Cattle Dog Trials offer glimpse into Steamboat’s history and culture this weekend

Zoe the dog, handled by Jan Wagner of Nunn, Colorado, herds a cow in the 2019 Routt County Cattlemen’s Classic Stockdog Trial. Dogs and handlers from across the nation will return to Brent Romick Arena at Howelsen Hill this weekend to compete.
Eleanor C. Hasenbeck/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

The work of cattle dogs is mysterious to most people. This weekend, the Routt County Cattlemen’s Classic Cattle Dog Trials at Brent Romick Arena in Steamboat Springs will enlighten those who have no idea what a cattle dog is or what they do.

The third edition of the trials will take place this weekend and feature teams of dogs and handlers showing off their cattle-managing skills. Spectators can witness the impressive abilities of the animals for free all day Saturday and Sunday, although donations are appreciated. There will also be a demonstration on how to start your dog on livestock at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“Our town has a long legacy, a cultural history of a connection to agriculture,” said event co-chair Jeff Meyers. “People tell me all the time, ‘The one thing about Steamboat that I like, the thing that makes it the destination that it is, is it’s a real town.’ It’s not just a ski resort; it’s not just a summer resort. It’s a real town with real people that live there and agriculture. This event helps to connect that agricultural community with visitors and locals who don’t get to go to a ranch very often. … It’s a chance for the community to have some visibility into the things we do every day at the ranch. It’s kind of an important tie to Steamboat’s history and culture.”

Meyers and his wife, Erika Murphy, put on the trials with the help of sponsors and some dedicated volunteers. The event will attract handlers and dogs that work on ranches, as well as a few competitors that just use their skills in shows. Most will be from out of town or out of state, with Meyers being the only local competitor. Most dogs will be border collies, but there is one Australian Kelpie in the lineup.

Meyers, who is a member of the National Cattledog Association and the Mountain States Stockdog Association, will compete in the open class, or most competitive, with his 9-year-old border collie Luke. Luke has a long history of cattle dog champions in his pedigree, or family. He’s fast and agile and “has a lot of heart,” according to Meyers.

“When we first started trialing, he was not even 2 years old,” Meyers said. “There weren’t nearly as many trials, and the trials weren’t nearly as big. Now, this sport has grown, and gosh, just in the mountain states calendar, there are dog trials every weekend somewhere.”

This weekend, handlers and dogs will have to complete tasks and are not only battling a clock but will earn points based on how well they negotiate the obstacles.

If you go

What: Routt County Cattlemen’s Classic Cattle Dog Trials

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Brent Romick Arena at Howelsen Hill Rodeo Grounds

Cost: Free; donations appreciated

The dog and handler begin on one end of the arena, and the cattle are released on the other end. The dog will then guide the cattle toward its handler, while passing between two panels. Next, they’ll loop around the handler and enter a chute arrangement with various entrances and exits. The handler must stay outside the obstacle, but the dog can enter to guide the cattle through. Next, the dog will put the heifers in a pen, sorting some in one direction and the others in a different direction. Finally, they’ll guide the heifers out of the arena, stopping the clock.

“It shows a lot of people that a lot of ranchers still move cattle around with dogs without a lot of screaming and hollering,” said Justin Warren, president of the Routt County Cattlemen’s Association. “Everything is about low stress handling, which is how we want to handle cattle.”

Jeff Meyers of Coyote Creek Ranch helps put on the Routt County Cattlemen's Classic Cattle Dog Trials with his wife, Erika Murphy. He'll also compete in this weekend's event with his border collie, Luke.
Frances Hohl/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

There are different classes teams can compete in. Meyers will also participate in the nursery class for dogs younger than 2 with Luke’s son Tate. The dogs in the nursery class are younger and less experienced, but the handlers are typically some of the best. Meyers thinks Tate will be among the top competitors in the class even though it’ll be the pup’s second trial.

“He’s just a real, real good ranch dog. He gets his work done, gives his best every time,” Meyers said. “(He and Luke) are different in personality. It’s kind of interesting how different sometimes they are, but their work style is similar, and they both get their work done with a lot of speed and a lot of agility.”

Meyers and Murphy host some cattle dog clinics at their ranch south of Hayden. Meyers loves cattle dogs and says working with his dogs is the best part of his day.

“They are working partners and friends,” Meyers said. “They are 60% hired man and 40% best friend. It’s really been one of the great blessings of my life to be able to work with those dogs every day.”

Bandit eyes cattle during the 2013 National Cattledog Association’s National Finals at Flying Diamond Ranch.
Matt StenslandSteamboat Pilot & Today archive

The proceeds from the cattle dog trials, collected through donations, sponsorships and entry fees, will benefit Routt County 4-H and local Future Farmers of America programs, particularly the livestock judging team.

“We helped sponsor the livestock judging team when they went to state and helped them go to the national contest,” Warren said. “We just want to be sure, if it’s helping them to promote the livestock industry, we want to do whatever we can to help them.”

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