I think that wherever you live, Labor Day can be a busy weekend. We had many choices of events and things to do, and one of our choices was the Sheepherding Classic Championship in Utah at Soldier Hollow. Competitors came from around the world, and there were license plates from across the USA in the parking lot. This was our first time at such an event and we fell in love with the sport.
Sheepherding is so much more than getting a flock of sheep into a pen. The skill of the dogs and their handlers was was immense. The sheep used in the competition are grazing sheep that have never been herded until opening day of the competition. On the final day of the contest, the day we went, the dogs, of which none were English Sheep Dogs, had to go through the trees and up the hill to find a group of sheep that had been released up there. The dog then had to "lift" the sheep from where they were discovered and run them in a straight line, diagonally from that spot to the space between two gates in the field below. The dog's handler must stay in the center of the field throughout this portion of the event, the spot where the dog began his run up the hill to bring down the sheep. The handler communicates with the dog by means of whistling. Extensive training has taught the dog what it means when the whistle is higher or lower pitched or a faster or slower tempo. Later in this event, the handler gives vocal commands to the dog.
Once the sheep are lifted and maneuvered through the gates, the dog must go back up the hill and find another group of sheep to lift in the same manner. Each group consists of eight sheep for a total of 16. One group has red collars, and the other does not.
When the groups are at the bottom of the hill, the sheepherding dog must turn the sheep and herd them back up the hill a bit and through a series of gates before bringing them back to the field and into a ring marked by red bags. At this time the handler may finally move from his position. Of the sixteen sheep, all must be culled except for five with red collars. This is trickier than it may sound. The handler cannot touch the sheep (neither can the dog and we did not hear any of the dogs bark during the event.) Sheep possess a strong sense of herding and prefer to remain together. Once a few sheep are moved apart, it is natural for all groups to try to regroup. If this happens, the handler must start the separation process over. Did I mention that the event is timed and once the time runs out, the round is ended? It is not merely a matter of earning fewer points if you do not get the sheep into the pen; it is a matter of not earning any points. If the handler does not have five sheep with red collars in the pen with the gate closed by the end of the time, there is a zero score.
Once the sheep have been segregated, they must be moved towards the pen. Once moving in the right direction, the handler will move to the pen and open the gate by pulling on its rope (see photo below.) Once the pen is open, the handler must hold the rope until it is closed, meaning that the handler's movement is restricted for the remainder of the round. Sheep are stubborn and more agile than I had previously thought. They can jump over the dog easily, and they are fast! The sheep as a group, or just any one of them can and will bolt at any moment of the competition. The moments at the gate are tense ones. The dog and the sheep eye each other warily. They test each other. It is the same between the handler and the sheep. You truly cannot count your sheep as in until that last little tail is fully within the pen and the gate quickly slammed shut. The entire event is a demonstration of great finesse of the dogs and their handlers.
It was hot and the work these dogs do is challenging, as well as rewarding. There is a metal tub filled with cool water for the dogs. After the completion of each round, the dog would joyfully run to the tub and jump in for a few minutes. As the day wore on and the heat became even more of an issue, the dogs would also break from herding for a quick soak in the cool water.
It was wonderful to cheer for the dogs, but sometimes you also want to cheer for that brave and determined sheep that makes a break for it. It was always sad when after all of the hard work by all involved just wasn't enough to get the sheep into that pen in the allotted time.
The sheepherding was definitely the main attraction, but there were many events going on. We watched sheep shearing, tasted melt in your mouth lamb, watched the dogs in the Dock Diving competition, clapped for the dogs running the agility course, learned tons about bee keeping, oohed and aahed at the raptors, and so much more. The food vendors were plentiful with lots of cold water and ice.