Sometimes I didn’t even hear the command, or the whistle that sent another Border Collie at a full sprint across the green pasture of The Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials. But the dogs were easy to spot, their shiny black-and-white fur rippling with their speed.
A small flock of sheep waited at the far end of the field, nibbling grass on a warm mid-September day. The dog’s body got smaller as he trotted his way between boulders and tall dry grasses at the edge of the irrigated hay. A flat-top hill in the background was dotted with obstinate pinion and cedar trees that are so characteristic of the landscape in this part of rural western Colorado.
Almost a minute later the dog emerged at the far end of the field. He lay down behind the small herd of sheep and listened for the whistling commands from his handler. Then he was up and working again, fetching the sheep in a steady and controlled pace back through two fence panels and around the far side of the handler. He herded them in a cross-drive, through two more sets of panels and into a shedding ring where the grass had been cut shorter and bounded by piles of sawdust. The dog’s pink tongue hung long at this point in the contest. The sheep were stubborn. But the shrill whistles continued long, short, and combinations that told the dog what to do. Multiple audible commands also issued from the handler telling the dog to “come by,” “lie down,” or “away.” The dogs must work with the handlers to separate some of the sheep away from the rest, and then pen them. Finally, after 15 or 30 minutes that seemed like hours of intensity, the contest ended with failure, no more time, or success. The dogs raced to jump into a tub of cool water.
We lived in Meeker, Colorado about 30 years ago from late spring to late summer while Ron was fighting forest fires for the Bureau of Land Management there. We met a sheep rancher’s son back then, whose family was well-known in the area for all things sheep. We remember his kindness, lending us some furniture for our sparse apartment in town and his warm welcome inviting us to the sheepdog trials, but we never made it. Fire season was always winding down by September, and I had taken a teaching job in New Mexico that year, so we were well on our way out of the state by the time the sheep were being loaded in the trailers to be herded around by the best-trained dogs from all over the world.
So, this year, we decided to make the trials.
We stayed in Buford in a little one-room cabin with no running water. We grilled our dinners over charcoal and listened to the gurgle of the White River behind us. Then each morning at dawn we rousted out of our sleeping bags and headed 20 miles to the outskirts of town where the 2021 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials began at 7 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. We didn’t arrive on the scene until halfway through the second day of runs. We were given running orders with names of handlers and dogs, and we bought a program that explained the course. On one of the first few pages was a current picture of the sheep rancher’s son we had met decades ago. Our memories were faded, but it was him. We remembered his name. He’s a big sheepdog at the trials now.
I began writing down scores and we caught on to the rules and easily became fascinated to see what these incredibly intelligent and well-trained dogs could do.
By the weekend, more people also showed up to watch. Some people said they had seen something about sheepdog trials on television. It happens in places in the British Isles too.
We ate lamb kabobs, lamb ribs, and sheep cheese. Everyone was so friendly, and we enjoyed the wide-open vistas and the weather. On the last day the air even cleared of all the California wildfire smoke that had plagued us in Colorado for the previous month.
The first few days a lot of no-scores came in. That showed us how difficult the course was—how stubborn were the merino sheep pastured in the high mountains all summer. But as the preliminaries turned into semi-finals, and the semi-finals turned into final rounds, the level of training and handling ratcheted up to an unbelievably impressive level. One whistle could stop a dog in its tracks. One word could turn his head to the left or right.
The human sheepherders below illustrate just how well sheepdogs work to move sheep. Sheepdogs run around and look sheep in the eye to get them moving. These humans are using noise, flags, and shoves to get the sheep into the trailer.
Near the very end of the trials a sudden rainstorm sent a downpour onto the field and emptied the bleachers during the second to last handler’s run. She and her dog finished their contest, the rain quit, and the final contestant ran. Then, a Canadian handler called Scott Glen, who had won the event in 2019 (2020 was cancelled.) was named champion again for 2021, this time with a different dog called Alice. The man and his dog went home with another championship accolade and a few thousand dollars in cash.
Also, Ron and I made the news:
We went home through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. We passed sheep wagons and shepherds watching wooly sheep grazing between sagebrush. We passed hunting camps set up high on mountain passes where scars from old forest fires competed with magnificent views of the Flat Tops and where the setting sun was herding the edges of the sky toward the pen behind the hills for the night.