“Away to me.”
Sound familiar? These are just a few of the commands dog handlers often use while herding. Throughout history, wherever there have been sheep, mankind has used dogs to help corral them. Quick as a whip, smart enough to follow commands and gentle enough to not harm the sheep, these dogs have performed herding duties for centuries.
As handlers spend countless hours training their dogs to precision, it’s only natural that they’d want show off all of that hard work. As early as the 1800s, sheepherding communities around the world have organized competitions designed to trial dogs and celebrate the culture and lifestyle of herding sheep.
The Heber Valley is a part of that sheepherding tradition. In fact, in the 1920s and ’30s, our valley was one of the most prolific sheep-producing regions in the world. During that time the Heber Valley Railroad moved more sheep than any other railroad in the United States. Even now, almost 100 years later, you can still drive past fields filled with grazing flocks of sheep.
From Scotland to Soldier Hollow
The history of the sheepdog trials in the Heber Valley originates with Mark Petersen. Mark was visiting the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s and happened to attend a sheepdog competition. “I was blown away by it,” he says, and he immediately knew it was the kind of event that belonged in Utah. He returned home and scouted for the perfect location, but nothing felt right.
After the 2002 Winter Olympics, Mark had a meeting at Soldier Hollow. “The snow was melting,” he says. “I got out of the car, and I looked around and saw the hillside. I immediately said, ‘Sheepdog championship.’” Three days later he was pitching the project to the Soldier Hollow venue director, Howard Peterson, and the Soldier Hollow Classic was born.
“That first year, I begged people to come and compete,” Mark remembers. “We were on a shoestring budget and I didn’t know if anyone would come at all.”
It turned out he had no reason to be worried: 10,000 people showed up. “It was immediately the most attended sheepdog event in North America.”
Today, Soldier Hollow is the highest-attended annual sheepdog championship in the world. Yes, you read that right — in the world.
And it’s not just for competitors from the Heber Valley; dogs and handlers who have qualified for an invitation travel from around the globe to compete. This year’s trials will include competitors from as far away as Wales, the Netherlands and South Africa.
“It’s like a pilgrimage to come compete in Soldier Hollow,” Mark explains. “You’ve spent so much time on this sport you love, and to take your dog out in front of that size of a crowd, on that hillside where the Olympics were once held — it’s a moment for some people. To say, ‘I was there.’”
Our Shared Heritage
The Soldier Hollow Classic has grown to be more than just a sporting event — it’s now a four-day-long festival! “But it’s not just another fair,” Mark explains. “All the entertainment is related.” At its center, the trials are all about celebrating dogs, agriculture and the sheep handling culture that has existed in our valley for generations.
As for the trials, “The goal of the sport is animal husbandry: taking good care of the animals,” says Mark. “It’s the drama and beauty of handler and dog working together to take care of the sheep.”
That beauty exemplifies the cultural birthright of the Heber Valley. In that way, the Soldier Hollow Classic is not just a celebration of sheepherding — it’s also a living memorial to our heritage as a valley and as a community.
Splash Dogs: A Fan Favorite
Not a sheepherder but want to experience the classic with your four-legged friend? You can enter Fido into Splash Dogs, an amateur dock-diving competition! Local dogs compete for distance as they jump off a dock into a 40-foot pool. Sign your pooch up today!
Adventure for Everyone
In addition to Splash Dogs, the classic features a variety of dog agility shows and dog trick presentations, as well as an exotic animal show, sheepdog training demonstrations and a Navajo rug–weaving show.