Gibson’s First Sheepdog Trial


Written by: Eric Rickstad

“So you’re finally here with a dog!” the smiling Barb Armata said to me under the tent hosting our morning bagels and cream cheese. She had good reason to say that with such gusto. Barb was a sheepdog trainer and the woman who would be my mentor for my and Gibson’s herding education. I told her I was thrilled to be there, and I was. For three years I’d been attending and volunteering at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial. I had been a member of NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) since that first visit when I had only lived in New England a few months. In the past, I’d kept score at the trials and helped where I could (and spent a few hours releasing sheep from the chutes at the top of the trial field). Now I was finally standing amongst my peers with a respectable pup of my own. I felt rich. Barb knew it when she saw it.

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Gibson takes it all in
Jenna Woginrich

All of the shepherds knew who Gibson’s father was, and respected his breeder. When Steve Whetmore (the shepherd I read about in books and the first NEBCA member I ever emailed) said to people under the tent “Hey, this is a Riggs puppy!” my chest swelled with pride. I was still a fly on the wall to many of them. I’d never proven myself with a dog (failed one actually, as most know and I am still ashamed of) and never stepped on a trial field. But now I had a prospect. A dog that might very well make it to these fields as a competitor someday. And while rarely did a club member talk to me, they seemed to nod a little more, say good morning. And I took every bone that was thrown to me. I respect them and envy them more than they’ll ever know.

DAY ONE

I woke up to a thunderstorm yesterday. It made me so happy. It was my twenty-eighth birthday and I was comfortable in the lull of the box fan in my farmhouse. I was half-awake and listened to the rumbles, smiling like an idiot. I adore thunderstorms so much, you just can’t know. It was the best gift a farm girl could have, and even though the day was to be overcast, I didn’t care: it was a day for a sheepdog trial. The heat wave had been sliced open by the storm. The rain a blessing.

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Patroal view of the trail site
Jenna Woginrich

I drove early to the trial with Gibson shotgun beside me. I had been told pets could not come, but Gibson was not just a pet. He was my business partner, a regally-bred registered dog, and a someday herder. He would get in. I’d see to it. And he did. We walked right in like he was High in Trial. Take that!

I spent the first day of the two-day contest just watching and walking around with Gibson. I wanted to celebrate. There was no greater feeling than to be amongst these shepherds at the site of my first-ever-visited sheepdog trial with my own pup. I watched under the white tents while the rain came and went. I watched dogs around me and how they never left their master’s side. I looked down at Gibson between my feet, sleeping quietly and understood. I listened to the hot shots talk about their land and trucks. I talked to some folks who just came to watch. To them I might look like the real deal, but I identified much more to the fanny-pack-toting spectators from New Jersey than I did with the contestants. I was still green and clueless. I told them about sheepdog trials as if the World Cup never existed. This was the epitome of competition and sportsmanship: I bet I seemed crazy.

Eventually, I worked up the nerve to talk ask Don McCaig if he would sign my copies of his books I stashed in my backpack. (Nops Trials, A Useful Dog, and Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men) Last year, I kept his score on the trial field star-struck and nervous. McCaig is a New York Times bestselling novelist who writes about shepherding and lives on a giant farm in the southeast. He’s the only person to ever write an approved sequel to Gone With the Wind. He keeps sheep, writes for a living, loves the history of the south and Civil War…. he’s one of my heros.

He signed two of his books to me, and my copy of A Useful Dog to Gibson. What a guy.

Before I left for the day I stopped at the visitors’ center and bought some lamb—which I took home and pan fried in cast iron with spices. I ate it over whole wheat pasta with marinara and garden basil. It tasted amazing: the rare lamb so moist and flavorful…the spices so rich. I had a Guinness and some chocolate cake to top it off and was grateful for the year. It was a great birthday.

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Gibson crashed
Jenna Woginrich

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