It’s athletic, captivating and unpredictable.
That’s what caught Mark Petersen’s attention when he saw his first sheepherding competition in the United Kingdom in the 90s. He was hooked and he knew he needed to bring the competition to the United States, so Petersen found a place not far from where he grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah — Soldier Hollow — and he founded the Vita Bone Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship.
Now in its 14th year, the 2016 Vita Bone Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship is anticipated to draw its largest crowd yet as it returns to Midway for Labor Day weekend. Last year’s crowd brought in 32,000 spectators, and Petersen anticipates an even larger group this year with the increase in online ticket sales.
“The standard of work here is probably higher than any other event all over the world because of the level of competition and because it is an invitational event,” Petersen said.
This year’s competition includes 45 handlers and 64 dogs. Handlers are allowed to qualify up to two dogs for the competition. Handlers and their dogs compete in sheepherding competitions across the world in order to qualify for the Vita Bone Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship. While most of this year’s competitors are from the United States, there are also competitors from Canada, Scotland and South Africa.
“Dogs and handlers are like marriages. The right dog for one person is not always the right dog for another. Personality, it all matters.” —Mark Petersen, founder of Soldier Hollow Classic
All of these handlers have their own language, made up of whistles and different pitches, to instruct the Border Collies herding the sheep up to 400 yards away on when to move the herd clockwise, counter clockwise, move closer, back away or stay. They have 13 minutes to get the sheep in a pen.
“Dogs and handlers are like marriages,” Petersen said. “The right dog for one person is not always the right dog for another. Personality, it all matters.”
In the preliminary round, the dogs only need to herd five sheep. However, in the finals on Monday, the dogs need to herd two groups of eight sheep. The handlers and the dogs work together to complete the task. While the competition is timed, the timing isn’t the only points that factor into the score.
“It’s not about getting it done fast — it is about getting it done well and taking care of your sheep,” Petersen said.
Anyone can understand sheepherding very quickly, according to Petersen. He says the crowd cheers on everyone regardless of which nation they represent because “all dogs bark the same” and the talent is at an extraordinary caliber.
“This is an athletic competition at a very, very high level,” Petersen said. “It doesn’t take being a dog person to recognize how beautiful and well-trained and how really exceptional they are. We just finished watching the Olympics. We watched people because of the level they have obtained, and it’s the same with the dogs. I think that is why I consistently hear people saying, ‘I don’t even have a dog, but I just loved it.’”
Outside of the sheepherding competition, there will also be Wild Wonders animal show, K9 Kings, Earthwings and Splash Dogs. While dogs not competing in the sheepherding competition aren’t allowed at the event, the may attend Splash Dogs.
Tickets to Friday through Sunday cost $13.99 for adults, $12.99 for seniors and $8.99 for kids (6 to 15). Tickets for the championship round on Monday, Sept. 5, cost $16.99 for adults, $14.99 for seniors and $9.99 for kids (6 to 15). Parking costs $5, but the proceeds go toward Soldier Hollow youth programs. The sheepdog competition runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2002 Olympic Drive in Midway, Utah.
Learn more about the Vita Bone Soldier Hollow Classic and see the schedule at soldierhollowclassic.com.