MEEKER I The dawn was breaking, the sheep were grazing, the coffee was brewing and the aroma of dew on the grass and breakfast food filled the air as spectators took their seats. The committee prepared for the day and announcer Art Unsworth gave a call to the handler who would make the first run of the day.
That call sounded familiar to Amanda Milliken, a handler who has participated in more than 20 Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials. But the 25th trial, held in Meeker, on Sept. 7-11, became very memorable for Milliken.
The trip to the trial began the same way as the past 20 years. Milliken left her home in Kingston, Ontario, and began the three-day drive.
“I am not happy to make the drive, but I am always happy once I get to Meeker,” said Milliken, competitive sheepdog handler and partner of Home Cardiographics. “The people are always so friendly.”
Milliken entered two dogs, Clive, a 7-year-old male, and Roz, a 4-year-old female, in the 2011 trial. She began by running both dogs on separate days in the preliminary qualifying runs. With the size of the trial, three days of preliminary runs occur.
“It is a multiple day trial so you run about every other day, which makes for a lot of downtime,” Milliken said. “This year I used my down time to take a horseback ride with Bruce Clatterbaugh, one of the board members, which was really nice.”
She scored 77 of the possible 100 points during her preliminary run with Clive, which was enough to qualify for the semifinals. After completing her semifinal run, she had scored 89 of the possible 110 points and qualified to run Clive among the top 15 in the finals.
The final competition began early Sept. 11 with a tribute to the U.S. flag and a moment of silence. Once the flag was at half-staff, it was time for the competition to begin.
“It is a little nerve racking,” Milliken said in response to preparing for the final run.
Her nerves however, went unnoticed by the spectators and judges. She entered the competition field and walked to the handler’s post with Clive at her side.
She gave Clive the cue and he took off to gather the first group of sheep. As he headed back with the first group, Milliken guided him with whistle commands to herd the sheep through the pattern and appropriate gates. Once the first group of sheep was placed, she gave him a different whistle command and he took off for his second outrun to herd the second group through the same pattern and combine them with the first group.
Along with the outrun, lift, fetch, and drive, Clive must shed and pen the sheep with Milliken’s guidance.
“This is a difficult course because of the double outrun, lift and fetch,” Milliken said.
Milliken and Clive work together to make the complicated course look easy because of the preparation they put in at home.
“Clive and I have a business-type relationship,” Milliken said. “For one, he is too big to live in the house.”
Milliken owns a farm in Kingston, Ontario, where she runs about 180 ewes and also grows and bales hay. She is a partner in a family-owned cardiac test company, Home Cardiographics.
While at home, she spends time working the sheep with the assistance of her seven border collies. Milliken’s current dogs are Bart, Monte, Roz, Dorey, Barbra, Clive and Jerry. She spends countless hours completing tasks with one or more of her teammates at her side. Milliken does not just run the dogs to practice preparing them for the trials.
“They need to practice by performing practical jobs,” Milliken said. “They know the cues to go left and right.”
While preparing to compete in Meeker, Milliken must plan for difficult sheep.
“The sheep aren’t simple,” said David Lyttle, Meeker Classic 2011 judge from Pettigo County, Donegal, Ireland.
To prepare the dogs for these difficult sheep, Milliken makes her dogs perform practical farm tasks daily. She also depends on their help during lambing season.
“It helps prepare the dogs for trials because they are used to the trouble and the crazy new mothers,” Milliken said.
Even with practice, her sheep at home are not the same as the sheep her dogs must encounter in Meeker.
“I do not practice on the same type of sheep because the sheep in Meeker would not make it where I live,” Milliken said. “It is too wet and they would get hoof rot.”
Even without practicing on difficult sheep, Milliken was prepared for Meeker and set herself apart from the rest of the competition. She and Clive scored well in both the preliminary qualifying run and the semifinals. During her run in the finals, Lyttle said, it was the smooth work she and Clive did in the shedding ring that set them apart from the other 14 top competitors. After watching the next few handlers complete their run, Lyttle realized that Milliken’s run might be the best he was going to see.
“She will be hard to beat,” said Lyttle to trial scribe Jackie Klinglesmith.
Milliken was unbeatable that day and claimed the 2011 champion title. However, she is not only remembered at the trial because of her win. She has become close friends with many other handlers and gained the respect of many peers, spectators and committee members.
“Amanda is always willing to help,” said Mary Cunningham, Meeker Classic Trial director. “She helps with the exhaust, she never complains, and she is always willing to offer advice and take young handlers under her wing.”
The difficulty of the sheep tends to be one main attraction to the trial. This year’s trial attracted about 4,000 paying spectators and about 6,000 spectators total. There are many parts of the trial that set it apart from other trials worldwide.
The diversity of handlers, such as Milliken, makes this event one of the most elite in the world. Milliken travels many miles to compete in this trial, as do many of her fellow handlers who range from places as far as Ireland, Scotland, Australia and South Africa.
Cunningham and the entire board of directors have begun plans for next year’s trial; they will begin fund raising and discussing changes next week. Milliken plans to be in attendance, and many spectators will expect another spectacular run from Clive with her guidance. Milliken’s diverse background, caring personality and impressive talent creates the “community” atmosphere found at the Meeker Classic.
“The community and volunteers make it such a special trial,” Cunningham said. “They make the handlers and spectators feel like they belong.”
The trial is an event not to be missed. According to Scott Glen and Bud Boudreau, well respected handlers, the Meeker Classic is not the best trial in the United States, it is the best in the world.
As dawn breaks, the parking will become limited quickly as spectators take their seats with anticipation of watching Milliken and Clive fight to keep their title another year. Art Unsworth will make the official call for the first run, the handler and dog will approach the post, and the 2012 Meeker Classic will be underway.
By Morgan Neilson