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November 23, 2013: Sheepherding 101

Sheepherding has its own culture, its own language. This intrigues me. Nomads used to herd sheep – somehow dogs entered the picture and began assisting the humans. The language evolved accordingly. For instance, fetching the sheep involves having the dog drive the sheep in the direction of the human, who is walking ahead of the sheep. And driving is when the humans and the dog move the sheep from behind. And go around means circle the sheep. The phrase I like the best is “that’ll do.” This is what the herder says to the dog when he or she wants the dog

to cease work. It’s also what the herder says to the dog when he or she and the dog are done with the day’s chores.

Today we had our second class. Roads bad, icy, snow covered. Sky overcast. I looked out the truck window when we got to the class site at noon. I saw twenty-or-so sheep in a wire fence enclosure, all huddled together. My heart immediately went out to these animals. All it appeared that they wanted to do was to stay warm and stay together. For sure, they know that there is security in numbers. Sheep don’t have upper teeth, so they can’t even defend themselves against predators. These ones don’t seem to mind being moved – Suzanne said that she got the original sheep – these are their generational offspring of the 1997 sheep. The original ewes learned to stick together and the young ones followed suit. This despite the fact that they’re Suffolk and Icelandic sheep – who aren’t natural bunchers.

Ryder got two herding sessions today. Pete took her in for the first go-around. Both Ryder and Pete did very well. Most of the time, Pete was in front – fetching, and Ryder followed behind. They went around the circular enclosure, both ways, and did figure eights. Ryder did a very good job of keeping the sheep bunched together. Pete, walking along, made me think that sheep herding was in his DNA. As for Ryder, it was like something in her little doggie brain had clicked between last week and this week. And let’s not forget – last week she worked three sheep while this week she worked over twenty.

There were seven-or-so other dogs who preceded and followed Ryder. Everyone took a long time. It was cold, and getting colder. I remained attentive, like I said last week, sheep herding is most definitely in my DNA.

When 4 p.m. rolled around – it was then Ryder’s turn again. I agreed with Pete that it was my turn to give sheepherding a try. My heart was in my throat as I grabbed the rake and stepped into the enclosure. I still feared that Ryder would suddenly go sheep crazy and go for the jugular of one of the poor darlings. She did not. She was amazingly calm the entire time.

I had a harder time of it than did Pete for a few reasons. First of all, the sheep were now hungry and tired. Also, I had gotten a bit chilled, even though I was wearing my Refrigerware suit. And Ryder, who was not wearing a Refrigerware suit, was also a wee bit chilled.

The sheep started moving. For ten seconds I thought, yep, this IS my calling. Then the sheep braked like the traffic on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. “Come on sheepies,” I said. The sheep remained still. Ryder then lost interest and went out the check out the ram in the adjacent pen.

Suzanne (who has probably seen my kind before) then entered the pen. It was sort of like the school principal coming into the class and singling me out. “Go whoosh with the rake!” Suzanne yelled. I looked at her with an expression on my face that was even more blank than that of the sheep. “Give me the rake,” Suzanne said. I handed it to her, and she showed me how to use the entire rake, to whoosh it, so that Ryder might then move. She also whooshed the sheep, by gently hitting them on the head with the rake. The sheep again moved.

It was then stop and go for the next ten minutes. I had brief instances when I connected with Ryder, but for the most part she was lost in space. My doing this reminded me of the time that I round penned horses with Dr. Steve McKenzie, who was one the first in the US to do this kind of thing. The horse looked at me with complete disinterest. Didn’t move at all. Steve then stepped in and used pressure/release techniques.

Pete later said that Ryder was like a different kind of dog the second time around. This did not make me feel good at first. Then on the drive home I got to thinking that my having a long ways to go with this sheep herding thing is a very good thing. This is because there is now so much for me to learn. How exciting is that? Once again, I am very much looking forward to next week. For now, that’ll do.

Next: 243: 11/24/13: Trailer Talk