Border collie Dot, handled by Larry Burch, of Butler, Mo., stares down the sheep of the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials.

Photo by Andy Bockelman

Border collie Dot, handled by Larry Burch, of Butler, Mo., stares down the sheep of the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials.

Meeker Classic a learning experience for all

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Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials

Saturday and Sunday

South of Meeker, Colorado Highway 13

— The 27th annual Meeker Classic features dog handlers from around the world competing for a combined purse of $20,000. The event also features numerous food and crafts vendors, as well as art and educational information about border collies. For more information, visit meekersheepdog.com.

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Students from the second-grade classes of East Elementary take turns petting Brew, the border collie puppy of Ron Ewers, of San Diego.

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Sandra Besseghini speaks to students from East Elementary about proper dog care during the Meeker Classic.

A dog runs out into a field, takes charge of a small gathering of sheep and does its best to bring them into a pen, as its master and other people watch and cheer.

For the animals, the exercise is just a matter of following their instincts. For the dog’s owner, it’s a chance to show how well they’ve trained their canine companion and possibly take home a considerable prize.

For the youngest spectators, it’s a learning opportunity they’ll remember for years to come.

The 27th Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials means a lot of things to a lot of different people, whether you’re one of the handlers competing for the combined $20,000 purse or just someone sitting on the sidelines.

In both instances, this year’s event is seeing an abundance of involvement. Applications for competitors exceeded 260, organizer Sandra Besseghini said.

“That’s way more than we’ve ever seen, I think it’s just very prestigious this year,” she said.

Additionally, the turnout for Saturday and Sunday’s portions of the event are expected to have at least 5,000 people in the stands.

The lineup for Wednesday through Friday included the first round of competition, as more than 120 handlers and their border collies took to the ring. Within the course of 13 minutes, the dogs must retrieve a selection of sheep, circle them around the field and corral them, all the while following commands from their human coworker.

The sheep used in the Classic are an especially challenging breed used to the toughness of the mountains and not easily intimidated by the dogs.

Handlers from all over the country were in attendance, as well as from abroad. Last year’s winner, Faansie Basson, of Swellendam, South Africa, and his dog, Jill, did their run Thursday morning.

“These sheep are really tough on the dogs,” he said. “There’s a little bit of the luck of the draw if you get a good bunch on the first round, but the second round the sheep are bitter because they’ve been worked.”

Basson and Jill received a 70 out of a possible 100 in their preliminary round, which he hopes may be enough to put him in the top 30 competing Saturday. Even if he doesn’t make it to that point, being part of the excitement of the event, which he has attended for several years, is enough for him.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends here, and it’s always nice to come back and meet up with them,” he said.

Besides providing a get-together for dog lovers near and far, another feature of the Meeker Classic is a field trip for the children of Craig. Second-graders from Sunset, Ridgeview, Sandrock, East, as well as the students of Calvary Baptist School learned about the care of border collies from the people who know the breed the best.

Besseghini, the event’s publicity and educational outreach coordinator, spoke to kids about proper dog care using her own border collie, Mik, as an example. Among her talking points was that a border collie can do the work of five humans when properly trained in herding.

Handlers Ron and Jennifer Ewers, of San Diego, also spoke to Craig students, with a pair of pups in training close at hand.

“I think it’s a great experience for them,” Ron said. “Some of them will probably never get a chance to see it again. It exposes them to farm life, everything here is all related to that.”

Elementary teachers have used the Meeker Classic and herding heavily in their curriculum at the beginning of the school year. East Elementary second-grade teacher Brittney Linsacum said the topic is applicable across many subjects.

“You can use it for math with the points they use, the vocabulary with the handlers, a lot of stuff,” Linsacum said. “The cool thing about it is sheep are a big part of the community, so it’s amazing for kids to come down and be a part of it.”

Fellow East teacher Jennifer Willems said she used the many rules of the competition to show her students how there are important rules for all members of society to follow, one of which clearly sunk in as they watched the proceedings.

“They’re never this quiet,” Willems laughed.

Ask any student what their favorite part of the day was and the answer was almost universal: watching the dogs in action.

“I like how the dogs act like wolves when they chase the sheep,” 7-year-old Ruby Short said. “I love dogs’ fur. It’s so soft.”

Short also noticed how well competing border collies paid attention to handlers’ whistles.

“My dogs don’t listen to me when I whistle, they only listen to the Frisbee,” she said.

Jason Gates, 7, said he has worked a lot with dogs, though not border collies.

“I train German shepherds with my dad,” he said. “I think I like them more, because they listen better.”

It wasn’t only schoolchildren learning at the event.

Though not fluent in English, Brazilian competitor Marcello Chrysostomo took the Meeker Classic as an educational experience. Speaking with the help of a translator, he said this is his first time competing in Meeker, as well as his first time in the United States.

“I want to learn all the different styles people do in their herding,” he said. “We have our styles in Brazil, but across the map, everybody has different tricks.”

While some have been part of the Meeker Classic for only a few days, Besseghini has been involved with it for many years, and this will be the last for her. Carly Thomson will take on Besseghini’s job within the next month, diving right into preparation for 2014.

“It’s an amazing event, especially for a town as small as ours on an international scale,” Thomson said.

Though she has been a major part of the Classic for the better part of two decades, Besseghini said she felt the time was right to let someone else take the leash.

“I think 17 years is enough for me,” she said. “I love the sport and the dogs, and I’ve loved working with the school kids. I think it’s important that we’ve created something where people can have a lot of fun but have an educational experience, too.”

Andy Bockelman can be reached at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@craigdailypress.com.

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