Over and over I find myself having the same conversation with a variety of people. What do top open hands have in common? What do people I respect and love to watch train and run their dogs have in common? Well, they have many similar traits, but they all share one crucially important thing: They are good shepherds.
Before all else, before pace and flow, before lines and panels, before pens and sheds and especially before points, this sport is about the sheep. It is also about dogs and hands, but without sheep, there would be no sheepdog. There would be no sheepdog trial, and certainly there would be no sheepdog finals.
Those hands who can see what the sheep need, keep the sheep happy and who maintain respect for the sheep consistently excel.
I admit, I get discouraged when I see sheep run all over the field, panting as they enter the shedding ring, heads hanging low as they warily eye the dog and handler. When the pen gate shuts or the shed is called and the handler's demeanor toward the sheep changes to be more careless, I feel sad. As handlers, we should use our dogs to act as our helpers in our stewardship of the sheep. Anytime the dog is on the course whether the timer is running or not, I feel obligated to do what I can to keep the sheep happy and healthy. I absolutely do not have all the stockmanship of a top handler, it will take another decade at least before I get there -- but I promise to try.
That being said, accidents happen. I think we can all appreciate when an accident happens because of a dog or when a sheep does something unexpected. But before I blame the sheep, I try to take a long hard look at myself. Did I cause a grip? Did I cause the sheep to bolt? Were the sheep handled kindly in the set-out? Did I handle my dog in a way that was not suited to that group (or individual) sheep? If so, I have more to learn and the responsibility is on me to accept what I've created. Most times when I get "bad sheep" I can see that I made them that way with my handling.
What do you think top hands have in common? What is the magic they share that makes them top hands while the rest of us are just part of the overwhelming mediocre majority? There can only be one winner at every trial so by the numbers there will only be so many top hands. Why are so few people consistently at the top? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.