Laura and I, otherwise known as the intrepid tent campers, had been watching the weather all week while trying to decide exactly when to leave for Dr. Ben's trial. Neither of us was running an open dog, so we didn't have to be there till Monday. But when Laura mentioned that she was thinking of heading down Sunday to watch some of the open, I thought "Why not be a copycat?" and said I'd go then too. But here's the thing--and if you're a tent camper, you'll understand--it just doesn't make sense to go to the trouble of setting up a tent for one night. So next thing I know, we're talking about heading out Saturday. We kept checking weather.com and wunderground.com and both were predicting high temps in the low 80s with a slight possibility of thunderstorms each afternoon. Sounds like pretty perfect camping weather, so a Saturday arrival date became the plan.
Saturday was indeed sunny (and humid) and we got there shortly before the end of the open runs and in time to hear about a possible jackpot class (pay an entry fee, run your dog, get money back if you win). The course would be the ranch course (full open course without the shed).
Of the young dogs, only Lark would get just one run on Monday (in ranch), so I decided to go ahead and put her in the jackpot. She hasn't gotten much trial time this spring because many of the trials offered just open and nursery, and with a late January birthday (she turned 3), she wasn't eligible for nursery this year.
She ran out beautifully and had a nice lift, but then the trouble started. The field is terraced, and although the terraces don't like big from the bottom of the field, if you've ever had the pleasure of running up that field (or even just walking it), they're a lot bigger than they look. When the sheep started to go offline on the fetch, I flanked Lark, not even thinking that she couldn't see the sheep, who had already dropped to the terrace below, and so when she took her flank, she couldn't find any sheep. You could tell she was completely lost up there (Lyle and Beth later said it looked like she was on her tippy toes trying to see over and down, looking for her sheep. Lyle also told me at dinner that night that with the young dogs especially, I should have waited until the dog also crested the terrace to give a flank so dog and sheep were on the same terrace and the dog wouldn't get lost. Well, duh, of course that makes sense. Now why didn't I do that?) Anyway, we made it around the course, but I could tell Lark was stressed and a bit confused--it's probably the biggest course she's run. But she managed it, so that's something.
I ended up running Twist in the open on Sunday, though it was nothing to write home about. She's fat and out of shape because I've been working the young dogs, and it showed. We timed out on the first marked shed (we were to take two without collars, regroup, pen, and then take one with a collar), though we should have gotten our shed points if I hadn't made the mistake of being too close to the edge of the shedding ring when we (finally) got the split we needed and I called Twist through, so that the sheep were out of the ring by the time Twist took control, and so no shed called. Our run overall was a bit raggedy--it's clear we are both out of practice, so now I just need to try and get her back in shape before fall.
Oh, and I should note that it started to rain early Sunday morning, after a night of listening to the call of the Chuck-Will's-Widow (as an aside, I have never marked this bird off my birding list--by omission or because I hadn't actually heard it before I don't know. Usually I hear Whip-poor-wills when camping at trials, so it was something of a treat to hear a Chuck-Will's-Widow instead). So the rain started and never really stopped, except for brief spells. My poor old tent is leakier than ever--even the rain fly had a serious leak at one seam. I did manage to stay mostly try (well most importantly, my bed stayed dry), so I think it's time to send it to tent heaven and find a replacement. The "Taj Mahal" tent will no longer be one of the Seven Wonders of the trialing world, sad to say.
Monday dawned grey and rainy--surprise! I had originally agreed to run Pip and Phoebe in nursery so there would be enough dogs to qualify two, and both dogs are quite capable of running the course, but given the trouble I've been having with Phoebe lately, I pretty much entered her with the caveat that if there were enough dogs to run nursery without her, then that's what I'd do. Pip was up first. I tried having him watch a couple lifts beforehand, but he never seems to actually look up the field and spot sheep. So I did something I shouldn't have done, knowing his heritage, and set him wide at my feet. He kicked wide, so wide it looked like he was going to the exhaust. At least he arced on up the field from the exhaust fence, but he kept angling out till he hit the fence along the road. There was only one problem with that (aside from the more obvious being too wide thing). About halfway up the field is a group of oaks, surrounded by fencing and covered in tarps--the area that is used for the novice set out. So Pip's galloping along the fence and gets to a corner. You can just see him put on the brakes and go "WTF?" But he recovered nicely, came on around that set out pen and continued on up to the top--nothing really lost but time. He had a nice lift, but the terraces created a few issues and our fetch was offline a good part of the way from the top to the fetch panels. The drive was a left-hand drive, and the sheep were pulling to the exhaust, but we kept them reasonably on line and made a rather wide turn (the turn was just in front of a terrace, so it was next to impossible to make it tight as the sheep would go through the gates and be up the terrace before you knew it). We bobbled a bit on the crossdrive, but kept a mostly straight line until we got close to the cross drive panels, when I realized we were getting a bit high. Pip has had some confidence issues on long drives and had been doing really well so far on this drive, so even though I knew we were getting ready to miss the panels high, I decided to err on the side of not putting a ton of pressure on Pip to flank fast and save it and instead went with just keeping the flow. We turned the cross drive panels with less than a minute to complete the course (thanks to that lovely meandering outrun). About halfway along that last leg, I told Pip "Get 'em up" because I wanted him to pick up the pace a bit. Mistake. Or not? As soon as the words were out of my mouth, he started to have a yeeha! moment, but I was quick enough to correct him before he managed to DQ himself with a grip. The little extra bit of speed gave us just enough time to pen, with the sheep dashing into the pen like they Devil was on their tails (and the sheep were in general disinclined to pen all weekend). We ended up with a score of 67, and second place, which meant another nursery qualification for Pip (he's already qualified to go to the finals, but I'll say that this nursery run was definitely his best ever from a confidence and good work POV, if you ignore the whole outrun thing, that is). (His breakdown: 18-10-11-18-10)
Phoebe ran at the end of the class. We had been joking under the pole barn about how so many handlers seem to have a slight Scottish accent to their "lie down!" when I commented that I would surely sound more like a fishwife, given the amount of head butting Phoebe and I normally did. I went out there with no expectations, and darn if the good Phoebe wasn't in residence that day. She ran out a bit wide, but actually stopped at the top with just one stop whistle! Instead of her usual out-of-control freight train approach to the fetch, she was taking my stops and steadies and taking the correct flanks. I was pretty stunned. Her drive was lovely, losing just 8 points. Then came the pen. We had the misfortune of getting a group with two who didn't want to play at the pen. I give Phoebe a lot of credit for keeping her head and working her little heart out to get those two in. One finally did go in, but the other chose to turn and stomp at her--several times. Each time I asked Phoebe up, she walked right into the face of that stomping ewe, but that ewe just wasn't going to turn and go in the pen, instead trying to break past me each time. And then time was called. Phoebe ended up with a 65 for 3rd place (nonqualifying). I felt bad for her as it would have been nice to get her second nursery leg on her, but I was very happy with the way she worked. Of course we still had P/N to run, so I was sure the other shoe would drop there. (Her breakdown: 18-10-15-22-0)
The ranch class was run next and both Lark and Pip were entered. Lark ran early and had another nice outrun and lift, but the sheep came off the hill running and never really wanted to let up. I was having to do a lot of flanking Lark on the run, and although she didn't get lost on the terraces this time, it was clear that she was feeling a bit stressed and overfaced with all the rapid-fire commands she was getting. The crossdrive was especially ugly, with the sheep coming way down the field before Lark was able to catch them and push them back up to the cross drive panels. On the turn to the Maltese cross, the sheep started running again. I ran out to meet them and stop them, but the second Lark started to move, they bolted again. I decided to retire at that point as it was clear Lark was gaining nothing from the run and probably losing confidence. It just wasn't her weekend.
Pip left my feet before I was ready to send him and in hindsight I should have just let him go as he was setting out at a nice angle. But I called him back, set him up pointing pretty much straight up the field and then sent him. He did a near-repeat of his nursery outrun, only this time he anticipated the blind corner and flowed on around it. His lift was nice, and his fetch was about the same as in his nursery run. The drive away went a bit nicer, but I made a big mistake thinking the sheep were through the panel (they were walking very nicely) and flanked Pip hard too soon, causing the sheep to turn just in front of the panel and skim along it. Darn! The rest of the drive was nice, although Pip seemed a little more hesitant on the drive than he had in the first run. Probably asking him to do both runs on such a big course was a bit much for one day. We made a nice turn at the cross drive panels but somehow I didn't manage to get Pip in position to stop the sheep from bolting past the first leg of the cross. Once they broke the plane of the cross chute, you had to go on to the second leg, which we managed very handily. At the pen, I again had sheep that didn't want to cooperate, and as often happens, they all marched into the pen just as time was called, so we didn't get any pen points. Our final score was a 67 for 5th place. (Breakdown: 16-10-10-21-10[1 leg of the cross]-0)
And that just left the pro-novice class. The course directors decided to push the sheep down from the top instead of using the pen over on the side of the field, which was a nice change because the pressure from that side pen to the exhuast is incredible, making life extremely hard for young dogs or inexperienced handlers. The P/N set out was actually the same as nursery, so rather long. Phoebe ran toward the end of the class, and I went out with the expectation that having already had one appearance of the "good Phoebe" I wasn't likely to be blessed with a second such event, but again she proved me wrong. I sent left again and she did a beautiful outrun, kicking out as she crested each terrace, and landing well behind her sheep. Once again she took my stop whistle at the top, but then we lifted a bit offline, which took a while to recover, but we managed it and made the fetch gates. The drive away, which was about 100 yards was absolutely lovely. This time we our sheep were more cooperative at the pen, and we ended up with a final score of 78 for first place. Could it be that Phoebe has turned a corner? Or is she just toying with me? The next trial will tell.