The magnificent obsession of sheep herding

by Morgan Heim



(Click on any photo below to see a larger version.)

Sheepdogging

Border collies by nature are intelligent and moody -– one woman fondly describes hers as a habitual sulker -- and as many an owner will attest, they’re notoriously high-maintenance. A collie’s obsessive-compulsive herding instinct means that it will round up not just sheep or cattle, but practically anything with legs, be it children, chickens, or other dogs.

But it is the magical pairing of herder and collie that turns obsession into a well-timed dance of fulfilled purpose. Collies have helped shepherds keep track of their flocks for centuries, and in 1873, the tiny town of Bala, Wales, hosted the first-ever sheepherding competition. Since then the sport has become an international celebration of cross-species communication. In this country, more than 9,000 people are part of the American Border Collie Association, a network of collie owners who compete in trials all over the West.

This weekend, one such sheep dog trial has taken over Hotchkiss, a tiny town of just over a thousand people in western Colorado. One cowboy outfitter across the street from the fairground entrance displays life-size horse statues in various poses and colors, including, inexplicably, a bright shade of turquoise. To take advantage of the event’s magnitude, townsfolk have set up yard sales on every block.

On this bright May morning at the fairgrounds, the course is set. More than a hundred spectators have shown up. Dozens of dogs -- some of them pets, some competitors awaiting their turn -- join the humans to watch the event unfold. White gates gleam in a sea of grass under the already high sun. A tiny cluster of fluff at least a quarter of a mile away signifies the sheep, waiting to fill their role in today’s competition.



Watchers at the sheepdog trials

With a subtle hand signal from his handler, Rocket, a young border collie, launches across the field, black-and-white fur glistening. With shoulders hunched and pink tongue lolling crazily, he speeds in a wide arc towards the four sheep huddled at the far end of the field.

A piercing whistle splits the air, and the dog slams to a stop. He crouches, fixing the apprehensive sheep with a paralyzing stare. They stand frozen. Everything is still; everything is quiet. Through some ancient predator-prey communication, the dog through his gaze alone gains control over the sheep. This crucial moment is called the lift.

Responding to a cryptic series of whistles and commands from the distant handler, the dog begins to maneuver the sheep through the course.

“Twir twir ta-ta-ta,” whistles the handler, two fingers pressed between his teeth. He’s middle-aged, dressed in what appears to be standard attire for all Western sports: cowboy hat, buttoned shirt tucked into jeans. But he also carries the herder’s hallmark, the elongated question mark of a shepherd’s cane.

“Walk up,” he shouts. “Away! Away! Away!”

Rocket darts, stalks and circles, driving the sheep through the designated gates and into a ring of flags called the shedding circle, where the herd is split and rejoined. “Come by,” says the handler, and the collie arcs to the right, guiding the sheep toward the pen.

See Spot Run

This complex communication between man, dog and sheep must all take place within a nine-minute time limit. Only when the pen gate has closed does the audience break into applause and hollers at Rocket’s successful run.

“That was Bill Money and Rocket,” says the announcer. “Bill is someone who still uses the traditional commands and whistles.” As the pair exits the field, it’s on to the next team of handler and collie.

About 60 border collies and 40 people are here to compete in the fourth annual Hotchkiss Sheep Camp Stock Dog Trials. This event is one of hundreds of nationwide trials that are part of the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association circuit. While this trial is small, larger meets within the circuit serve as qualifiers for the National Finals in Gettysburg, Penn.

Since its inception in 2004, the trial has continued to grow, says Richard Bailey, the president and creator of the competition. This year, he received calls from as far away as Denver, and one person has even traveled from Wisconsin to compete in the trials today.

Bailey himself is a veteran of the sport. He stands close to 6 feet tall, and wears a brilliant white cowboy hat. He leans in when he talks, a flesh-colored hearing aid barely visible in his right ear. A love of border collies and sheep dog trials has been in his blood for generations, he says.

According to Bailey, sheep dog trials are an age-friendly sport, with both young and old able to compete. His son and grandson participate in the circuit, and a few years back even a 6-year-old boy ran his dog in the trials.

The day is a bustle of activity as people mingle, catching up with friends on the circuit and watching the dogs compete. Like any sporting event, the day has its share of friendly rivalry.

A handler and sheepdog team

“Come on, Nieder!” shouts one handler. “Go, Needless!” she teases. Libby Nieder smiles good-naturedly as she leads her dog, Rex, towards the course. Nieder has already competed once today with her other dog and “best friend,” Lyn. The pair currently holds the lead.

Nieder is having a near-flawless run. The woman who goaded her earlier leans over the back of the bleachers to get a better view. “Be the sheep,” she whispers. It’s unclear whether the remark is intended for collie or handler.

Despite Nieder’s clear technique, the sheep move too slowly, and the horn sounds just as they’re approaching the pen. Fewer teams are completing the circuit as the afternoon approaches.

The day’s growing heat makes both humans and animals cranky. The sheep have had enough. Occasionally a few make a break for freedom, only to stop short and give the audience a bewildered look. “Why was I running?” the sheep seems to ask.

Apparently, some of the dogs too dream of freedom. For at least five minutes one border collie methodically works its teeth, trying to pinch the clasp on its kennel.

Another dog, obviously unhappy with the judge’s decision, lifts a leg to the scoreboard in silent protest. Despite a few canine malcontents, the day has its heroes. One includes Rocket. Another is Lyn, who won today’s Open Run class.

Collie Cooler

For the handlers, the event’s reward includes a small cash prize. For the dogs, whether they win or lose, it’s the thrill of the chase and a dip in the “Collie Cooler.” One collie jumps in, splashes a 360 and sits down. She rests her chin on the edge of the wooden tub, half-closing her eyes and lolling out her tongue. Water drips from her floppy ears. It’s a moment of pure bliss.

PHOTOS BY MORGAN HEIM © High Country News