Watching a Sheepdog Trial

Last week a few of us went to Rio Vista to watch the third day of the McCormack Ranch Sheepdog Trials.


The ranch is located in the Montezuma Hills, just north and west of the Sacramento River. The most striking feature of the modern landscape is the huge wind turbines scattered throughout the hills. This landscape is immense. It’s hard to put the size of the wind turbines (and the sheepdog course) in perspective. There is a group of sheep and a handler on the hill that is just in front of the only trees. The handler and his dog put a group of sheep on that hill and keep them there until the competing dog begins his run, coming from near where we were watching, about 650 yards away.DSC_9116

You lose sight of the dog while he makes an outrun that comes up behind the sheep. The dog brings the sheep toward the handler and is supposed to get them through the first set of gates in the center of the course. Then the dog brings the sheep to the pole where the handler is standing, around that pole and drives them through a set of gates to the west and a set to the east.


After that the dog brings the sheep towards the handler. Once the sheep are past the marked mounds of dirt (red in the background of this photo) the handler can leave the post and help the dog to sort out three of the six sheep. This is by far easier said than done. Besides the fact that the sheep don’t want to be split up, it has to be the right sheep. Two of the sheep have red marks on their heads and they have to be part of the three that are split off to then be put into the pen. Not very many dogs and handlers that we watched accomplished this in the given time.


I felt kind of out-classed watching these photographers. Not only had I left my longer lens (still much shorter than this one) at my brother’s house, I had to substitute a plastic bag for my lens cap that I lost in the pasture last week. I definitely did not get close-ups of dogs working sheep out on the course.


This is another dog bringing sheep to the first set of gates…


…and splitting the six sheep into two groups.


Once the handler has opened the gate he/she  can’t get any farther away than the end of the rope that is attached to the gate.DSC_9166

I don’t remember but I think that this dog didn’t quite make the time limit.


After the sheep are in the pen or the horn blows the dogs make a beeline for the black tub full of water. That dog waits there until the next competitor is finished and moves those sheep to a holding pen out of site and sound of the competitors while the last dog takes over the spot in the water tub.


There was a break in the trial to award prizes for the previous two days’ winners.


Scores are kept on a board where everyone can keep track of the progress. Some of the competitors:





Notice the platform built onto the four-wheeler.


After the awards we watched a few more dogs.  This dog was so close to getting the sheep in the pen but they weren’t cooperating. It was getting hot in the afternoon and at one point the dog broke from the sheep and ran to lie down in the water tub. You know a dog is hot when he leaves his sheep to do that, but this isn’t something that you can do with a dog that doesn’t love to work. A quick cool-down and the dog was back.


This photo was taken from where we parked. You can see the river in the background. The canopies and trucks are at the top of the hill where the course started and the outrun was made towards the river. The sheep in this photo are the ones who were already used for one run and brought to the back to be out of sight and earshot of the other sheep and the dogs.

I sort of feel bad that my dogs will never have a chance to work sheep on this scale. If Ginny had to run that far to get her sheep she probably wouldn’t be so wound up we were trying to do the close-up work.


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