Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sheep Dog Trials in Gordonsville

Last weekend, I went up to Gordonsville, Virginia to see a little bit of the sheep dog trials and to finally meet Don McCaig, who is a terrific writer, a true gentleman, and a font of knowledge about the history of dogs.

I reviewed one of his books, The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club in a previous post on this blog. Check it out!

I also heartily recommend several other books written by Don, starting with Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, which is about his trip to Scotland to find a working border collie to help him run his sheep farm in Highland County, Virginia (a New York Times best seller).

Two other books by Don McCaig that I enjoyed quite a lot are Nops Trials and Nop's Hope, which are good dog-centered novels.

I have also read A Useful Dog (a 75-page book of good dog essays and stories) and I have Jacob's Ladder on my book shelf, though in truth I have not read it as it is about the Civil War. If you are from Virginia, where Civil War battle fields surround you, you do not go lightly into a book about the Civil War. Maybe this winter.

As for the Gordonsville sheep dog trial, it was ... a sheepdog trial.

How to describe it?

It starts off with a few white dots so far up the field they are mere rumors of wool. From in front of us dogs would start up the hill in a long curving outrun. A small bit of pressure would then be put on the sheep by the dogs as they curve around from the right just uphill from the sheep. The goal here is to put on just enough pressure to generate the "lift." Generally the dog is still quite a long ways away from the sheep when this occurs. With the lift accomplished, and the sheep just beginning to move down hill, the dog would then start the longer portion of the job -- the fetch and drive down the hill, with the woolies required to go through various gates before getting "penned" in a small square-sided bit of four-board fencing.

Needless to say, it's a lot harder than it looks, and some dogs and owners are a better team than others.

At least one dog started an outrun and simply kept going; I'm not sure it even glanced at the sheep. More training needed there!

The penning is the most fun for an ignorant novice like me to watch, as it's easy to understand and well within eyesight. If a dog puts too much pressure on the sheep, they bust left and right. If the dog puts on too little, the dog and the flock stand there eyeing each other in an uneasy Mexican standoff. Too slow and you lose points; too fast and you lose it all.

The land on which this trial took place was drop-dead gorgeous, and right where the spectators and participants were set up to watch the action was a terrific set of old farm equipment, including a steam-powered tractor and locomotive, with big belt wheel on top to drive a lumber mill.

I suppose we gained a lot with the internal combustion engine, but when you look at these old steam engines, if feels like we lost a little something too.

I did not ask Don what he was writing at the moment; these things are best not talked about while in vitro. Suffice it to say I am pretty sure he is writing something, and that when it comes out I will be adding another book to the shelf.

A good writer is hard to find, and Don McCaig certainly qualifies!

1 comment:

Gina Spadafori said...

Been a good 20 years since I've seen him -- and that was in NYC! Sure enjoyed talking to him, and always enjoy reading him.