‘Toughest trial in the country’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Toughest trial in the country’

John Colson
Mark Fox/Aspen TImes Weekly

Meeker, Colo. – Storm clouds were the dominant feature of the third day, although the dogs put on a great show anyway, and the handlers took everything in stride with remarkable stoicism.

So it was at the 2006 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, held last week, Sept. 6-10, in what was once a sleepy little ranching town but has lately become a bustling hub of second-home growth, dude ranches and luxury estates in the hills.The Classic turned 20 this year, and the organizers were gleeful. There is the fact that it has survived and grown in importance – both to the town and to the sheepdog trials culture worldwide – and then there is the hardiness of the competitors and their audience.The few determined spectators in the grandstands early on Friday, Sept. 8, the rainiest day of the event, were either huddling under makeshift tents with as many of their friends as possible, or slumped singly beneath whatever water-repellent gear was available.

As the afternoon cleared and the temperature warmed, the bleachers filled a bit, and the following two days were clear and bright. By the end of the event organizers were making declarations that attendance was pretty good given the weather. One event official reported “good crowds every day, not record-breaking but close,” except for Friday.That day, soggy cowboy hats and pointy-toed galoshes were a fairly common fashion statement. The food vendors, although dry in their cook shacks, were no perkier than their sodden customers, thanks to the slow pace of business.But through it all, the most common emotion to be found was a mixture of pride, passion and satisfaction regarding the sport being played out on the huge field next to the bleachers.

The event’s announcer, Canadian Art Unsworth, proudly noted that no matter what the weather, “our program goes on.”Unsworth, a tall, lanky man who gave his height as “5-foot, 18 inches”, said only once was a sheepdog trial postponed due to weather, when a monster lightning bolt struck the earth right next to the trial venue. Asked when and where that was, he ducked under a tent flap into the rain, called away on business, and promised with a grin, “I’ll get back to you on that,” though he never did.’We’ve come a long way'”The Trials,” as they are called for short, began in 1987 when Meeker boosters were casting about for a way to attract more tourists to town. Until then, Meeker was enough out of the way that only fishermen, hunters, campers and ranchers bothered to go there, and those in relatively small numbers.

But The Trials have changed all that, at least for one week in early September. As many as 15,000 spectators, participants and volunteers from around Rio Blanco County, the West, the U.S. and the world, converge on Meeker (the county seat) to watch a field of 130 dogs and their owners run through their paces in a large, town-owned field just west of town.Each dog-and-handler team goes through an intricate series of exercises, with just a few sheep at the beginning but a small herd of 20 in the finals, guiding the animals through gates, into a circle chalked onto the field and finally into a small, gated pen, earning or losing points along the way.The dogs do all the legwork, to the whistled instructions issued by the handler, and the sheep react nervously and sometimes aggressively to all the attention.

This year, according to The Trials’ P.R. officer Sandra Besseghini, the event made use of some 200 volunteers, which she said is roughly 10 percent of Rio Blanco County’s population. At the last minute, she added, “Moody Construction added $1,500 to our $20,000 purse (which is distributed to the top-20 contenders), and we had a record-breaking $4,750 in special cash awards,” which puts the Meeker Classic high on the heap in terms of money to be earned by the handlers.As Trial Director Ellen Nieslanik wrote in her introduction to this year’s fat, glossy program, “We’ve come a long way.”

While sheep ranching and its associated activities still play a big role in Rio Blanco’s economy, it is generally on the decline in other parts of the state.According to the Aspen Historical Society’s website, sheep ranching began in the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1890s, and for a time was an important ranching activity in the Brush Creek Valley, where Snowmass Village now stands, and on Richmond Ridge above Aspen. By all accounts, many of the shepherds were of Basque and Mexican origin.Early tensions among cattlemen and “sheepers” competing for range permits in the Roaring Fork drainage led to agreements and grazing boundaries. This may have been the reason there were no hostilities here like those that occurred in other area where sheep and cattle operations clashed.Historical records also indicate that sheep did not do well in the valley’s harsh winters, and that the animals were shipped to Utah during the cold months. Until the 1960s, sheep were traditionally driven through Aspen in the fall on their way to the rail cars, as portrayed in photographs and recalled by longtime locals.Statistics from the White River National Forest, as supplied by the historical society, indicate that sheep grazing allotments dropped from a high of 160,000 sheep in 1940 to only 2,800 in 1991, and sheep ranching has all but disappeared from local ranges.But in Meeker, at any rate, sheep ranching traditions remain alive and strong.

A hallmark of the Meeker Classic has been its ability to attract international competition, which this year brought numerous handlers from Canada, including veteran stock-dog trainer and instructor Elvin Kopp of Westerose, Alberta, who was at the very first Meeker Classic.The international contingent this year, organizers noted with some pride, included Carl-Magnus Magnusson from Gyrt, Sweden, and Tony Ottesen from Martofte, Denmark.”You’re watching the best in the country, and two of the best from Europe,” remarked handler Amelia Smith of San Diego, Calif. She gave an energetic talk about working with sheepdogs to a second-grade class from Sunset Elementary School in nearby Craig, telling the kids, “This is the toughest trial in the country.”There also was a Scotsman on hand, although he is now a citizen of the U.S., married to a Virginian on whose 1,200-acre family farm the pair now raise sheep and cattle when they’re not traveling around to compete against each other at sheepdog trials.

Despite his 20 years in Virginia, Tommy Wilson, 62, still speaks in a strong Scottish accent. He seconded Smith’s assessment of the Meeker trials and added that what draws him back repeatedly is that “Meeker has a great atmosphere … handlers from all walks of life, and people I haven’t seen for a year. And Meeker sheep are great – wild and testy.”

Speaking of other Scots who have come to the U.S. under similar circumstances, he said the raising of sheep and the running of sheepdog trials for sport is growing in the U.S. and on the European continent, but not in his native land. He said in the U.S., particularly, there are many young handlers coming into the sport, and a large number of women.

Herbert “Hub” Holmes, a rancher from Sanderson, Texas, said the most difficult thing about working with dogs is “finding dogs that are at the top of their game. It’s easy to find good dogs, hard to find great dogs, just like any other athletic endeavor.” Holmes was the first handler to “go to the post,” the phrase describing when a handler and dog begin a run, at the start of the very first Meeker Classic in 1987, which he won.”This and the national championships are my favorite trials,” said Holmes, who has been “trialing” dogs for 23 years. He said that there are trials in Texas but “they’re much smaller than this” and not as much fun. The nationals are being held in Oregon this year.”I like working with animals,” Holmes said. “It fits into my work, what I do for a living, and just the actual competition is fun.”

Gus Halandras, a sheep rancher by birth and a former mayor of Meeker, is the man credited with saving the Meeker Classic from expiration after the original organizers moved away following the Classic’s first year. He said donations from well-heeled regional landowners, a dedicated spirit of volunteerism among the local populace and the feisty nature of Meeker’s sheep have all contributed to the event’s success, to the point where it now actually makes a profit most years, if a small one.”After 20 years I feel good about it,” he said at this year’s event, adding with characteristic humor that he no longer competes because “the dogs are smarter’n I am.”But, he continued, “I have nothing but respect and love for ’em [sheepdogs], because they’ll die for you … they are so focused to get the job done.”

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