Herding competition is like baseball. For long periods of time nothing happens and unless you understand the rules and back-story of the game, when something does happen you won’t enjoy its importance. As a result, baseball and herding competition announcers are experts in the sport whose job it is to teach and entertain the crowd during the long periods of time where there may be nothing visible happening and explaining the rules and back-story. The more entertaining they are while teaching the better we like them.
Mr. Joe Williams, Our Announcer for the Highland Games herding competition spoke over a microphone to those of us seated around the field and explained how the event was supposed to work—the scoring, the obstacles involved, and what the dogs and handlers were expected to do. He told stories of what actually happens because working with animals is unpredictable. The back-story in herding competition is as necessary to the sport of herding as understanding the audacity of baseball’s suicide squeeze or what it means to hit into a 6-4-3 double play is necessary to enjoying baseball. Mr. Joe Williams announced the herding competition at the Scottish Highland Games humorously and well.
The event begins when a handler and his dog herd four sheep from the top of a hill down the grass toward the handler and dog waiting in a prescribed area near the obstacles and in front of the crowd. The competitive dog’s handler whistles, the dog runs uphill toward the sheep, and the clock begins. The handler whistles and the dog drives the sheep through the iron cross—a set of fences forming a cross with alleys inside for the sheep to move through—back through the gates at the far side, and ultimately into the “exhaust pen,” the enclosure into which the sheep are driven after each run. Required obstacles vary depending upon whether the dog is a novice or a mature herd dog. The events are timed and there is no over-time allowed.
Unlike most professional sports profanity or profane gestures are not allowed. Transgress and you will be removed from the competition. For a dog, biting the sheep is cause for expulsion.
Mr. Joe Williams told the crowd how to react if the sheep were driven into the crowd. “Grab your child, hold it, and sit still because the sheep are very good at avoiding you.” There was only one time where the sheep were running toward the crowd and parents began to grab their children. The sheep ran left at the last moment.
Handlers know each other and walking through the handler area is like walking through a family reunion with the “Hey, Bob” and “How’sNangetting on, Sally?” and “Did Nina make it to the competition?” comments.
As it is true for all sports, herding has a unique language. There is the exhaust pen, fetch gates—a pair of gates or hurdles, the peg—where sheep are gathered before the trial, drive gates—another pair of gates, and the post—where the handler stands until the sheep reach the shedding ring—a circle close to the post. The handler may shout “Come-bye!” telling the dog to circle the sheep Clockwise, or “Away!” for the dog to circle the sheep the other direction (counterclockwise, or “Anti” clockwise). Most of the time (at this competition) the handler whistled and the dog moved according to the whistle. The more experience the handler-dog team gets, the more fun they have and the more money and fame they win at competitions. A $55 entry fee gives you a chance at a $1,000 first prize. This seemed like serious money to me until I heard the story that the sport begins as a hobby with the purchase of a border collie and then the ranch and sheep are purchased to give the dog something to do.
This proud and noble sport has evolved for hundreds of years, aided by the fact that herding is part of earning a living for the sheep farmers (and cattlemen) of the world. Johannes Caius, physician to Queen Elizabeth I wrote a Treatise on Englishe Dogges in 1576 that discusses “The Shepherd’s Dogge” and how he “bringeth the wandering weathers and straying sheepe” where his master wishes, and sometimes where we can look on and enjoy.
Don’t miss the competition at the Games next year. Enter the main gate, turn right, and listen for the next Mr. Joe Williams over the loudspeaker.