Herding the Trails of Florida
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
The 3rd Annual Winter AHBA Herding Trials and Trails
7th - 9th December 2018, Bronson, FL
There are some days the weather seems to smile on an event in Florida, and that was the case the first two days in Bronson Florida for this years American Herding Breed Association (AHBA) Winter trials at the Black Prong Equestrian Center.
The sprawling ranches allow a variety of terrains and pens. Cattle, sheep and even those evil ducks, were all part of this three-day event. From cattle in tight pens to navigating herds through a forest trail, from small to large herds of various “stock”, the challenges for the stock handler and dog were the most diverse in the state.
Herding is a passion once you experience the bond with your dog. The team work is often so subtle and requires both dog and herder to know each other well. It is not a “sport” where someone other than the owner often runs the dog. The common impression of Herding evokes a rather dated idea of old men with funny hats on mountain sides with Border Collies. The mysterious calls and whistles, the harsh countryside and a time past. Hogwash is a word from the past and as antiquated as those impressions.
After taking her grandmothers Blue Heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) to show at conformations Amanda's interest grew in the breed herding skills and she began training in stock herding at fifteen. Today was her first trial requiring navigating country trails to pens. She told us that she has had some bumps along the way but was having fun.
This weekends trials proved that herding is alive and well in Florida, and though the trials themselves might be familiar to your grandparents, the community has expanded… a lot. With more and more woman and diverse competitors from all walks of life joining the trials today. Modern herding is as captivating as ever but requires more commitment than many other activities. However, once you start, you will not want to go back.
American Herding Breed Association
There are more than one Herding Trial organizations in the USA today. The Black Prong Herding Trials were conducted under the standards of the American Herding Breed Association, or AHBA. Founded in 1986, the AHBA is a N. American organization committed to “practical herding”. Though this does not exclude those not working daily as herders, it does mean their standards are focused on trials that reflect the actual challenges and conditions encountered in “real world” livestock herding.
"The goals of the AHBA are to promote an appreciation of the skills and value of the herding dog and to help provide information about herding breeds, herding training, herding behaviors and herding in general." - AHBA
The trials have several categories for various ages and experience levels, and the breeds accepted is quite vast. Ranging from the expected Border Collies, Aussies and Blue Heelers to Appenzeller Sennenhund and White Shepherd. Further, many very rare and “multi-purpose” breeds are also included. Not surprisingly, Dachshunds are not on the list, but would be fun to see.
With the cooler months here, there is not better time to get started and for a deeper look at a smaller event, see our feature "Get your dog goin' out and away" from earlier this year.
PHOTO-FEATURE Words alone do not tell the whole story.
More than friends To coin a cliché, “they come from all walks of life” and this is true. Many with ranches of their own and skills passed down through generations, to those who were called into this challenging but very rewarding skill from city and suburbs. Herding and their dogs bind this community together and there a strong sense of a large family gathering at these events.
The Executive and the Cardigan Corgi
Shannon works in the city but grew up riding horses and was familiar with seeing the corgi’s at equestrian events. Today she has one of the most beloved and unusual herding dogs. “Kermit” is a 5 year al Cardigan Corgi and despite his short stature, can handle any challenge thrown his way with a great smile and nature that keeps everyone smiling.
"Watching the dogs do what God put them on earth to do is just cool!" - Shannon Murphy
Shannon visits a trainer of their ranch once or twice a week with Kermit. She told us that the importance of learning from an experienced handler was paramount to the safety of the dog, the livestock and yourself. Do not go it alone.
Apart from the rural atmosphere, the network of the members are the foundations for herding trials. Often word of mouth and who knows who for gathering the resources for these logistically complicated affairs. From designing the trials, to obtaining the livestock, there is a lot that depends on the community’s own resources.
Location, Location, Location
In 2002 a century old, 250 acre hunting camp in the Goethe State Forest became started the transition to become the Black Prong Equestrian Center. Named for a local river in the 53,000-acre forest, this facility was intended as a simple ranch, but quickly evolved into one the pre-eminent locations for both equestrian events events in the South East and like many other similar facilities, have expanded to canine events.
The Center has accommodations including cabins, camping and RV hook-Ups, the center allows for large multi-day events in the comfort of being on location with amenities close at hand.
The lands in this part are very fertile and this results in lush full forests that are a far cry from the endless cedar trees or sub-tropical coasts more familiar to Florida. Black Prong’s location is isolated from urban America, but provides all the luxuries of home, making it one of the most popular venues for larger Herding Trials in N. America.
The Trial Judge
Judging this hybrid of work and sport requires a special combination of similar experience in both stock handling professionally and in trial. They are established, seasoned and respected peers in these communities and have an approval process to obtaining the title of an ABHA Judge.
This weekend’s judge was Dave Vickland of Molalla, Oregon. Dave made the trip from the furthest coast of the USA to Florida for the three-day event and throughout, maintained a steady, calm and friendly demeanor. Among his duties were the pre-trial briefings for each course with the teams. Though a great deal of pressure is felt by some at these events, Dave’s calm voice and warm sense of humor put most at ease.
He explained how breed does not matter in judging of Herding Trails. Further, that the most important thing was to observe efficient work between dog, handler and stock. This is in line with the specific goals of AHBA trials which focus on reflecting the actual conditions of working dogs.
“Good work, is good work” - Dave Viklund
From small pens and large cattle to winding country trails, the variety of challenges reflect the very real daily challenges of a working stock handler and reflect the skill required for both man and canine.
AHBA Trials are designed to reflect conditions and work flow typically found on ranches. From gathering and separating livestock, driving through tai8ls and obstacles and maintaining both safe control or your dogs, but safe passage of the stock through obstacles to a destination.
Out and Away. How to get started We asked many attendees at this event about how to get started for the newcomer? The answer was the same every time. Get a trainer. Stock dog handling is not one that can be self-taught and requires commitment and willpower to achieve. Unless you are in a herding family, where the skills are passed down from one generation to the next, you will want that experienced mentor to guide, encourage and teach how to safely navigate these trials with your own dog.
Don’t just run out and try a new skill just because you read it in a book, went to a seminar or watched a video. Without the correct building blocks, you will only confuse yourself and your dog. - Claudia Frank
The AHBA publishes articles to help guide the newcomer, novice and even old hand to better refine their knowledge and skills.
Herding Trials are one of the oldest and most misunderstood activities for the stock dog community. Unlike some dog sports, it requires training of both handler and dog with skills and methods that are not typical or intuitive to most people. However, once hooked, you will find a very strong supportive and caring community that is unique in its traditions and strong sense of friendship and extended family.
Of the many events we attend, the Herding Trails are among the most favorite. There is an easy atmosphere and good people and little patience for nonsense or gossip. They are an escape and chance to decompress and put your soul at ease watching these wonderful creatures do what they were meant to do and loving every minute of it.
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Our recommendation for those interested in learning stock handling with their own dogs or just have questions about the sport? We recommend the Herding in Florida Facebook Group Herding in Florida
American Herding Breed Association http://www.ahba-herding.org
Black Prong Equestrian Center http://www.blackprong.com
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