Today is the last day of the 2011 National Sheepdog Finals at the bucolic Strang Ranch in picturesque Carbondale, Colorado. If all goes well the National Finals might return here every third year alternating between locations on the two cardinal coasts and the “middle” of the country.
You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful venue as the Strang Ranch is nestled in a saddle formation surrounded by high peaks that offer breathtaking views and challenging terrain. The outrun on the Open Field is long, over 4oo yards, but not longer than the infamous Meeker Trial outrun which is several hundred yards longer. Even at this distance, the dogs are a small speck on the horizon when they are at the greatest distance.
The sheep are the same though: the infamous mountain Rambouillet range ewes that are neither dog nor people broken unlike the overexposed Dorpers you’ll find at eastern venues. These sheep are big and wild and have seen few humans at all, the only dog they’ve likely come across before being put out on the field is a Livestock Guardian Dog.
This results in very unpredictable behavior. At the Nursery field, many of the sheep where dismissive of both dogs and people and seemed unduly enamored with the lush green sod. They would drop their head at a moment’s notice to eat and the young dogs often had trouble keeping any sort of movement going for more than a few steps.
On the open field the sheep where very attuned to the topography of the field and would charge uphill, tiptoe downhill, and rush off into any gully available. One such gully was just beyond one of the far panels and many competitors lost precious minutes getting the sheep to move once they settled in to eat. No other dog sport demands that a handler successfully command a dog at such great distances to move a third party group of untrained and unwilling animals that don’t even realize this is a competition.
Fewer than five handlers managed to pull the gate closed on the pen at the end of the course during the entire 150 team preliminary round and when it happened it always drew echoing applause from the spectators. Here I’ve captured last year’s champion Patrick Shannahan and his dog Riggs putting on a textbook pen and availing themselves to one seriously gorgeous photo opportunity.
Right before I began capturing video, one veteran spectator said rather loudly “he’s doing this [taking a lot of time at the Pen] for the photographers,” but I don’t think this was the real motive for a slow and steady approach. Few other handlers even made it to the pen that day and Patrick had the uncommon luxury of several minutes to finish. The other close-calls often found out that some their sheep were terrified of the confined quarters of the pen and were willing to stomp and charge at the dog that they had previously ignored for most of the run. Most of the handlers that even made it to the pen had less than a minute to accomplish the task and almost all of them ended with an explosive confrontation with the dog that resulted in either a grip or a sudden scattering of the sheep away from the entrance.
If you’d like to see more video of the 2011 National Finals, you can watch one free hour of the webcast, buy a larger package with more viewing time, or even get the DVD of the entire event.
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