Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mt. Vernon Highland Games trial

Day 1

Saturday was the big day. I’ve been anticipating for this trial since I first began driving to Dirk’s place for weekly training sessions three years ago. It’s the Mount Vernon Highland Games, and we’ve been going faithfully since we adopted Rodeo. The past three years he has been a spectator, staring raptly at the sheep from the sidelines.  

Many of our friends also come to the games, and I knew they’d enjoy seeing him compete, so this was a high-pressure environment for me, and I knew I had to find a way to relax.

Competition was set to begin at 2 pm on Saturday, and in an effort to calm my nerves a bit I drove with Ivy and the dogs to our training field in the morning to get some time in the round pen. Rodeo performed just as well as in our last practice session, taking his flanks and downs, and walking up confidently into the sheep

We only stayed 15 minutes or so and then got back into the car to drive to the games. On the road I said to Ivy, “The way he’s working, a top handler would win this trial with him. With me handling him, I have no idea.”

We drew a late run, 25th out of 30, and as we stood in the on-deck circle, my friend Aaron, who was preparing to video tape our run (thanks, Aaron!), asked me what I thought about while preparing for a run. Aaron is a first-rate Frisbee handler. He and his wife Jennie have a new dog Jeannie that they’ve only had for a few months. She hadn’t done Frisbee before they got her, and he has already won competitions with her.

“I just remind myself that it doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Any individual run, good or bad, is meaningless. It’s what we do over time that counts."

I can’t say it calmed my nerves much, because I still felt that I could have pitched over any second when I walked out onto the dusty infield of the baseball diamond where the handler’s post was situated. But as always, once the sheep were loose, my nervousness evaporated as I focused on the task at hand.

We stood at one end of a rectangle about a hundred yards deep and perhaps 50 yards wide. Four sheep were set out to our left, moving away from us towards the exhaust gate at the far left corner of the field. As they had in previous runs, they went straight to the exhaust and stood there for the dog to pick them up.

The first obstacle was between a panel and the far fence. It seemed like it would be simple enough to keep them moving in the same direction, along the fence clockwise, until they passed the line. The sheep were somewhat dog broke, and perhaps that’s why they tended to ricochet and move back towards the handler, on the inside of the panel. Handlers then had to regroup and move the sheep back into position to try the obstacle again.

The trick was for the dog not to put too much pressure on them when they huddled at the exhaust, so that they would leave calmly and not try to beat him to come back towards me. I gave Rodeo a lie down and walked him up gently when they started to move, and he kept contact with them and made the first obstacle.

The second obstacle was a wraparound in a clockwise direction and another turn, and was pretty easily accomplished since it was just broad, directional movement. Then came a turn around the post and another push between a panel and the fence to our right. The next step was a quick turn followed by a chute that simulated a bridge crossing a stream.

After the turn around the post, the handler could leave the post to help, so I moved to the entrance of the chute. After coming around the panel, the sheep were headed in the direction of the exhaust and it was pretty much impossible to stop them. I tried waving my crook at them but finally gave up and let them go. Rodeo gathered them up and brought them in on one side of the chute opening while I stood at the other, using my crook to cover that side. He gently pushed them in and through the chute without a lot of fuss.

The next was obstacle was an easy turn, and then came the pen. Rodeo brought them up perfectly and walked them in, with a lot of stamping and flailing about with the crook on my part. But the sheep stayed nicely in line and moved into the pen. We got all our points, with a time of 4:40 out of an allotted 5 minutes. As it turned out, we were one of 8 teams out of 30 that got a full score of 28 on the first day, and the time tie-breaker put us tied for 6th place.

Day 2

In the second flight, we were up 13th. The course was quite similar, but slightly shortened so that there was a maximum of only 24 points, but it ended with the pen like the previous day.

There was no drive, instead we began with a gather and then straight into the turn around the post.

We immediately had a problem. Rodeo cast out quite wide on his outrun, but for some reason he busted the sheep a little bit and caused a split. 3 of the sheep headed to the exhaust while the other remained near us. I gave Rodeo a down and waited patiently, hoping that the lone sheep would join its buddies.

It soon did and I sent Rodeo back to the exhaust, where we began again. We made the turn and then headed to the chute, and with some challenges we got the sheep through and made it to the pen, where we timed out, for 20 points out of 24.

After our run I spent some time watching other runs, and a bit of time wandering around the rest of the games. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it to the final round or not, but had I re-checked the scores from Saturday I would have known I was safe. Only 3 other teams were within 4 points of us, so even if all 3 got full points on their second run and beat us with a tiebreaker, the worst we could have finished was tenth. As it happened, we came in 7th in the combined totals.

The final round began at 2, and we were up first. Well, no time to get nervous.

The course was a bit different this time. Back to the left hand drive through to the gap between the top panel and fence, but this time it continued around the fence line, down the right hand side of the field until the sheep went through the gap between the pen and the fence, about halfway down the field to our right hand side. Then the sheep were to cross to the left in front of the handler, loop back behind the handler’s post to the right, and back through the chute, one more turn, and the pen.

Rodeo did a great job lifting them off the exhaust. I laid him down when they moved away from the exhaust gate and then walked him up to push them parallel to the fence line and through the first obstacle at the top. I was ready with an ‘away’ flank if they started back towards me, there were no problems. The sheep turned at the far right corner and began moving at a nice trot down the field towards me, in just the trajectory I wanted, so I downed him and let them move themselves though the second obstacle between the gate and the fence. We completed the rest of the course without too much trouble, but were foiled once again at the pen and timed out.

24 points out of 28, which turned out to be good for 7th place overall and our first time in the money.

I was very pleased with the weekend, not just how we placed, but particularly how consistently we performed. 


  1. Great job. As you said, nice and consistent. Excellent narrative/description of the runs. Hey, you made it to the finals...way to go

  2. Sounds like a lot of fun - good job both of you. There used to be a trial in Ferndale in conjunction with the Highland games there - a great event, but they don't do it anymore :( We will try to hit the Mt. Vernon one next year now that I know about it.