‘Relaxing’ sheepdog finals at Strang Ranch
As the Strang Ranch in Missouri Heights hosts the National Sheepdog Finals for the third time, some locals are still discovering the event.
Jason Hodges made the trip Friday to set up a sponsor booth for Mason Morse and found himself wishing he’d made a day of it.
“It’s hard to leave. It’s so relaxing up here,” he said. “I’ll probably start going every year.”
Watching dogs respond to whistles and herd sheep through gates and ultimately into the pen, he didn’t claim to follow every aspect of the sport.
“Even if you don’t understand it all, it’s fascinating to watch the handlers and dogs interact,” he said.
An announcer provides some narration, and plenty of waiting dog handlers in the stands make note of the finer points.
“Everyone here is so friendly and willing to explain things,” noted Vickie Samuelson, a recent transplant from Texas to Colorado Springs who made the trip specifically for the trails.
“We’re so lucky to have this as our home now,” she said.
For some spectators, the event is already becoming a familiar ritual and a chance to introduce others to the sport.
“I would recommend it to anyone,” said Leslie Johnson, “A lot of people don’t know it’s happening or haven’t been, and it’s an incredible event. I love the Strang Ranch and watching these amazing dogs do their thing.”
Many of the returning spectators came prepared with a folding chair for a comfier seat than the stands, and a few packed water bottles as well. Food wasn’t a concern, with several vendors on site in addition to the more sheepdog-specific wares.
“We love doing events like this,” said Terra Vastrande of Street Food. The Woody Creek-based food truck offers daily specials ranging from fish and chips to steak sandwiches, pulling inspiration from street food all over the world. It’s a common site at the sheepdog trials in Meeker, but the first time Vastrande has set up at the National finals.
“This is the big time right here,” she observed.
To clinch the top title, competitors must match wits with wily range sheep instead of the farm-raised variety some of them have back home.
“We like tough sheep,” said handler Teri Mason. “That’s why you come to the national finals.”
Despite the pressure, Mason seemed cool under the twin peaks of Sopris on a mild September day.
“Some events of this magnitude are so stressful,” she said. “Here it’s always so relaxing.”
Having tried many sports, Mason is convinced that she’s found the perfect one.
“It’s addicting,” she said. “It’s like shooting pool. The sheep are the colored balls, the dog is the cue ball and you’re the stick.”
“It’s a team sport,” added Ron Enzeroth.
While the handler gives direction throughout the process, the dog also must rely on natural intelligence and training to pull off a variety of maneuvers, he explained. It helps if the crowd is into it, too.
“You like to see people come and cheer,” he said. “It makes a difference.”
Host Bridget Strang would like to see that, too.
“I’m hoping people come,” she said. “It’s a great event and an amazing weekend. People seem to enjoy watching dogs do things at 400 yards their own pets couldn’t do on a leash.”
Strang, a handler herself, first hosted the event in 2011 and brought it back in 2014. If she can muster the volunteers, it may return in 2019.
“My intent is to do it in another three years,” she said. “I think it’s really good for the community.”
It’s also a chance to get the word out about Aspen Valley Land Trust, a local nonprofit that helped conserve the Strang Ranch in perpetuity and one of the top beneficiaries of the event.
“We like the idea of letting people enjoy this conserved land,” Strang said.
The top dog and handler will be selected Sunday morning at 393 Garfield County Road 102, north of Catherine Store on Missouri Heights. Non-competing dogs are not permitted. Tickets are available at the event at $15 for adults and $5 for kids and seniors, with discounts for carpooling. For more information go to http://www.sheepdogfinals.com.
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