MIDWAY, Wasatch — If you can’t make it to the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, head to Soldier Hollow for a show of drama and comedy as dogs and sheep take center stage on the beautiful hillside in Midway.
Mark Petersen, founder of the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic, fell in love with Scotland’s British Internationals in 1994. He thought if the event was presented correctly in the United States, then other people would fall in love with it too. But he needed to find the perfect location.
“I spent several years driving around the mountains on Saturday afternoons looking for the right place and I never found it,” Petersen said. “As ideas and dreams do, I kind of put it on the shelf and let go until after the Olympics.”
A meeting took him to Soldier Hollow. As soon as he stepped out of the car and looked around he knew it was the right place. The recreation area had been transformed for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, and the hillside makes a perfect location to view from the ground.
“When they built that venue, they thought they were making a great spot for cross-country skiing and biathlon events, but they were really making the best site for a sheepdog championship,” Peterson said.
Around 10,000 people showed up that first year in 2003. Petersen expects 32,000-34,000 for this, the 15th year. The event is designed to mirror the tasks of what a working dog on a farm may do every day. This year, between 42-45 handlers will compete with 64 dogs on the slopes of Soldier Hollow. The handlers will send a dog 400 yards up the hill to a herd of wild, Rocky Mountain ewes. The sheepdog must then herd the sheep down the hill, through a marked course and freestanding panels. Once down the hill, the dog must separate the sheep and put them in a pen. All this must happen in 13 minutes. The top 15 dogs from the first three days of competition will compete for the lion’s share of $30,000 in the Ambank Labor Day Grand Championship, according to soldierhollowclassic.com.
As one sheepdog owner tells it, those 13 minutes can be very dramatic and funny.
“A dog shows up and (the sheep) think they are going to die,” said Shauna Gourley of Plain City. “If the dog doesn’t treat them nicely then they are either going to run or fight. Their first instinct is to run. The dog needs to treat them politely and correctly and not push too hard. (The sheep) have ideas of where they want to go and it’s certainly not where you want them to go."
Gourley is the owner of Flock ‘N Paws Farm in Weber County. Last year, she and her border collie Jade placed eighth at the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic and they will compete again, with another dog, this year. Though the competition is open to any dog, it is mainly border collies that qualify and are invited to the event.
“They love to work,” Gourley said of her dogs. ”They live to work with the sheep.”
Gourley has competed in several trials throughout the country, but especially enjoys Soldier Hollow, both for the event and the prestige.
“When you talk about Soldier Hollow, the reputation for our event is truly international,” Petersen said. “People come from all over the world to compete. It is like a pilgrimage to say that you’ve competed at Soldier Hollow.”
Anita Hermes will be the first German to compete at the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic.
“I think it will be a wonderful experience, to meet people and make new friends and see how the dogs in other countries are and how the sheep are,” Hermes said.
Hermes has worked with sheep for more than 30 years, and border collies since 1989. She currently has nearly 100 sheep and trains dogs and holds clinics.
The journey to Soldier Hollow will be her first trip to the United States, where she will compete with her dogs Ace and Roger.
“I believe in dream teams and not in top dogs,” Hermes said. “Dogs that can work, that have the same idea about working sheep that I have. I think that is what we need for daily work. I like the old-fashioned type. Brainy dogs with quiet power.”
Though Hermes sees the sport growing more competitive and has noticed that the old-fashioned, real work dogs are on the decline, Petersen is encouraged by the sport's increasing size.
“I see the role of dogs in our lives as a growing role,” Petersen said. “As you look statistically at what is happening with dogs in America, that is a growing role. People are constantly looking for new things to do with dogs. People seek to do fun and wonderful things with dogs, and this is one of them.”
Petersen promises a whole day of great things to do and see at the family-friendly event. In addition to the sheepdog trials, other events include High Flying Splash Dogs, K-9 Kings Acrobatic Dog Show, Wild Wonders Wild and Exotic Show, Earthwings Raptor Show, Navajo Rug Show and Weaving Demonstrations, Sheepdog Training Demonstrations and the Utah State Highland Games State Championships.
“It’s the dog that takes care of the sheep," Petersen said. "The goal of this sport is that humane care. … There is a lot of opportunity for drama and a good deal of opportunity, at times, for humor.”
If you go …
What: The Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Trials
When: Sept. 1-4, 2017
Where: Soldier Hollow, 2002 Olympic Drive, Midway
How much: Friday, Saturday or Sunday, $13.99 for adults $12.99 for seniors, $8.99 for children ages 6-15, $46.99 for a family pass for two adults and up to five children; Monday, $16.99 for adults, $14.99 for seniors, $9.99 for children ages 6-15, $53.99 for a family pass
Note: Tickets are available online and at the door, multi-day passes also available