WE FIRST met Chris Davies riding her horse behind Williamson’s Beach. She’d always loved horses but never owned one until she was 15, when someone offered her a foal. “Would she like a foal!“ She dreamed of breaking it in and, over time, she did. Tequila lived to be 35. “She went through everything with me,” says Chris.
A veterinary nurse, Chris loves horses for their intelligence and their challenge. She show jumped for years. She says horses are clever enough to get themselves together when you’re approaching a jump too fast or too deep or at the wrong angle. When the round is over you can feel them relax under you, knowing it’s a job well done. You can feel that through your legs, watch their ears listening for the next instruction.
Then one day her daughter gave her a little kelpie pup, a very energetic female they called Charlie, crying out for things to do. When she was about 12 months old, Chris put her around some sheep. Charlie had never seen a sheep in her life but she went round that mob and brought them to Chris. “She just knew what to do,” says Chris. “From that moment on I was addicted.”
Which do I work with – horses or dogs? she asked herself. The answer was dogs.
Chris competes in two types of dog trials. ‘Three sheep’ trials are held in a large space the size of a football oval. The dog must negotiate five tasks successfully. First he or she must leave the handler, skirt around behind the sheep without disturbing them and then pull them to the handler, then herd them through a gap, a race, over a bridge and into a pen. Yard trials, the second type, are held in much smaller spaces. In both trial types there’s a fresh set of sheep for every dog, often sheep that have never been worked, never seen a dog.
One of the first things Chris had to learn was which dogs are suited to which trials. Charlie’s a little bit “busy”. Kelpies are generally better in the yards. They’ll say: “Let’s get the job done!” They like to get in close. They’ve got a bit more presence on the sheep.
In a three sheep trial you want a dog that‘s steady and won’t run the sheep too much: a border collie type who’s softer, keeps off the sheep more. At the same time, the dog has to be confident. Sheep aren’t silly. By the time the dog has cast around them they will have sized it up; they know if that dog’s got presence. If they think it’s weak they may turn around, look at the dog and not run. They know the wolf can be bluffed.
The first thing to ask of a young pup is whether it’s got instinct. Then come the commands. You ‘call off’. If she won’t come back to you, there’s no point. It’s the principle of hunting and gathering. The dog has to understand that she’s working for you, the alpha boss. You can’t have a dog chasing rather than working out on the arena. “That’ll do, Charlie! Come!” Charlie was a pet; teaching her to stop was really hard. But Chris has learnt to be more disciplined. “Going through a gate I call them by name. It’s all about getting them to remember their manners.”
Willow, a border collie rising five, supplements her training by watching dog trials on the telly. She’s very fond of David Attenborough. She’s with the stalking lion every inch of the way. Chris has never seen another dog do this. The alpha boss has had her own learning to do. She nearly got disqualified once for patting her dog before she’d closed the gate.
A regular eventer, Chris travels to places like Benalla, Moulamein and Port Fairy for what are usually four to five day events, often held during the week. For a long time she slept in a pull-out bed in her Volkswagen Transporter with the dogs. Now she has the luxury of a caravan.
Early on ─ she was still very green, she says ─ she competed in the Deans Marsh Three Sheep Trials. Each of her dogs, in turn, was a disaster. Meg was chased off by the sheep; Willow stopped and stared, wouldn’t move; Charlie ran the sheep flat out, way off line. They all had to be called off. Meg, particularly, was mortified. They knew they’d failed to do what they were there for, says Chris. It was a long drive home.
It took her two years to summon the courage to go back. And then, bless them, her young dog, Zoe, came second in the novice class and Meg did a beautiful round and got the sheep round the course and back in the pen. “There’s something about closing that gate in the pen which gives you a real high,” she says.
Meg, the border collie, has been a special joy. Back in 2014 she caught Chris’s eye on the property of a friend. The breeder thought she was too soft for his needs. “Would you like her?” he asked.
In her second year with Chris, Meg worked her way up through each class until, rapturously, she won the Owen Harris Memorial Shield (Improver Class) at their local trial, Berry’s Creek. “She worked beautifully. She worked her heart out. She beat some people I really respect. The sport is extremely levelling. They might be stubborn sheep, never seen a dog in their life.” She searches for words that do justice to their partnership that day. “We were as one.”
It’s a very special bond. “It’s like horses; they could tip you off so easily if they wanted to. The dogs could go feral. Sometimes you fight each other. But when you bond, you’re both at your best.”
Some places even work ducks. “They can be difficult, they’re so quick,” says Chris. When Charlie the kelpie won the Open Championship (Ducks) at Welshpool this year, Chris was rapt. Another day with a long drive home in the dark and the van alive with breathing, the steady sighs of tired contentment.