Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sleigh Bells Ring

Tomorrow is December 1st and winter will be upon us soon. Driving home today I finally came to rest on a radio station playing Christmas carols. I refuse to listen to Christmas songs in November, defense against the Groundhog Day haze that descends when you listen to the same reshuffled fare for two full months. Almost immediately I was rewarded with my favorite Christmas song, Snoopy and the Red Baron.

Despite the unusual balmy weather I settled into thoughts of winter. Snoopy and his foe were followed by the Sleigh Ride song by the Boston Pops. You know… the one with the jingling bells and the whip crack. This brought to mind a winter day sometime in the mid 70's. It was a school day, or should have been but school was canceled thanks to a good bit of snow that had fallen overnight and continued through the morning. The roads were snow covered and perfect for a sleigh. I ran up to the barn where I kept my horse, a cheerful and energetic little chestnut named Tumnus. The folks who owned the stable had an antique cutter in the basement of the barn. I harnessed Tumnus, brought him down to the basement and hitched him to the sleigh. Off we went trotting quietly on the snow covered roads. I had some small bells I had attached to his harness that were barely audible in the hush of the storm.

Our first stop was a short ways down the road for my friend Leslie, then around the corner and up the hill for Penny. The little cutter was built for two but three teenage girls don't take much space. Being tight together was actually a great advantage as riding in a sleigh is a very cold if delightful pastime.

Tumnus trotted briskly on and we began our travels. We headed off to the center of town, Concord, MA. Concord is a lovely town that retains many of the old colonial homes, barns and buildings. The roads are narrow and on this day the snow laced trees reached over our heads. We decided to go over the Old North Bridge, site of the “shot heard round the world”. This arched wooden bridge is maintained as part of the Minuteman National Park. Traffic is not allowed but we found a way to maneuver the sleigh past the vehicle barriers and down the path to the bridge. There we were, some 200 years after that fateful shot, crossing the bridge in a small sleigh, behind a trotting horse, surrounded by the weighted hush of the storm, seeing the flakes fall against a landscape that looked much like it would have in colonial days. The timeless charm was interrupted when we had to negotiate the vehicle barriers on the far side of the bridge. These were staggered posts with not much room between them. Thank goodness this was a narrow sleigh.

From the bridge we turned right and headed into town. We trotted on past historical homes, frosted with snow, smoke coming from the chimneys. But for the cars in the driveways there was little to indicate the century. There was almost no traffic on the roads courtesy of the storm. The roads in the center of town had been plowed recently and the traffic was more significant. Fortunately the sleigh runners ran fairly well on the slush other than one point when we stopped for traffic and Tumnus had to really dig in to get the sleigh moving again. We traveled about past the shops then turned back for home some few miles away.

I do not remember our exact route. I don’t recall what we talked about or how long we were out. Given how far we traveled we must have been out for some time. I do remember highlights like the trip over the bridge, the worrisome moments negotiating the barriers, and trotting through town. What I remember so intensely that it is almost as if I am reliving that day is the feel of the ride… the hush of world, the muffled cadence of the hooves, the vault of snow covered trees, the cheerful horse, the friendship.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If you die can we have your dogs?

I woke up yesterday eager to get on the road. I was going to visit my friends Jim and Sharon Perkins. We planned to work puppies first in a small paddock, then drive out to a big field and work the Open dogs. It was a perfect late fall New England day, clear and cool.

I arrived and got to watch Jim's pup Jag work first. Though they told me he was a little heathen the day before, there was nothing not to like on this morning… 6 months old, thoughtful, keen, and wanting to partner. Then I worked Cass, who is showing some excellent work at a mere 5 months old, and Marcus, who also worked very well. Both these pups are thinkers, partners, and plenty bold. Cass has a wonderful way of stopping in the middle of a puppy made mess, looking at the situation for a bit, figuring out a good reorganization plan and executing it. Once my two milder pups had a turn I brought out Relentless Ruth. Ruth is a very nice pup, brave, thinking, nice balance, but at 7 months she is utterly determined to push stock. She is willing to work with me when she notices me through that relentless drive to push. Getting noticed is not easy. Ruth keeps me on my toes the entire session.

The sheep we were using were big fat beasts, very people friendly. Keeping them from crowding around you and carrying you off took a bit of attention to the stock. When working Ruth I don’t have much bandwidth left for keeping sheep out of my personal space. Ruth started nicely, but she's quite pushy and the sheep decided that their best option was to push around me. They surrounded me and clumped together, trapping and lifting me. As they traveled my right leg and body went one way in the sheep vise, while my left leg was plucked the other way. Emphasis on "plucked". It felt as if my leg was plucked out of my body a good 2 inches. When I was released from the sheep vise I collapsed to the ground. Ruth, being a good gathering puppy, was bringing the sheep around again straight at me as I lay unable to move on the ground. It was a terrible thing to behold from my point of view. Thank goodness I was not alone. I was yelling to Jim and Sharon that I needed help. They were behind me and I could not see that they were already in action when I did not get up immediately. Sharon went over the fence into the pen. Ruth fortunately decided she’d rather bring the sheep to an upright handler and turned them toward Sharon before they got to me. While Sharon had Ruth balancing to her they grabbed her line and got her safely tethered. Once the sheep/puppy situation was stabilized Jim came to me, bent over to see if I was okay, and said “If you die can we have your dogs?”

I did not die, so I still have my dogs! I lay on the ground a while. Then I was able to slowly get to my feet with Jim’s help. After standing for about a minute I had to lie back down again as I was about to pass out. A bit more time on the ground and my second attempt at vertical was more successful. I hobbled out with Jim’s aid, and Sharon had ibuprofen, ice and a cane for me. Practical people with a sense of humor are the best kind of friends. At first moving the left leg was dreadful, and could only be done by tensing all the muscles so the weight of the leg did not hang from the hip. Walking was miserable and the only way to get out of my muck boot was to cut it off.

It was clear that sitting still for any period of time would bring great pain, so I decided we should continue to the big field to work the Open dogs. Any dog handler does not question my decision. We did big outruns and distant drives, never letting the sheep anywhere near me. There is nothing better than running good trained dogs after a cluster pup like the morning session.

I was far better this morning than I expected. I can walk slowly on smooth surfaces with no cane. I’ve got muscles in my left buttock and down the back of my left leg that are swollen, tensed and painful. There is a muscle inside the thigh that apparently tried to keep the original split from happening, also painful. I can lift my leg now without tensing all the muscles first. The ground is very far away, but I’m getting handy with using the cane to push things to where I can get them. There is still a bit of instability, but I figure the hip has a good blood supply so will heal quickly. I’ll get checked out by the doctor tomorrow. It is a beautiful day again and I really want to work puppies. Damn. Hopefully in a few days I’ll be more stable and can get back to training. Meanwhile I’ll go outside and see if I can somehow fill in the holes that bored Ruth dug in the back yard this morning.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Puppies, puppies, puuuuppppies...

Yesterday was all about puppies. Like the poppies in Oz, the furry little bundles of hope can produce a blissful trance.

I had some friends come down with a 6 month old pup named Jag, littermate to my Marcus. The plan was to get this little guy going around sheep as my setup is better for starting puppies. We worked pups first, then went to a big field to work the big dogs, then came back and worked pups. Jag got a turn in the puppy area, then I worked my 3 pups, then Jag got another turn. We repeated this after working big dogs so Jag got 4 turns and he certainly capitalized on his chances to progress. What a nice puppy! He is a grandson of Cato, and watching him work brought Cato to mind. This bold youngster has a smooth cast, turns out nicely on his flanks, very definite and direct on a walkup. He is quietly attentive to his sheep with beautiful small adjustments that most Open dogs can't match. He is very keen yet stays aware and responsive to the handler.

It seems to me there is this old sheepdog etiquette rule where the hostess gift is a puppy? No dice. I tried but I was not getting Jag. Such rude guests.

I'd have been more sorely jealous, but I've 3 nice pups of my own. Three pups! What, am I nuts? This has been the summer of the puppy. Ruth, 7 months old, is a brazen, talented, clever and determined youngster I got from Dwight Parker. Marcus, 6 months old and littermate to Jag, came from Caleb Parker who bred his very nice bitch to Levi. Marcus is a thinker like Jag, but works on top of his stock lacking his brother’s feel and lovely moves. Cass is from my breeding of Vesta who is a littermate to Levi. Cass is bold and quite keen at barely 5 months old, seems to have more eye than the others, lovely cast, very sensitive to the handler like her mother. I’ve spent these past months trying to raise 3 puppies, keeping them apart and spending time with each. I'm trying to get some work on all of them though they are quite young. We'll be shut down soon for winter and all my pups will come out as rude and brash teenagers in the spring. Hopefully some distant memories of nicely balancing the sheep to me will make it easier to get them rolling in the spring when they’ll be old enough to really take some good training.

I figured at least one of these pups would be a dud. But of course all three are looking very good already. All are bold. All can cast nicely around and walk up straight. All are both keen on the stock and responsive to the handler. Hmmm, with 3 fairly young Open dogs already I may have to make some tough decisions in another year or two. Meanwhile I love the early training and all three of my pups are rewarding to work with.

I still want Jag.