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MEEKER I The route from the Heber Valley, Utah, through Meeker to Carbondale will go to the dogs from Labor Day through mid-September. Border collies, that is, doing their stuff at three top-notch sheepherding events.
The Soldier Hollow Classic in Park City occurs over Labor Day weekend, followed by the 30th Annual Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trial in Meeker, Sept. 7-11. The 2015-16 U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA) National Finals, held every third year in the West, will take place Sept. 9-13 at the Strang Ranch in Carbondale.
Most spectators—a few dozen at Carbondale, several hundred at Meeker, 30,000 in Utah—will note similarities among the trials, although the venues vary from mowed pasture in Carbondale to uneven rough pasture in Meeker to a hillside with trees in Utah. The sheep, too, are probably flighty yearling ewes just in from remote pastures. Fresh sheep are used for all preliminary runs at Meeker and the national finals.
USBCHA guidelines for work and course layout, patterned after those of England’s 120-year-old International Sheepdog Society, are strictly enforced at Meeker and generally followed at Soldier Hollow.
The work performed for preliminary runs at each trial replicates skills needed on a working sheep operation. The first half of the course highlights the border collie’s unique ability to run out to find the sheep and lift and fetch the sheep to the handler. The second, the drive, shed and pen, illustrates the communication and teamwork necessary for efficient stock handling.
The USBCHA-compliant course layout at Carbondale and Meeker and comparable one at Soldier Hollow will also be familiar. The set-out post and the handler’s post are from 400 to 900 yards apart, and the fetch panels, set in the center of the course between them, must be 200 yards from the handler’s post.
The two sets of gates of the triangular drive course must be 150 yards from the handler’s post, and the combined distance of the fetch and drive should be no less than 850 yards. The shed ring is 40 yards in diameter, and the pen 9 feet by 8 feet with the gate on an eight-foot side secured by a six-foot rope.
The major difference between Soldier Hollow and the Meeker Classic, a critical difference in the sheepdog world, is that Soldier Hollow is an “invitational” trial and the Meeker Classic is a USBCHA “sanctioned” open trial.
Soldier Hollow “invites” 60 dog/handler teams to enter (and pay the fee) based on their prior performance in selected trials. For example, the top two from the prior year’s Meeker Classic are invited.
The USBCHA rules allow anyone to enter and require all trial entries to be accepted, though the total number of randomly chosen competitors is limited.
The USBCHA, formed in 1979 to ensure the preservation of the Border Collie as a working stock dog, sanctions two classes of sheepdog trials throughout the United States and Canada, one of which is the “Open” for experienced dogs and handlers. The three days of preliminary run at Meeker constitute an open trial.
The top 20 percent of all dogs at a sanctioned open trial earn USBCHA qualifying points, and the top 150 qualifying dogs may compete at the national finals. For the dog to earn points, the handler must be a USBCHA member and, regardless of residence, must have competed in a USBCHA-sanctioned trial in the past two years.
Meeker will host 140 competitors this year, as opposed to the 60 or so at most open trials. The winner of the open portion of the Meeker Classic will earn 28 points (20 percent of 140). The runner-up will earn 27, on through the 27th team, which earns one point.
Twenty-six of the 109 points held by current top-ranking Amanda Milliken and Howell were acquired by winning the 2015 Meeker Classic. This high number of points is a major draw for competitors and enhances the excitement for handler and spectator alike.
Semi-finals at Meeker and the national finals feature the top 30 and 40 preliminary competitors, respectively, and championship runs will feature the top 12 semi-finalists at Meeker, the top 17 semi-finalists at nationals and the top five from each day of preliminaries at Soldier Hollow.
All three final runs will involve a double lift—fetching two separate bands of sheep. Meeker and the national finals require the difficult international shed. Soldier Hollows eases the shed requirements. The pen concludes the run.
The preliminaries culminate in the championship runs at Soldier Hollow and the national finals, with the winners sharing $30,000 and $40,000 in purse, respectively. The semi-finals and finals at Meeker are a trial separate from the open.
Winners share a $20,000 purse, and competitors over all five days have a shot at winning another $10,000 in special prize money.
Meeker is special in other ways as well.
As veteran trialer, Bud Boudreau puts it, “A win at the finals assures prestige and money. A win at Meeker also assures the possibly of retiring on stud fees and puppies.”