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5,000 expected to flock to Meeker trials

Carrie Click

It’s a bit of an odd site – at least initially.

Just off the road to Meeker, hundreds – and on the weekends, thousands – of people are sitting on bleachers, low beach chairs and blankets in the midst of a 117-acre field. Some have binoculars. Others are talking quietly. They’re all watching something – but what?

A lone border collie in the distance slowly creeps up on five frisky sheep, while the dog’s handler shouts and whistles. The collie crouches on command, then inches forward after hearing a series of short whistles.

On Wednesday morning, Jim Swift was among the crowd just outside Meeker, a straw cowboy hat shielding his face.

“This intrigues people,” said Swift, a Grand Junction sheepdog handler. “A lot of folks can’t get their dog off the couch. When you come here, you see instant obedience at 400 yards.”

“Here” is the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, running Wednesday through Sunday. Now in its 16th year, the trials first began in 1985 when former Meeker Mayor Gus Halandras gathered together a group of citizens to brainstorm.

“The economy was in the tank,” Halandras said, “and we needed to come up with ideas to bring people to town to spend money, feel good, and send them home happy.”

The committee developed several events: an uphill snowmobile climb, a sled dog race, and sheepdog trials.

“Only the trials survived,” said Halandras, whose entire family is involved in producing the annual event. Halandras has been serving as the event’s chairman and president since its inception, and his wife, Christine, chairs the concessions committee. Their two sons help out, too.

The first trial brought about 70 dogs and 2,200 spectators to Meeker. This year’s trial has 143 dogs competing, and organizers expect around 5,000 spectators.

Halandras has a theory on why the trials are so successful.

“It’s a very natural thing,” said the Meeker native and former sheep rancher. “It’s simple: dog, sheep, handler, small town, a beautiful setting. What better equation could you ask for?”

For Jim Swift, you couldn’t. He’s been competing at Meeker since the trials started, and typically places in the top 20. This year, Swift has three dogs competing, although his collie, Mick, was disqualified earlier Wednesday morning.

“We still may stand a chance,” he said. Swift will try to qualify with his 10-year-old male, Dan, and his 4-year-old female, Lucy, later in the week.

For Swift, like many handlers, the world of sheepdogs is fully engrossing.

“This is the black hole we put our time in,” he laughed.

Besides time, competition demands a passion, money and unending commitment.

“You have to really want to do this,” Swift said.

Swift currently owns six border collies – two pups and four adult dogs, and he competes at 10 to 12 trials from early spring to late fall. This year, the national finals will culminate in Lebanon, Tenn., in November.

Swift gets his dogs from their origins, Scotland, where the breed originated in 1894 at the England-Scotland border. Swift’s dogs are also trained in Scotland their first year.

“I’m a better handler than a trainer,” he said of the Scots’ ability to train the dogs.

Swift used to work his dogs with his 120 head of sheep. But the drought this year forced the sheep rancher to sell off all but 40 of his herd.

And since Swift’s nine acres isn’t enough room for his dogs to practice, he’ll often haul sheep to public land off 25 Road in Grand Junction and let them work. He’ll also run the dogs, riding a 4-wheeler while the dogs run alongside.

“I’ve been working them daily for the last two weeks,” he said. “They need extra conditioning for these trials.”

The trials aren’t only about competing. Everything is border collie-oriented at the trials’ crafts fair. Over 30 vendors sell lamb fajitas, burgers, lemonade, hot dogs, clothing, artwork and collectibles inspired by the border collie. A bumper sticker for sale reads, “My border collie is smarter than your honor student.”

And indeed, these dogs might be.

Watching a skilled dog work is similar to witnessing a chess game played by a fine strategist – only the chess game is being played on about a 100-acre field. Dog and handler are judged on the sheepdog’s ability to locate, establish control over and move the sheep calmly.

The team is also judged on its ability to work together effectively. And there’s a healthy payoff: The winning team receives a $10,000 purse.

“If you asked half this audience to go out in that field and do what one dog can do, they couldn’t do it,” he said.

“If we had kids and employees that were as obedient and as willing to please as these dogs, this would be an incredible world. A border collie is your best friend, brilliant and the best employee you could find. Plus they don’t ask for weekends off or worker’s comp,” Swift said.

Even though Meeker’s sheepdog trials are associated with the border collie, any dog can compete – if they dare.

“We’re not snobs,” laughed Swift. “Any dog can compete at Meeker. You just don’t want to be horribly embarrassed.”

“It’s fair, open competition,” added Halandras. “It comes down to the power of the dog and the handler, and their understanding of livestock.”

But even those who don’t quite get the intricacies of sheep behavior and dog handling can get something out of this annual Meeker tradition.

“There’s just no way around it,” Halandras smiled. “This event is positive. It makes everybody feel good.”

For Jim Swift, you couldn’t. He’s been competing at Meeker since the trials started, and typically places in the top 20. This year, Swift has three dogs competing, although his collie, Mick, was disqualified earlier Wednesday morning.

“We still may stand a chance,” he said. Swift will try to qualify with his 10-year-old male, Dan, and his 4-year-old female, Lucy, later in the week.

For Swift, like many handlers, the world of sheepdogs is fully engrossing.

“This is the black hole we put our time in,” he laughed.

Besides time, competition demands a passion, money and unending commitment.

“You have to really want to do this,” Swift said.

Swift currently owns six border collies – two pups and four adult dogs, and he competes at 10 to 12 trials from early spring to late fall. This year, the national finals will culminate in Lebanon, Tenn., in November.

Swift gets his dogs from their origins, Scotland, where the breed originated in 1894 at the England-Scotland border. Swift’s dogs are also trained in Scotland their first year.

“I’m a better handler than a trainer,” he said of the Scots’ ability to train the dogs.

Swift used to work his dogs with his 120 head of sheep. But the drought this year forced the sheep rancher to sell off all but 40 of his herd.

And since Swift’s nine acres isn’t enough room for his dogs to practice, he’ll often haul sheep to public land off 25 Road in Grand Junction and let them work. He’ll also run the dogs, riding a 4-wheeler while the dogs run alongside.

“I’ve been working them daily for the last two weeks,” he said. “They need extra conditioning for these trials.”

The trials aren’t only about competing. Everything is border collie-oriented at the trials’ crafts fair. Over 30 vendors sell lamb fajitas, burgers, lemonade, hot dogs, clothing, artwork and collectibles inspired by the border collie. A bumper sticker for sale reads, “My border collie is smarter than your honor student.”

And indeed, these dogs might be.

Watching a skilled dog work is similar to witnessing a chess game played by a fine strategist – only the chess game is being played on about a 100-acre field. Dog and handler are judged on the sheepdog’s ability to locate, establish control over and move the sheep calmly.

The team is also judged on its ability to work together effectively. And there’s a healthy payoff: The winning team receives a $10,000 purse.

“If you asked half this audience to go out in that field and do what one dog can do, they couldn’t do it,” he said.

“If we had kids and employees that were as obedient and as willing to please as these dogs, this would be an incredible world. A border collie is your best friend, brilliant and the best employee you could find. Plus they don’t ask for weekends off or worker’s comp,” Swift said.

Even though Meeker’s sheepdog trials are associated with the border collie, any dog can compete – if they dare.

“We’re not snobs,” laughed Swift. “Any dog can compete at Meeker. You just don’t want to be horribly embarrassed.”

“It’s fair, open competition,” added Halandras. “It comes down to the power of the dog and the handler, and their understanding of livestock.”

But even those who don’t quite get the intricacies of sheep behavior and dog handling can get something out of this annual Meeker tradition.

“There’s just no way around it,” Halandras smiled. “This event is positive. It makes everybody feel good.”


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