Top sheepdogs run in Carbondale
CARBONDALE — When 2010 National Sheepdog Finals champion handler Pat Shannahan competed in the opening day of this year’s championship Tuesday, he helped inaugurate another major event in western Colorado’s deep tradition involving the sport.
The 2011 national finals are continuing through Sunday at the Strang Ranch above Carbondale, featuring the top dogs of sheepherding from the United States and Canada, 150-strong. All had to qualify to make the finals.
Shannahan, an Idaho resident, is back competing with last year’s winning dog, Riggs, 9, along with Riggs’ daughter, Andi, 4. He said he and other competitors are excited about this year’s venue.
“The sheep are great. It’s a well-laid-out field,” Shannahan said.
Like other competitors, he said he appreciates the challenge of the kind of feisty sheep that tested the dogs Tuesday. They are young range sheep that differ from the flock sheep handlers and their dogs usually encounter in competitions in the East.
With this week’s event, Strang Ranch further enhances the region’s reputation as a hotbed for sheepdog events, building on the success of competitions in Meeker and Hotchkiss. Although it’s something of a newcomer to such competitions, the ranch benefits from the experience of Ellen Nieslanik. A Strang by birth, she lives in Meeker and used to run its nationally renowned competition, and she still serves on its organizing board.
Nieslanik and her cousin, Bridget Strang, decided a few years ago to bid to have the finals held at the ranch owned by Bridget’s parents, Kit and Mike. Mike Strang formerly represented the region in Congress and served in the state Legislature.
Nieslanik said Meeker hosted the national finals once in the 1990s. But she said the event takes a toll on volunteers, and having only one field to compete on there also stretched out the length of the finals. Also, with Meeker’s own competition having become a finely polished event over 25 years, it would be hard to expect organizers there to adjust for the national finals’ rules, Nieslanik said.
By contrast, sheepdog competitions are fairly new to Strang Ranch. It was only after securing the national finals that it held a couple of trials to “test-drive” the fields that are being used, Nieslanik said.
With the finals barely under way this week, however, the local organizing committee and the national organizers of the event, the United States Border Collie Handlers’ Association, already were talking about having it return to Carbondale.
“Our goal is to bring it back to this venue every third year,” Nieslanik said.
That sounds good to Herbert Holmes, president of the U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Association and a competitor this week.
“We hope that this works out for everybody, and we can have an extended place to come back to,” he said.
The group’s plan is to regularly hold the finals one year in the East, another in the West, and a third in a central location such as the Rockies. Holmes described the sport’s participants as mostly middle-class, so travel costs to the finals can be prohibitive. Rotating it around varying parts of the country allows competitors to try to qualify for a closer-to-home finals at least once every three years.
Handler Michele McGuire of Texas said she would like it if the finals returned to Carbondale.
“It’s not that far for me to go, comparatively,” she said as she sat Tuesday with her dog, Cora, both looking surprisingly relaxed even though they were next in line to compete.
What Nieslanik described as a bidding process to decide who hosts the finals, Holmes sees more as just trying to come up with a willing and workable venue. Finding a place with things such as enough land to host the event and a readiness to take on the work and expense limits the candidate locations.
“We don’t really have a tremendous amount of options. … If they meet the criteria, they go really quickly to the head of the list,” he said.
The U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Association and local committee share in the cost of about $200,000 to put on the event, and that doesn’t include in-kind and volunteer-hour donations. The cost includes a predicted purse and payout of more than $46,000.
Local organizers have secured numerous sponsorships, including 14 of at least $3,500. They hope to see a total of about 12,000 people attend this week’s event, and they plan to contribute all gate receipts, which include a $10 daily fee for adults, to the Aspen Valley Land Trust, a land conservation group.
The town of Carbondale is among the top-tier sponsors, and it is seeing some significant benefit. Debbie Bethell, who works the front desk of the Days Inn in Carbondale, said her hotel is full all week.
“We have a lot of the (sheepdog) handlers staying here,” she said.
She said the event is living up to its promise of bringing people to town, and it fills a nice void in the travel season, with families having kids back in school and the fall color season still to arrive.
“It’s a good time of year for it,” she said.
The event is drawing faraway fans such as Ed Walker, who became intrigued by the sport two years ago and came from Connecticut this week to watch the interplay between handler, dog and sheep.
“I think it’s fascinating,” he said.
Joe Joyner, who lives near New Orleans and speaks lovingly of the rescued border collie that lived the rest of its life with him, was visiting the area with fellow Louisiana resident Gene Baker, and they had to stop by to check out the breed of dogs in action.
“How can you not like them?” Joyner said.
Said last year’s champion handler, Shannahan, “They’re pretty bright, and also they want to please, understand and do the job right — most of them.”
He’s not sure if his championship dog, Riggs, knows what he achieved last year.
“But I think he knows he did very well,” Shannahan said.