Friday, August 27, 2010


Many sports are an abstraction: American football resembles ground warfare; Scottish Caber may have grown from laying down poles to cross moats during sieges; and baseball… well, okay, I don’t know where baseball came from.

Sheepdog trialing is a sport that remains very close to its origin.

The course mimics farm work: The fetch represents the farmer bringing the sheep back to shelter at the end of the day; the drive represents moving sheep from one pasture to another, or to market; the shed represents splitting an individual or group away from the flock for medical attention, slaughter, or some other purpose; and the pen, well, that’s pretty self-evident.

But I’ve grown interested in some of the more subtle rules of trialing and their relevance to farm work. Some are obvious, such as disqualification as a resulting of gripping (biting) the stock. Points deducted for deviating from the course make sense, because a farmer wants to work stock efficiently and quickly.

But one rule puzzled me. ‘Crossing over’ on the outrun occurs when the dog changes direction. If the handler sends it to the right, a dog crosses over if it decides it would rather go to the left and bolts in that direction, crossing the imaginary line between the handler and the sheep. It happens fairly regularly at trials, often because the dog sees sheep at the exhaust pen and decides to go to them instead, or the sheep start to drift away from the dog and it goes into chase mode.

The penalty is typically 19 points, of a possible 20 points for the outrun. That’s pretty severe, given that everything else could go perfectly and yet the team gets only the absolute minimum score of one point for that section of the run.

Why such a severe penalty for something that seems like a minor infraction? I asked Brian and a few other handlers at the Island Crossing Trial a couple of weeks ago, but nobody could give a satisfactory answer. So I put the question to the sheepdog email list, and was quickly enlightened.

The answer, once I was told, made me slap my forehead. It seems so obvious. Why hadn’t I thought of it? And I think the answer to that question is that sheepdog trialing is a sport, and sometimes you get so tied up in competitive thinking that it blinds you to the obvious.

The reason the penalty for crossing over is severe is that it could have severe consequences on a farm. If there is a hazard to one side of the sheep – an old broken down fence, a highway, or, in the Scottish highlands, a cliff face or mountain side – then the sheep must be protected from it. The dog would be sent in the direction of the hazard, to come between it and the sheep and to prevent them from drifting towards it. If a dog ignores the farmer and chooses the other side for the outrun, the sheep could bolt away from the dog and suffer drastic consequences. A cliff and a disobedient dog's cross over could cost a farmer his livelihood.

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