An insight on how top sheepdog trial competitors think.
In conversation with Erik Holmgaard. Erik is a world class handler but he is the kind of trainer who adjusts his training and thinking to whatever dog he is working with. Erik also shares his knowledge and experience, by giving lessons to handlers at his training centre in Denmark and also doing a number of clinics internationally every year.
Paddy Fanning: Recently I was in Denmark and I got to stay at Holmgaard Border Collies with Erik and Marie Louise. We had a right bit of conversation the night I was staying there. It was fierce interesting and as usual we stayed up a bit too late. But I couldn’t help but think that it would be lovely to get a little bit of information there on be able to share it. So asked Erik the next day if there’s any chance to do a bit of an interview for me. We were bored a bit awkward. It’s the first one I’ve ever done, so that sound quality is not 100%. But the ideas are good, and if anything, I think it’s just it might be a little bit too short. Eric puts a lot of thought into how he trains his dogs. He’s not restricted to one type of dog either and you can see the results. He was a world trial finalist this year, and back in 2011 he came fourth in Cumbria in the UK, so he knows what he’s talking about. Anyway, we started this interview and I hope you like it.
Paddy Fanning: Living in Denmark, what was it that got you started with sheepdogs. How did you ever come across border collies?
Erik Holmgaard: It all started in 1982 when I was in New Zealand and working on the farm and they had two border collies and they were fully trained to work on the farm. And I thought, if I ever got sheep or cows I’ll buy a border collie when I come back to Denmark. In 1992 I got some sheep and so I bought my first pup. I started to train the pup and, of course, I made a lot of mistakes. But I managed to move my sheep around this border collie. So I started to train with other people and I came into trialling four or five years later. That was my first class one try.
Paddy Fanning: And there were trials in Denmark at that time?
Erik Holmgaard: Yes, they had started 20 years earlier. They started up in the Danish herding club and yeah, they had cuts one, two and three and it was intercontinental when I started.
Paddy Fanning: So the type of dog that you started out with, the type of dog that you like, has that changed much or do you look for similar kind of qualities?
Erik Holmgaard: The first dog I got didn’t want to work together with me but she was good at doing the work herself. But you know that is not a good dog on the trial field. You have to work together on the trial field to get some results. So the dogs I look for now, is a strong dog that will work together with me but still can think a little bit themselves and when I give them a command they will take command so you have the feeling we are working together.
Paddy Fanning: So your style of handling is different. I see some handlers that like to control everything. And then I see some handlers are a little bit loose. But you like a bit of a mixture where you’re not completely the boss and you like to let the dog think a little bit too.
Erik Holmgaard: In the start, when a I trained them I think I controlled them a lot, but when I feel that when I have them where I want them I give them more and more freedom.
Paddy Fanning: That’s interesting. I think I get to see a lot of dog’s natural ability. Yeah. So you must have a few dogs in that time. In Ireland, I often hear guys say ‘Oh, you only ever get one good dog in your life.’ You hear a lot of people say that it’s so hard to get a good dog. What do you feel about that?
Erik Holmgaard: I feel that if you are a good trainer and you have a good dog, you can get something good out of it. An old dog has some faults, but you have to cover for them and if you’re training enough, you can get them alright. Yes, if they want to work together.
Paddy Fanning: So did you have one best dog or were there two or three dogs that you had that were all equally good?
Erik Holmgaard: They were not equal but they were different dogs all three of them. I had my old Moss. He was a strong dog and a little bit slow, but I made it to the top with him. And old Joe, he was not the strongest dog, but he was very clever. So he could move me nearly everything because he was so clever.
Paddy Fanning: And I see, this year you were in the World Trial final. And it’s not your first time in the final. Yeah, the thing I often wonder about it when I see a guy like you and you put in all this preparation and you get to the World Trial and through the semi-finals. The night before the World Trial final, what do you think about? What goes through your mind?
Erik Holmgaard: I don’t think so much about it because I find it better if you just relax. The last time I tell myself before I go into a field is to relax. The more you relax the better you do. If you try to do too much you can overdo it and it goes down into the dogs. By allowing myself to relax when I was in the World Trial final, when I was doing the job I didn’t realize there were people around me and I was in my own world. I put myself into that and I didn’t hear anything from behind. I just put myself into what I had to do together with the dog and the sheep. Try to relax and enjoy it.
Paddy Fanning: So for somebody like me who has a lot of tension, how do I get myself into that kind of a state of mind? That level of concentration and relaxation? How can you practice or prepare for that?
Erik Holmgaard: It took me a long time. I was very nervous and thought what if everything goes wrong. But I found out that it’s not so important and to try to relax. And now I don’t worry about what people are thinking. Just relax. And enjoy it and that has really given me a kick up in the trialling business.
Paddy Fanning: There’s one thing we spoke about last night, and I just think it’s quite interesting. Some handlers hundreds that just train one dog. They have one system for training. But you said that it’s good to kind of keep your thinking a little bit elastic. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Erik Holmgaard: Yeah, but it have a problem with the dog one way or the other, I try to do something to get into the brain of the dog. If what I tried doesn’t work, I try to put it another way. I started to thinking in the evening; what can I do tomorrow to get into the dogs brain to get it right. Sometimes if you try different ways around you will find a way in and get it okay.
Paddy Fanning: Do you think it’s possible to fix faults with sheepdogs? I hear some people say that the fault never goes away? What do you think?
Erik Holmgaard: Some faults you can fix, but there are always some faults that are very difficult. If it’s too slow in the lift, that’s one of a very difficult things to fix. But for the flanking and to get a dog more relaxed you fix this if you train hard enough on it I think.
Paddy Fanning: Well, listen, it’s been lovely, visiting you in Denmark and thanks very much for the interview
Erik Holmgaard: Thank you very much for coming. I hope you really enjoyed your stay here.