Ruff Work

Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship and Festival Celebrates 20 Years!

Shepherding: the act of guiding or directing in a particular direction; to make a group of people [or a flock of sheep] move to where you want them to go, especially in a kind, helpful, and careful way; the tending of sheep.

While shepherding has been around for millennia, historically, it is difficult to pinpoint when the first organized sheepdog trials took place. According to various sources, the sheepdog trials we are familiar with today date back to 1867 in New Zealand and 1873 in North Wales. Regardless of the exact date and location of their beginnings, these organized-modern-day sheepdog trials were taking off, and by the 1870s trials were being held in Australia, Scotland, and the United Kingdom. Their success continued to grow and by the 1880s the sheepdog trials had made their way to America. And, in 2003, an amazing group of dogs, sheep, and people flocked together on Soldier Hollow’s Olympic Hill for the first annual Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship & Festival!

What, exactly, is a sheepdog trial? According to Soldier Hollow Classic’s website, “The purpose of a sheepdog trial is to test and demonstrate the dog and handler’s ability to move sheep over a prescribed course made up of practical obstacles found in everyday work, and to maneuver sheep in a calm, controlled manner.” Today, trials are held all over the world with the support of organizations like the International Sheepdog Society (ISDS) in Great Britain, and the United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA) in the United States. The Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic is an invitational trial, but complies with the USBCHA course standards and is judged according to the USBCHA Judging Guidelines.

The Founder and Current Owners

Mark Peterson loves Border Collies and has dabbled a bit in trialing through the years. So, it makes sense that while visiting Europe in 2000, he attended the International Sheepdog Championship Trials (for the UK countries). Impressed with what he saw, he wanted to bring something similar back to America. Mark knew if it was done right — people would love it. And so his search for a venue began. Following the Olympics, Mark visited what is now the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, and as he took in the views from Olympic Hill of the valley, he thought to himself, “This is the place!” Well… those may not have been his exact thoughts, but needless to say — he did think it would be the perfect venue. He spoke with Howard Peterson (no relation) the then manager of the Nordic Center, and they both agreed it was a great idea. Mark employed his creativity, talent, and expertise in art, graphic design, and marketing and went to work. Mark also came up with the ingenious idea to combine the trials with a festival; offering food, music, activities, merchandise, art, and demonstrations. The inaugural four-day event took place in the fall of 2003 and indeed offered something for everyone. The first-ever Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship and Festival was an incredible success with 5,000+ spectators! Today, the Soldier Hollow Classic is the largest event of its kind in the world.

Mark owned, managed, and created all aspects of the event from 2003 to 2018 when he handed the reigns over to the new owners & managers; Judy Klautt and Carol Clawson.

Judy is the Festival Manager and has been involved with the festival in some capacity since the beginning. With her infectious laugh, Judy describes her position, “I do the festival portion. Carol is the front end, and I’m like the background singer.” After she briefly, in an almost brushing-off-no-big-deal manner, told me of her past experiences — I’m calling her bluff. Judy’s no background singer. Judy has spent the majority of her life, here in Utah, at Soldier Hollow. She shared, “In my former life, until 2021, when I semi-retired, I was the event coordinator at Soldier Hollow for many years. Prior to that, since the Olympics, I’ve been working with the kids in the ski races during the winter as a race secretary and volunteer coordinator.”

Carol is the Competition Manager and has been involved with trials since the first event as a volunteer, and, for the last few years, as the Trial Coordinator. Like Judy, Carol is very humble about her role — both women could barely contain their excitement when speaking about the dogs, the sheep, the trials, and the festival; however, when it came to talking about themselves — well…let’s just say it wasn’t quite crickets — but it was close. I did; however, glean this fun little bit from Carol. “My family has had Border Collies forever. I was five when I got my first Border Collie from my great-uncle who lived in Craig, CO. […] When the Olympics was here in 2002 the Salt Lake Agility Club put on a demo up here at the ski jump. All the dogs were Border Collies and I thought, ‘Geeze! I ought to do that with my Border Collie.’” Two years later, Carol took one of their family dogs to agility lessons with a teacher who was also into herding. She shared, “I went out and my little dog had no natural ability, but I watched these guys and I just looked at Shauna, [the teacher], and said, ‘Oh, my gosh! If I could have a dog that does that, I will die happy.’ So, I ended up getting one of her pups off of her, and she was a really nice female, but frankly never quite made it. But it changed my life. I got another dog, and here I am with four dogs running Soldier Hollow.”

Carol’s dogs aren’t the only ones running. Both Carol and Judy have adhered to the spirit and vision of the sheepdog championship Mark laid out 20 years ago. These two incredible women, along with many, many others, run all year long to create an amazing championship trial for dogs and their handlers; and a spectacular family event for all ages to enjoy.

The Dogs

All the dogs that compete at Soldier Hollow are Border Collies. Known for their intelligence, agility, hard work, and innate herding skills (shaped by generations of breeding), Border Collies have been used on farms and ranches all over the world for centuries.

As wonderful as these dogs are, not all are created equal when it comes to trialing. Carol shared, “People have this sense that the dogs are just doing what their instincts tell them to do, but that is just so wrong. It is hard work. It takes a lot of training to be able to communicate with a dog that is in train drive and is hundreds and hundreds of yards away.” Carol has a friend who has trained dogs in everything from nose work and agility to search and rescue to sheep herding, who shared that training a dog for trialing is probably the hardest. “I think the reason for that is that you’re not close in proximity, and you have to deal with that instinct. You got it, you need it, but the dog has to learn to listen to you so that you can override instinct, especially if you want the dog to be in a different position to put the sheep in a different place. So, it is a lot about the relationship and the communication between the dog and the handler that develops over years.”

When asked about the best time to start training, Carol chuckled as she explained, “Frankly, training really varies, and depends on both the dog’s and the trainer’s, maturity and skill level. I have a good friend who is a professional trainer; he’s actually judging this year. I remember asking him that question once, and his answer was, ‘October.’” Generally, serious training starts around 9-12 months, but honestly, these dogs continue to learn and develop. Each one has different strengths and weaknesses; you’ll never find one that has it all.” Carol also shared, “Breeding matters — you want working lines.” And, history tells us, these dogs know how to work. According to written accounts from the late 1800s, a herd of a thousand sheep could be managed by one rancher and one good dog. 

Luckily, the dogs at Soldier Hollow Classic don’t have to herd a thousand sheep.

The Sheep

Soldier Hollow brings in 300-320 sheep for the event — but these aren’t just any sheep — these are Okelberry Rambouillet yearling ewes. The sheep have been described as “wicked,” “the ultimate test,” and “the most challenging sheep […].” According to both Carol and Judy, they are also beautiful and magical. The sheep are provided by Brian and Ann Mikkelsen Okelberry. The Okelberrys are stewards of one of the largest sheep and cattle operations on the “west desert,” and are both fifth-generation sheep ranchers. Each yearling is individually selected for “even size, condition, and confirmation.” Carol shared, “[…] they come in right off the range; the only handling they will have had is being sheared before they come. They are beautiful, they are just gorgeous sheep; they’ve been fending for themselves with predators and they’re pretty hardy. They are not used to dogs or people. They have never been herded before.” Judy adds, “To see them unloaded at the venue is a magical moment. They’ve never been on a truck before, they’ve never been around dogs or in a trial before, but they get here to Soldier Hollow and it’s wild to watch them take to their surroundings and just be happy sheep.”

Keeping them happy and healthy is of utmost importance. Carol described how they run the sheep during the trial, “We run 45 different groups of five sheep — none of the sheep run twice in a single day. Then we mix them all back together, we will graze them, make them happy, then certainly the sheep are rerun over the next few days, but they only run once so they stay in really good condition; trust me these sheep are really fit.” Carol continued to explain part of what makes these Rambouillet ewes so challenging, “These sheep are used to being in flocks of hundreds, and sometimes one-thousand or more, and suddenly we separate them into groups of five, and they’re going ‘this is frightening,’ this wolf is behind me and there are only five of us. They are used to the whole ‘there is safety in numbers’ thing. They are not excited about what they are being asked to do. They are difficult. They are not used to going through panels because it looks frightening to them; they don’t go to the pen easily. These sheep are pretty much on the wild side. That is one of the things that western sheep, and our sheep in particular, have a reputation for — they are very challenging as a result.”

The Course and The Trial

The course is amazing, and if you’re a newbie to trials like me, I suggest visiting Soldier Hollow Classic’s website and perusing the descriptions of elements, explanation of points, and diagrams of the single and double lift courses — it’s fascinating. In summary, there are generally six scored elements to a course run: outrun, lift, fetch, drive, shed, and pen. Each element is “designed to test a skill that working dogs need to help a shepherd with he daily management of sheep. While the layout of the course may vary slightly from trial to trial, depending on terrain, all approved trials include the [six] elements. Each handler-dog team begins with a total score of 100 (can be more if more elements) and the judge takes off points for the mistakes made in each element of the course.”

Soldier Hollow presents a perfect venue for sheepdog trials. In addition to an uneven hillside terrain (that tests the best of dogs), a landscape of trees, shrubs, and a pioneer cabin that provide potential places of refuge for the sheep (creating additional elements of difficulty), the Olympic hillside offers unsurpassed sight lines for the handlers, the announcer, the judge, and the spectators.

Carol shared, “We will have approximately 66 dogs with 40-45 dogs running a day. Each day the top six qualify for the final. Each dog gets two tries to qualify for the championship run — and those preliminary runs occur on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with the top 18 competing in the championship run on Monday.”

The 2024 event marks a lot of incredible milestones for the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship and Festival. They are not only celebrating 20 years of hosting one of the “foremost annual events of its kind in the world, having drawn competitors from 19 countries and over 13,000 spectators annually; and gaining international recognition for its quality and rigor,”1 but they are also moving to a new date.

Soldier Hollow Classic has been held over Labor Day every year (except for 2023) since 2003. This year; however, it will be taking place over Memorial Day. Judy explained, “The compelling reason for that change, up to this year at least, was heat. When we were unable to do the event in 2023 due to the construction over at Soldier Hollow, we had some time to think about it and do some research; to see if that move made sense, and it did. Changing dates has definitely presented some challenges, but both Carol and Judy expressed how their ‘event family’ has been so supportive. Judy shared, “We have very loyal vendors and even with the shift to a different time of year and month almost everyone is coming back and some new people as well. To have this kind of support is just amazing!”

Speaking of vendors… let’s talk about the festival!

The Festival

From the get-go Mark wanted this event to be an experience that families and individuals of all ages could enjoy. While some people are content to settle in for four days of sheepdog trials, others, especially kids, might want to get up and walk around — stretch their legs for a bit — and (dare I say) enjoy a change of scenery. Watching the dogs can be mesmerizing and addicting, but Mark wanted to make sure that there were also opportunities for spectators to not only learn about the sport, the dogs, and the sheep, but to experience and share their wares and talents with their community as well.

Judy shared that the event usually supports about 30 artisans and different vendors, along with two or three demonstration arenas where demos take place all day each day. Most demos are related to sheepdog trialing, dogs, sheep, animals, wool, and ecology. Judy shared, “There are demos from sheep shearing to working dogs and helping people understand what the trialing is all about and how the points work to how the dogs are trained.” Some of the demonstrations you can look forward to this year also include carting, pulling, and agility. Earth Wings brings in raptors and other birds, and Herding Haven brings in rescue dogs — some with disabilities — and showcases what they can do. Last year there was a petting zoo that was a huge hit with all the kids. This year there will also be a demonstration with Belgian Malinois who have been trained to sense ammunition and guns in schools. The demonstration I think I’m looking forward to most is Duck Herding. Yes, it’s a thing.

The festival will offer food and drinks from vendors like Korean Bowl, Smoothie Island, Miss Kitty’s Outlaw BBQ, and others. Bohemian Brewery also hosts a beer garden each year. Guests can peruse the merchandise vendors from Rock-N-Lazy-F-Hats and Cowgirl Heaven to Maligator Munchies and Farm Dog Salsa to Museum Replica Jewelry and Wild Horse Artisans and more. There will truly be something for everyone to enjoy; culminating with the Salt Lake Scots performing with their full band during the awards ceremony. Judy shared, “It is quite impressive — it makes the hair rise on your arms — it’s awesome. They play every day for a few hours too. The combination of the bagpipes and Soldier Hollow’s scenery is stunning!”

These sheep are pretty much on the wild side. That is one of the things that western sheep, and our sheep in particular, have a reputation for — they are very challenging as a result.”

Carol and Judy agree that life runs fast and it is their opinion that the Soldier Hollow Classic is “one of those events where you can actually just enjoy the peace of the day.” Judy expressed, “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Come on out and join us for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship and Festival — as Mark said, we think you’re going to love it!

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