Seen & Herd

Handlers, dogs and spectators enjoy great weather and better competition

MEEKER — This was Bill Orr’s first time to compete at the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, and he didn’t fare too well.
But he definitely savored the experience.
“This was my first time here,” said Orr, who is from Eagle Point, Ore. “We got Meeker-ed, as they say. But a lot of people get Meeker-ed here.”
Or, maybe that’s why long-time announcer Art Unsworth, known as the voice of the Meeker Classic, from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Canada, said during the trials, “So far, the Meeker sheep are winning.”
But, in the end, Dennis Gellings of Bear Lake, Alberta, Canada, was the winner. He took first place at the Meeker Classic with his 4-year-old border collie Jake.
Not only that, but Gellings also finished second with another dog, 2-year-old Jan.
A handler claiming both first and second places at the Meeker Classic is an impressive — and rare — accomplishment.
“It hasn’t happened in my recent memory,” said Ellen Nieslanik, director of the Meeker Classic.
But Nieslanik said it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
“It’s so wonderful to see a guy like that (win),” she said. “He’s a fabulous guy.”
Of the $20,000 total purse for this year’s event, Gellings received $7,000 by winning the first — and second-place prizes.
Even those handlers like Orr, who didn’t win, or advance past the preliminaries, still enjoyed the event.
“I’d like to have done better,” he said. “But this event is known for its difficult sheep. It is also known for its hospitality and for being a good course. That’s why this is the best event. I hope I’m able to come back again.”
Bob Clark of Pueblo knows how tough the Meeker Classic can be for handlers.
“When you’re standing at the post, your whole life passes before your eyes,” Clark said, adding, “I got to sit and watch the last two days (of the event) uninterrupted.”
Meaning, he didn’t advance past the preliminary rounds. But, still, Clark, who was a spectator this year, enjoyed the experience of participating in the Meeker Classic.
“It’s the best,” he said.
Besides the competition, there was another reason why Orr came to the Meeker Classic.
“I like to talk to people, and a lot of the people here are professional dog people, and I like to talk to kids,” said Orr, who was one of the handlers who talked about the sheepdog trials with groups of schoolchildren attending the preliminary competition.
The semifinals were Saturday, followed by the finals on Sunday.
Besides claiming first and second in the competition, Gelling’s wife, Jean, sang the Canadian national anthem during the opening ceremony.
Another Canadian, Scott Glen, from New Dayton, Alberta, who won the event in 2005, finished third with his dog Pleat.
In another first, Donna Cox, an artist from Morrison, had the winning entry in the art contest. Her painting also won the people’s choice award.
“That had never happened before,” Nieslanik said.
Cox’s oil painting, which sold for $1,120, will be featured on the poster for next year’s event.
She finished second in last year’s art competition.
While a handler like Orr was a first-timer at the Meeker Classic, Red Oliver from Caldwell, Texas, has participated in the event many times.
And he keeps coming back.
“I’ve been here for the last 20 years, I guess,” Oliver said of the 22nd annual event. “It’s one of the top trials in the nation. There’s a reason why this one is so popular.”
Another handler from Eagle Point, Ore., Elizabeth Baker, feels the same way.
“This is my fourth year, and I love it here,” Baker said. “It’s a great event, and it has great community support.”
Comments like that are gratifying for Nieslanik, director of the Meeker Classic, to hear.
“The comments have been great,” she said. “I think the trial went really well. The volunteers stepped up. As far as operations, in my tenure, this was the best ever, because everybody did their part.”
And the weather cooperated.
“The weather was unbelievable,” Nieslanik said. “We couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Despite the warm temperatures and blue skies throughout the five-day event, the crowds were down a little, Nieslanik said, most notably during the days of the preliminary rounds.
“I think it was mostly because of the economy and because of the price of gas,” she said. “But, most of all, there is nowhere for these people to stay. Places were people have stayed before are being rented long term (to workers in the pipeline industry).”
She estimated attendance for the five days at around 10,000 people.
“Last year was a little more than that,” Nieslanik said. “But the crowds (this year) were good, and the enthusiasm of those who attended was high.”
Enthusiasm was high, too, for the new vendor demonstration and hospitality tents, provided by Enterprise Products, one of the event’s sponsors.
“Which was great, because we lost all of our tents last year with the microburst,” Nieslanik said. “With the new tent, the craft vendors had record years.”
The only loss this year was about a dozen or so of the approximately 700 sheep used during the trials. They were found dead early last Thursday morning in a pasture just outside of town — less than a mile from the site of the trials.
Authorities suspect the sheep were killed by a mountain lion.
“The DOW (Department of Wildlife) is fairly confident it was a mountain lion, and probably more than one,” Nieslanik said.
There were about 220 sheep in the pasture at the time. After the dead sheep were discovered, the remaining sheep were moved to a different pasture.
“Things like this happen,” Nieslanik said. “But what a sickening feeling.”
All in all, though, Nieslanik was pleased.
“It was a great trial,” she said. “I feel really good about that.”