This weekend, September 4 - 7, is the 13th annual Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic Championship. We sat down with Event Director and Founder Mark Petersen to get an idea of what it takes to put on this wondeful event every year. Visit the Heber Valley Visitor Center or Days Market in town for $2 discount coupons.
What was the inspiration behind starting the Classic?
I saw it in the UK and was blown away by it and thought if it was done right people in America would love it. I went over to the UK to get a Border collie pup and to see a sheepdog championship and was blown away. It took another eight years until Soldier Hollow was built for the right place to exist. But as soon as I saw Soldier Hollow the first thing I thought when I got out of the parking lot was Sheepdog Championship. This is our 13th year, hopefully lucky 13.
Our event has grown over the years to become the biggest event in the world. In terms of how many people attended the next closest show is about half as big. It’s something to be proud of. It’s fun to know how honored people are who are invited to compete in it.
What is something that people generally don’t know about the classic?
Lot people still don’t know that it actually exists. Along the Wasatch Front lots of people don’t know that it’s there so we’re still getting the word out.
A lot of people don’t have any idea what a sheepdog championship is. A sheepdog competition askes the dog with sheep to do a number of tasks mirror what a dog on a ranch or farm have to do on an everyday basis. It judges the dog on its ability to perform those tasks efficiently with unduly stressing the sheep. It’s about being a good shepherd.
Lots of the people who do come don’t have a real idea as what they’re going to see. Many people who plan to come for a couple hours often stay much longer. It has way of hooking you in to thinking “I think I’ll stay for one more run.” You don’t have to be educated in the sport to appreciate that it’s a special relationship between the dog and their handler.
How many pink young pigs will be participating this year?
You know we won’t have any pigs this year. At one competition I went to a man trained his pig to follow the sheep around so it looked like it was herding the sheep.
People often times ask if the competition is a lot like the movie “Babe” and I say it’s a lot like that. There isn’t a lot of opportunity for chats among the animals, but there is an opportunity for communication. The dog has to when it first approaches the sheep let the sheep know “I’m not a funny looking coyote, I’m not going to eat you or hurt you. And if you just do what I’m asking you to do everything will work out fine.” The sheep’s initial response to this animal is “Am I going to fight or am I going to run” and the dog has to say there’s a third choice, cooperate and it will be alright.
What draws the competitors to come to Soldier Hollow?
All people who compete are obsessively committed to the sport. It’s an opportunity to go out in front of thousands and thousands of people and say this is what my dog can do. If you win it it’s about as big an honor to say you won Soldier Hollow. You have the opportunity to say I have won against the best of the world. They are treated like rock stars when they come, and they’re competing for a $30,000 purse, the biggest purse in the world.
What is your favorite thing to do at the classic?
It’s fun to watch the crowd. It’s fun to sit back and look at it all and think about some element that you’ve planned that is new works. Things don’t always work. We add new things every year and some don’t work out the way you thought it would. One thing that is different about our event is that we’ve taken a British event that is totally steeped in British tradition and do what American’s do with things by tweaking them trying to make it better. When you take risks you stick your neck out so it’s fun to see the things that work.
What do VITA bones actually taste like?
They taste like a thick delicious T-bone steaks. They are delicious. I don’t know why more people don’t eat them. It’s a great way to start every day.
How many sheep do you get for the competition and how many sweaters do you think that would make?
We get about 320 sheep. You probably get about 6 pounds off of each one of them. So about 1800 pounds of wool. That’s a lot of wool. It’s probably 600 sweats. That’s a lot of sweaters.
How many different breeds of dogs compete? What makes border collies the dominate breed at the classic?
The competition is open to any dog. Any dog that can do the work and come prove himself in the field of competition can earn an invitation. We don’t look at pedigrees. We’ve had quite a number of rescue dogs that have come along and proven themselves. We’ve had one dog in the history of the trial that hasn’t been a border collie, it was an Australian kelpie, that has qualified for the event. This event is designed to show what a border collie is bred to do.
What do the competitors think of Soldier Hollow as a venue for competition?
It’s a really great site for the trial. Everyone agrees on that. Sight lines are a big deal. Most trials are held on flat fields. The fact that it is a hill side trial everyone can see what is going on. It’s great for competitors and spectators. When it’s up on a hillside every element of what happens you can watch and see beautifully. The combination of heat, altitude, and hillside is a real test on the dogs. The handlers love coming the Heber Valley, and love that the valley has deep roots in sheep culture so it makes it a special place to have this venue.
What are your top five things people shouldn’t miss at the classic?