Carbondale’s Strang Ranch to host 2011 National Sheepdog Trials |

Carbondale’s Strang Ranch to host 2011 National Sheepdog Trials


MISSOURI HEIGHTS – Eight hundred fifty special guests will arrive at the Strang Ranch in Missouri Heights this week in preparation for the 2011 National Sheepdog Finals Sept. 13-18. The irony is the special guests would just as soon not be there.

The 850 sheep needed for the competitions will be trucked in from high mountain pastures in northwest Colorado. The National Sheepdog Trials are a big deal, featuring many of the top dogs and handlers in the country, said co-organizer Ellen Nieslanik, and the best dogs and handlers deserve the best sheep.

To get the number of sheep they needed, she turned to family friends Steve and Toni Raftopoulos, who run more than 10,000 ewes in Moffat and Routt counties. The sheepdog competition requires animals of the same age, and there are very few outfits that can supply that many female yearlings.

“Yearlings can be described with the likeness of ‘teenage girls’ – often goofy, uncertain and unsure who is the leader among them,” the program for the sheepdog trials states. “Their age and maturity alone make them a challenge.”

At the finals, the sheep are split into groups of five and herded by a single border collie. Therein lies the challenge; the sheep are accustomed to the safety of moving in large numbers across vast, empty spaces. The relative isolation of the competition in close quarters makes the sheep more skittish, unpredictable and a real challenge for the dogs and their handlers.

The 850 sheep will be rotated into the competition in a way that keeps them fresh, said Bridget Strang, event co-organizer. It was her idea to host the event on her family’s ranch, though she jokes that it remains to be seen if she gets credit or condemnation for the idea. Ask her on Sept. 19, she said.

The event is a mammoth undertaking. About 150 dog-and-handler teams have entered the open competition with another 86 teams in the nursery competition for dogs 30 months and younger. More than $40,000 in prize money will be awarded.

Strang Ranch was established by Bridget’s parents, Mike and Kit Strang, in 1965. It’s already a communal place of sorts, in large part because they board horses, host riding shows and offer riding lessons. While the ranch is a hive of activity and a welcoming place, it’s also a peaceful setting with hay fields rolling into the horizon and a variety of livestock grazing on patches of meadow.

The sheepdog finals will transform the ranch into a small town for a week.

“I think it’s an interesting way to expand what we do here,” Kit Strang said.

An estimated 150 campers will be staying at the ranch, between the handlers and the vendors. Most of the handlers have been on the road with their dogs to compete in various competitions, so they will have roughly 600 border collies with them, most of which won’t be in the competition, Nieslanik said.

To top it off, 5,000 spectators are expected per day on the weekend for the finals. It’s tough to gauge how many spectators will show up during the week for the preliminaries.

Strang and Nieslanik said the event will draw everyone from intensely knowledgeable fans – who have been known to question calls by the judges – to those with curiosity but little insight into the intricacies of the competition. In short, the trials test a dog’s ability to maneuver sheep in a controlled manner through a course designed to evaluate their skills. There are six scored components of the sheepdog trial course: outrun, lift, fetch, drive, shed and pen. They must complete the course in a set time. (The program has a detailed description of each component of the competition.)

Daily tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages eight through 16, and $5 for seniors. Kids under seven years old can attend for free. Admission proceeds will go to Aspen Valley Land Trust, which works to preserve ranches and open space in the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor.

Nieslanik said her theory is the competition has broad appeal because almost everyone has a farmer in their lineage. People intuitively appreciate the nuances of handler and dog working together.

Strang said she became fascinated with border collies nearly 20 years ago and discovered first hand how the dogs respond to subtle hand motions and verbal commands.

Her collies have always been working dogs first and foremost – herding stock on the ranch. But she works with Treat in trials competitions as well. They are entered in the nursery competition of the National Sheepdog Finals. While Strang will be whipping around like a cyclone for most of the week, for seven minutes she can forget about running the event and concentrate on herding sheep.

The event features more than the trials, particularly on the weekends. There will be food and craft fairs, a beer and wine garden, and demonstrations on everything from spinning and weaving to lamb cooking. On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18, there will be dog demonstrations hourly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The trials will depend on volunteers so a community appreciation barbecue and street dance will be held on Main Street in Carbondale starting at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Visit for a full schedule.

Strang Ranch is located at 0393 County Rd. 102. That’s roughly 3 miles onto Missouri Heights from Catherine Store.

Strang and Nieslanik said if they are able to pull off the event effectively, they will consider applying to become the regular host site for the western U.S.

“This could be a once every three years shot in the arm for Carbondale,” Nieslanik said.

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