Carbondale’s Strang Ranch hosts National Sheepdog Finals this week
Special to The Aspen Times
If you go
What: 2014 Sheepdog Finals Strang Ranch
When: Tuesday through Sunday
Where: Strang Ranch, Carbondale
Misc.: Tickets, $10 adults, $5 kids 8-16 and seniors; six-day pass, $40 adults, $20 kids and seniors. Lawnchair and grandstand seating available. Bring sunscreen and water, but leave your dogs at home.
North America’s top handlers and their canny sheepdogs will square off against wily, wild Colorado range sheep today through Sunday at Strang Ranch in Carbondale for the National Sheepdog championship title.
The national finals are a partnership between the U.S. Border Collie Handlers’ Association, Aspen Valley Land Trust and Strang Ranch. It showcases not only a premier herding competition but the Strang family’s commitment to land conservation and support of the Aspen Valley Land Trust.
“It’s about our Western heritage; that’s what’s important to me,” said event organizer Bridget Strang.
For Alasdair MacRae, the winner in 2011 — the last year the finals were held at Strang Ranch — the finals are a challenging test of “the dogs’ patience, perseverance, stamina and skill. It’s a very exciting spectacle.”
For this year’s finals, the sheep are fresh off the range and much more difficult to handle — and herd — than ranch sheep.
“They have a lot of attitude and will test a dog and come after them,” MacRae said. “Some dogs are up to the test, and some are not.”
The competition takes place over six days. In the final event, the “double lift,” the dogs herd a group of sheep to a central place in the field and then head out for a second group, all at breakneck speed. They’re moved through a series of gates into a marked area called the “shed.” The dogs sort out five sheep with red collars. Dog and handler carefully attempt to pen the sheep without spooking them.
The real magic of the sport lies in the connection between handler and dog. Sheep, MacRae said, are the dogs’ natural prey. All of their instincts push them forward into the herd. Instead they work around and behind until they have the sheep under their control. It is their uncanny ability to work the sheep with a delicate touch that moves them forward or sideways without scattering the group, until in the end the handler has them firmly within the pen and softly closes the gate. That ability comes with training, instinct and a certain amount of magic.
MacRae, who trains border collies and instructs handlers, said that when training and the dog’s natural intelligence click, it’s still a special moment for him.
“When that happens, it about takes my breath away. It’s never ceased to amaze me,” he said.
The six-day competition and festival features food and craft vendors and cooking demonstrations. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for kids between 8 and 16 and seniors. Six-day passes are $40 for adults and $20 for kids and seniors.
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