Cattle dogs fetch high scores at Routt County Cattlemen’s Classic Dog Trial
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Howelsen Rodeo Grounds had its usual crowd of cowboy hats and cattle, but this weekend, the crowd cheered for four-legged wranglers.
Handlers and cattle dogs from across the nation traveled to compete in the Routt County Cattlemen’s Association Classic Dog Trial hosted in Steamboat Springs.
Handlers coached their dogs as the dogs worked to herd three heifers through obstacles made up of metal corral panels. Handlers stood at the east end of the arena, blowing a whistle and shouting voice commands at the herding dogs.
Different whistle patterns directed the dogs to veer left or right. Handlers frequently shouted out a “Lie down!” when the dogs got too close to the heifers.
“We used the dogs on the ranch our whole lives,” said Steve Wight, who took home the top prize — a belt buckle — in the most advanced competition, the open class. “This is basically the same thing we’re using them for on the ranch. Moving cattle around, putting them into pens and sorting them.”
He got into stock dog trials about eight years ago at the encouragement of his wife.
The competition was divided into four classes. If a dog is younger than 2 years old, the dog and its handler are in the nursery class. Based on handler experience, older dogs and their handlers compete in either the novice, intermediate or open class.
“People can come get into it and not be discouraged if they’re first time handlers that have to compete against people that have been doing it a long time,” Wight said.
Those in the stock dog circuit are a close-knit community. Few competitors left the trials Sunday without making sure to shake a friend’s hand or give another competitor a parting hug.
“Even though we’re competitors, we also spend a lot of time together,” said rancher and competitor Jeff Meyers. Handlers are only in the ring one or two six-minute runs, he added. “The rest of the time, you’re just with your friends. They root for each other. They help each other. They support each other.”
Most of the dogs competing were working ranch dogs, Meyers said. Many of the handlers said they think of their dogs as ranch hands.
The difference between working cows in the pasture and working cows in the arena, Meyers said, is precision.
“I always say that trial preparation helps to make a better ranch dog, but ranch work doesn’t necessarily make a better trial dog,” he said.
On the ranch, his dog Luke frequently works independently, herding cows more than a half a mile away. Meyers doesn’t give him as many commands because the distance is too great to make them useful. Luke and his handler rely on the dog’s instinct and ingrained training to bring the cattle in. In the arena, Luke has to obey commands quickly to earn points.
“Trial work is more about precision and that good response, quick response to commands,” he said. “Ranch work is more about being able to cover the country, and he does a lot of that on his own.”
The event was free to spectators, but the cattlemen accepted donations that will be given to 4-H and FFA clubs.
“We were kind of hoping for $250, $300 bucks for the whole weekend,” said Meyers. The Cattlemen received more than $700 on Saturday alone. “We were so pleased with community support and sponsors support. Its just been really really great to have the dog trial back here.”
Part of the reason the Cattlemen wanted to host the free event was to connect visitors and Steamboat locals and to connect them to Yampa Valley agriculture, Meyers said.
“It just gives ‘em a perspective on what ranch dogs do and what ranch people do, and that’s important in our community because ranching is such an important part of the Yampa Valley,” he said.
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