Austen Diamond

Soldier Hollow Classic

The sheepdog competition goes like this: Handlers send their dogs to herd sheep, via command, from a hilltop downward, through gates, and eventually into a corral in front of the stands. There are about 350 head of sheep, which are broken up into small herds for each dog.

Held during Labor Day weekend in Midway, Utah, the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship is a stunning show of discipline and human-canine bond that has lured more than 28,000 people to the Utah Olympic Legacy site near Salt Lake City for each of the last two years. For perspective, the next biggest trial has 10,000 people in attendance, guesses event administrators.

The annual event is family friendly and offers much for tourists, too, including great food, face painting, games and additional non-Collie dog sports and competitions, such as agility trials.

The Main Event

The main event — the classic — is an invitational, where 64 dogs get invited based on point scores at other trials held nationally and internationally. Handlers have come from 17 countries and five continents to compete in Midway.

The top 15 dogs advance to the second day’s “double lift,” which is a much more complex course. The dog with the fastest time wins, and that usually clocks in at just under a half hour. The day ends with an arena trial, for the next 15 entries — the runners up — which is a crowd pleaser, because it’s fast and takes place much closer to the audience.

The dialogue between handler and herding dog are intricate and complicated. “It’s a communication that we build over time, and there really is something magical about it,” says Carol Clawson, current president of the American Border Collie Association. The subtetly is astounding. For example, Clawson bends the pitch of her whistle, and the slight variation tells Kita — her tricolored, five-year-old Border Collie — to circle clockwise around a herd of sheep.

Indeed, dog and handler understand one another. What’s more, they have a unified mission in this challenge: to move the livestock from the top of a hill down into a corral 700 yards below, and to do so as quickly as possible when in competition.

Clawson, a resident of Charleston, Utah, competes in several sanctioned national sheepherding competitions with Kita and two other Border Collies. The annual Soldier Hollow Classic is her favorite sheepdog competition, and it happens to take place just minutes from her home.

Best of Breed

The Soldier Hollow Classic was founded by Marc Pederson, himself an owner of several Border Collies. One of which, named Gus — who has not passed but whose likeness is on the Classic’s logo — led him to attend the biggest sheepdog trial in Scotland, The International. There, the seed was planted to bring the sport back to Utah. “I came back believing that if done the right way, it was something that Americans would fall in love with,” Pederson says.

After years of searching for the right venue, Pederson came upon Soldier Hollow, and he knew this was the perfect place to hold the events. With a small budget and just a few months of planning, the inaugural Soldier Hollow Classic was launched. Assuming it would be a small affair, Pederson was quite surprised when a healthy crowd of 10,000 people showed up that first year.

Pederson says that people will come to the Soldier Hollow grounds out of curiosity, not knowing what they are about to see, and become enthralled and stick around for the whole weekend.

“It has a way of winning you over and capturing your imagination,” he says.

Visit the Soldier Hollow Classic website for more information. Spectator dogs are not permitted.

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