Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pressuring sheep

Fresh off our experience last week, I decided to return to K’s place for another session this evening. This time K separated the ewe and her lambs before I got there, so there was no initial drama. I was actually a little disappointed because I wanted to apply what I’d learned last week and see if I could sort them myself.

K warned me that there might be some traffic in the large field, through the gate that leads on to the country lane. She said it was okay to work the sheep in that field, that I should just keep an eye on things when someone was coming in, but I decided to stay in the smaller fields since I still wasn’t entirely confident in my ability to control these very light sheep.

We walked through the big field to a gate that leads into a small pasture with two other outlets. To the immediate right was a gate that leads into the narrow pasture that I described in my last entry, where I had tried in vain to sort out the ewe and lambs. I looked and could see them in that field, and the gate was closed. The rest of the sheep were in front of us. To our left, the field stretched about 70 or 80 yards and an open gate leads into a narrow chute. It’s about 20 yards long, bordered by shrubs and tall grass on either side, and it opened out into one end of another long, narrow field.

We did most of our work in this narrow field, and it presented an interesting challenge. Once the sheep were in the open field, the pressure was directly behind us – the chute was the only way in or out of the field, and their food and water were in that direction. The narrow nature of the field also acted as a funnel that heightened the pressure even more.

We began by driving the sheep down the length of the field. Rodeo did really well, going well in front of me, maybe 25-30 yards, before stopping and looking back at me. Even then, I only had to take one or two steps forward and he would swivel around and start walking on to the sheep again. That was really encouraging as it showed quite a lot more confidence in driving.

Once the sheep had been driven all the way to the opposite end of the field, we had a problem. The pressure was behind us, and when I sent Rodeo to fetch them to me, it would be a simple matter for them to charge right past me and bolt down the length of the field and into the chute and the adjoining field.

I knew I had to help Rodeo by putting pressure on the sheep to prevent them from passing me. I sent him on a come by flank, and he cautiously moved along the fence line towards them. He hadn’t yet reached them when they reacted to his pressure and turned towards me. I gave him a lie down and waited for them to approach me. Then I stretched out my arms (including my flag in my right hand). The sheep stopped and looked at me.

We had accomplished equilibrium, but if I moved backwards, they would be likely to bolt past me at the first opportunity. So instead I held my position and gave Rodeo an ‘away’ command, asking him to retrace his steps. This was an off-balance flank. He was to the left of the sheep, and the natural direction for him to go would be to his left, so that he could put the sheep between him and me. But I was asking him to move to his right, towards me, and towards the sheep, so that we could prevent them from escaping behind me to the chute.

He took the command easily, and soon we were both between the sheep and the chute. They turned their heads back towards the far end of the field, and I had Rodeo drive them back into the far corner.

We repeated the exercise, bringing them back out of the corner, but this time I was lax in my lie down command and he put too much pressure on them. I waved my arms and the flag, but the sheep moved past me and ran to the chute, and Rodeo wasn’t able to cut them off.

So we walked after them, through the chute and back into the smaller field, and I called a break to give Rodeo some water. He walked to the nearby gate and made it clear from his body language that he wanted to go through the gate, and presumably back to the car. He seemed to want nothing more to do with these sheep, which was a bit disconcerting.

I had to conclude that he doesn’t really like working these sheep. They’re so light, and he is forced to be so slow and cautious when working them, that there just isn’t the excitement that he gets from working other sheep. Still, our lesson wasn’t done, so we gathered up the sheep and moved them through the chute and back into the narrow field.

We repeated the earlier exercise of driving them to the far end, then bringing them back, and I noticed that his body language was much different on the drive: he seemed to enjoy it much more and he gained confidence as the session went on.

This session was probably more about me than it was about Rodeo. It reinforced how much I need to be an active partner in applying pressure on the sheep. When I train with Brian, the sheep are dog broke and tend to just come to the handler. They’re very easy to work and require little effort on my part, so it’s easy to forget my own role. K’s sheep are so light, and so apt to run past me if I’m not careful – it’s a great reminder and training opportunity for me.

It’s important in trialing, especially at the pen. At that stage, I’m standing at the gate of the pen, holding the gate open, and directing Rodeo to push the sheep into the small, square pen so that I can close the gate behind them. But at the Whidbey Island Classic, I made the mistake of being too passive. I positioned Rodeo on the opposite side of the sheep, but when he tried to push them forward and into the pen, they squirted around one side or the other. I know now that I was too passive and had failed to cover my side, so that they would be convinced that there was no way for them to go but into the pen.

I’m looking forward to applying the experience to our next trial. 

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