MEEKER I Folks around Meeker have seen Septembers come and go over the years and with it the Meeker Classic. It’s become a permanent fixture in the community.
Volunteers know the drill, the town prepares for a short-term population surge, Ute Park tidies up—fields are mowed, bleachers and tents dress up the site in preparation for the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials. Repeated year after year, a ritual of sorts, the community plays host to one of the premier sheepdog competitions in the world.
Why all the fuss? Because something repeated so well and so often becomes a legend of its own. Meeker is the trial to win by all handler’s standards. Said so eloquently by a recent competitor, “You all continue to keep Meeker as the standard to which any trial might aspire to meet and you remind us all why Meeker itself is such an exceptional place. The country is beautiful and so are the people.”
Visitors and handlers are drawn by the magic of it all—the competition, the event, the setting and the people. Now known worldwide as the premier sheepdog competition, the Meeker Classic is the model other trials try to follow. Embracing the area’s ranching and cultural heritage, the Meeker Classic intertwines sheepdog trials, education, culture and trade into a weeklong showcase of volunteerism, sportsmanship and friendship. Even more so significant is the true sense of community it elicits for all those involved. Meeker is “something!”
At the core of it all is the sheepdog competition that features 140 border collies competing against 750 tough, independent Merino-cross yearling ewes.
Getting in to Meeker and making the draw is a challenge in itself that starts in March of the year. This year saw 265 dogs entered in Meeker the first three days of March. From those 265, 140 dogs are randomly drawn and placed on the accepted entry list with the remaining 130 dogs going to a waiting list.
Between March and September, entries will be cancelled for one reason or another—plans change or dogs are injured. As dogs pull out of the accepted entry list, the next in line move up from the waiting list.
While Sept. 1 draws near, Meeker still has 40 dogs on the wait list. Forty dog/handler teams, just hoping for a chance to come and run on the Meeker field. Compare that to Soldier Hollow, which boasts of crowds of 30,000 spectators. They are running 46 dogs in 2016 while Meeker still has 40 on the wait list and 140 that are thrilled to be here!
The object of a trial course is to test the dog’s ability to manage and maneuver sheep in a calm, controlled manner. Set by U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association guidelines, the course is set up to evaluate skills that a working dog needs to assist the shepherd in his or her daily work.
There are six scored components of a sheepdog trial course: outrun, lift, fetch, drive, shed and pen.
Each dog and handler starts their run with full points and the judge makes point deductions throughout the run for errors and deviations from the prescribed course. A time limit is set for each round, and once time is elapsed, the handler can only be scored on the retained points until time elapsed. There is no point advantage to finishing quickly, but handlers keep a close watch on time so that they can pace their run.
Each element or component of the course has practical applications on the farm or ranch. The outrun is the first phase of the course. Dog and handler take their place at the handler’s post, waiting until the sheep are set 500 yards away at the far end of the course. When the sheep are in place the handler sends the dog either to the left or the right. The dog must remain on that side and not cross over or deductions will be made.
Once at the top end of the course where the sheep are set, the dog will slow down and take control of the sheep, causing them to move. This is called the lift and should be done in a steady, slow manner so as to not “blow” the sheep apart.
The third component of the course known as the fetch follows as the dog brings the sheep in a straight line, through a set of fetch panels to the handler. The sheep should be fetched (not followed) at a steady, controlled pace so as to keep the sheep moving in a straight line to the infield.
The handler remains at the handler’s post as the dog brings them in and around the post passing behind the handler. From this point the drive begins. The dog must drive the sheep away from the handler in a straight line to the first set of drive panels. Passing through the first set of panels, the dog must turn the sheep, neatly and calmly, onto a direct line across the course to the second set of drive panels/gates after which the dog again turns the sheep and brings them back towards the handler and to the shedding ring.
When the sheep enter the shedding ring, the handler can then leave the post to assist the dog in the shed, which means to separate two sheep away from the flock. Ideally this occurs when the dog comes toward the handler, through the sheep to separate the two sheep and hold them away from the rest. The judge will notify the handler when he determines the dog has successfully “shed” and taken control of the shed sheep.
Upon successful completion of the shed, the handler then proceeds to the pen, leaving the dog to bring the sheep. The dog and handler work the sheep into a six-foot by nine-foot pen with a swinging gate. The gate is attached to a rope and the handler stands at the gate holding the rope and must not let go of the rope while the dog works the sheep into the pen, at which time the handler closes the gate.
The 140 dogs all get one preliminary round, which takes three days to complete (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Making it fair for all, five head of fresh sheep are guaranteed for each preliminary run. The top 30 dogs from the preliminary rounds will advance to the semi-finals.
Extra time and an additional element are added to the semifinals. Once the dog has completed the six elements and penned the sheep, the five head are let back out of the pen and one sheep must be sorted off of the rest. Called a single shed, this is particularly difficult because of the flocking nature of sheep. They don’t like to be singled out. Of the 30 semi-final runs, only the top 12 will advance to the Double-Lift Finals on Sunday.
Set by International Sheepdog Society Standards, and given a 30-minute time-limit, the double-lift final course involves lifting two groups of 10 sheep each. Each group is situated at different locations on the field, and the dog must individually gather both groups of sheep and unite them in the middle of the course. Fetch and drive panels are set wider to accommodate the larger number of sheep. The remainder of the course ensues with 20 sheep as the dog completes the remainder of the fetch and drive.
Extremely difficult, the international shed requires 15 unmarked sheep to be separated from the five marked sheep (collared) and driven out of the shedding ring. The five marked sheep are then to be driven to the pen and penned.
Judging and scoring the dogs for the 2016 Meeker Classic will be Tom Wilson of Gordonsville, Va. It’s fitting to celebrate Meeker’s 30th year with a judge whose name has become synonymous with the winner’s circle—he’s placed in the finals 14 times since 1990, winning two of those years back to back in 2006 and 2007 with his dog Sly.
More so than his winning record is Tom’s character as a person and his reverence for those “black and white dogs” that have taken him so many places and given him so many friends.
“Me,” he says, “I’m just a shepherd—that’s all I am.”
Who better to have than this engaging individual at the helm this year—always a smile, a laugh and a kind word. Over the years, Tom has kindly given advice, friendship and support to anyone who has asked.
Respected and endeared by many in the sheepdog world, he’s always game for some fun.
A handler recently shared his thoughts, “One of my idols is Tommy Wilson because at the end of the day you can’t tell if he won or finished last. He has the same big smile.”
Tom symbolizes what Meeker is all about, what makes it special and brings people in from all over the world.
Yes, Meeker really is “something!”
For more information, visit www.meekersheepdog.com or 970-878-0111.