I was well pleased with how cool she was during all of that splitting and catching. Jet and Spottie both ran reasonably well though both were pretty stiff on their flanks, especially to the away side. Both made it around the course well enough though lines weren't very neat with them fighting me on that flank. Jet had a stinky ewe and fought her all the way around, and finally got fed up and gripped on the shed.
The girls all ran much better on Sunday and had shaken off the dust, taking flanks and stops and just generally being much more crisp in their performances. I ran Spottie first and even with my contortions at the first drive panel and a less than perfect shed, she ended up 2nd for the day. Next up was Gael, who again goosed the sheep on the fetch but began taking her stop a little further out, and generally listened better all around. Finally Jet ran and did a very nice job, finishing up 5th. I made a handling mistake with her at the crossdrive panels that cost us the win.
I was very pleased with my team this weekend though i did miss having Zac out there. Now we're off to Edgeworth this coming weekend. My plan is to run Spottie and Jet, unless the temperatures just seem too warm for Spottie. It's a very big hill course with long grass and a lot to ask of an older girl, and i won't run her if she'll get hot. Gael will have to step in if it comes to that.
On a sad note, i learned this weekend that my good old Ben dog died this past summer. He was 12 and a half years old and i'd placed him at 8 with a very nice couple near Charlottesville. They have an angora goat farm and produce fiber and yarn, and travel around to fiber festivals and fairs, and were set up at the Montpelier Fiber Festival. They are very nice people and doted on Ben, and he was in heaven working their goats and sleeping on their bed, and accompanying Steve to work every day. I hope he and Bailey and Belle are all together sharing stories about the good old working days now. Rest well guys.