I entered Bonnie in two more trials to finish up the year. At the end of September, two and half weeks away, an ASCA ranch course on sheep and Novice (arena) course on sheep. Then in October, an AHBA ranch course on sheep and large-flock course with geese.
I had so much fun at my first AHBA trial, in which we entered the same classes, that I am looking forward to doing the same again, although the sheep at this venue have a bad reputation for being overdogged. That means they've been worked so much by green dogs and green handlers without good supervision that they have learned to glue themselves to the handler and refuse to do anything else, since there is no trusting dogs to behave themselves unless the handler is there to fend them off. Knee-knocker sheep like this are usually awful to drive, since as soon as they are peeled off the handler they behave as though your dog is a ravening monster, a behaviour they have learned through painful experience. However, I am still in the Level One class and don't have to drive.
I have the opposite feeling about the ASCA trial, where both my classes are completely new to me, hence terrifying. On the other hand, the sheep there have a great reputation, being under the eye of a stern and extremely experienced trainer. I've learned that livestock are a mirror of their manager — Sherry's training sheep, for example, are magic sheep that calmly and politely do exactly what they're told. I hope that if Bonnie starts out on the right foot, that is, if she doesn't slice in on her gather the way she so often does, splitting or at least alarming the flock, she will do fine with these sheep.
Why do I enter these trials, I wonder every time my check goes out in the mail, irretrievable by my second thoughts. It's a mixture of motives, some more easily admitted than others. One common reason to go to trials is to meet like-minded people and watch dogs of other lines work. But in California only one line of working Aussies, Bonnie's line, typically shows up at trials. I also imagine that everyone who wanted to meet me has already met me. So there have to be other reasons for me to go.
A less than noble but nonetheless real motive for me is that I don't like thinking of myself as a coward. This is the kind of reason I have learned to be wary of. It's an essentially external reason, and in my life I have rarely been as unhappy in my decisions as when I base them on the imagined judgment of imaginary observers. The truth about me is that I'm an introverted person with a very low stimuli threshold, who finds the intensity of trialing enormously exhausting. I've never been to a trial at which I didn't learn something, and didn't enjoy myself at least some of the time — often, most of the time — but it costs me, in a way that it does not cost most others.
The best reason is that it forces me to keep improving my skills. Without a looming trial, I would never fag out to sheep practice several times a week and labor over whatever the next hurdle is — right now it is the free-standing pen. I remember a not so distant past when just fetching tame sheep through a set of panels in an arena seemed insurmountable, but now it is effortless. So I think the center pen will come, eventually. And so will driving.
I finally managed to build a regulation-size center pen, half an hour away, at a site with five spooky sheep, where I can only practice when the owner happens to be there. Not exactly ideal, but way better than nothing. I've worked on penning twice, and so far have only managed to get the sheep in the pen by backing in myself, which you aren't supposed to do at trials. Bonnie did learn the hard way that she absolutely cannot obey her instinct to go to balance before I close the gate — not only did she unpen the sheep (they jumped over my head, except for the ones that didn't quite, leaving some spectacular bruises) — but she lost her flock entirely. She didn't make that mistake again. But we have far to go.
Slow and steady wins the race, the tortoise says. Well, that depends on the race. But slow and steady does get you somewhere, eventually. I am very much a tortoise, laboring along on my stumpy legs while others flash past, withdrawing into my shell periodically. It isn't very glamorous, being a tortoise. It's easy, in fact, to just sit there like a rock in the road, eating the dust of the hares.
I do have an image which inspires me to keep going. When I was in Canada, I watched Tim Ballard work the talented young Tag, who was very much of two minds about whether to obey him at all, seeing as he wasn't his real master. While Tag was wearing the sheep to him, Tim at one point told Tag to lie down, and Tag ignored him. Tim didn't repeat his command louder and nastier, didn't run out there and make him lie down. No. He simply lifted his hat off his head for a moment. And Tag immediately dropped like a stone.
That is the kind of handler I want to be: subtle, tricky, and impeccable. I don't see how a tortoise like myself can get there, but tortoises have a limited perspective, pretty much composed of the next five inches of road. I guess I'll keep stumping.