Meeker Classic puts handlers, sheepherding dogs to the test
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
There is a well-kept secret. In early September, as summer slowly slips into the rearview mirror, people flock to Meeker to watch … well, sheep. And the elite dogs and handlers capable of maneuvering them through a complex course. Precise practical skills and quick reactions are vital to avoid chaos in the open expanse of White River Valley.
For those familiar with the 1995 film “Babe,” there will be no pig. No magical phrase of “Baa, ram, ewe.” No polite woolies stepping in unison through the prescribed course. Instead, you can expect the unpredictability of prey facing — and trying to escape — potential predators.
Continuing through Sunday at Ute Park, the Meeker Classic is one of the most prestigious sheepherding competitions in the U.S. Those who step onto the field with their dogs know they must outperform tremendous talent and have a bit of luck to place in the top 20 and earn prize money. Investing years, sometimes a lifetime, these individuals understand and train dogs as well as anyone.
Some of these professionals also train people, helping them channel the intelligence and energy of a working breed toward positive, rather than destructive, behavior.
Anyone familiar with the herding world knows the name Faansie Basson, who won the championship title at the 2022 Meeker Classic with his dog Jack. Currently living in Hico, Texas, with his wife Elmarie, Basson makes his living training students — both dogs and humans — when he isn’t competing.
Starting his herding career in South Africa, Basson has worked dogs on large sheep operations for the practical purpose of earning a living. Experience was his teacher as he keenly observed others to learn without formal instruction. Now others keenly watch him for guidance and seek him out at his coveted sheepherding clinics.
At the clinic
Last April, Terri Nicolau and her husband Brien hosted their first sheepherding clinic at Kyon Ranch in Peyton, nearly 300 miles southeast of Meeker, and they chose Basson.
“He is an extremely talented stockman,” Terri explained. “He communicates very well and explains his methods very clearly.”
Perhaps part of Basson’s appeal stems from his modesty and subtle humor that belie his celebrity status in the herding world.
“You can argue with me,” he told clinic attendees. “I like arguments, as long as you understand in clinics I am always right.”
Nancy Penley, an advanced handler, brought her dog Wallace from Loveland. Marrying into a ranching family that owns border collies, she has attended several of Basson’s clinics.
“I love working with him,” she said. “His structured clinics are the way I learn.”
Traveling from as far away as Steamboat Springs and Santa Fe, New Mexico, 18 women were there to learn. Many had taken the day off from their paying jobs — bookkeepers, a wildlife biologist, an archaeologist. Others are retired, but all share one commonality: their working dogs.
Left alone, herding breeds can wreak havoc. Intentionally bred for their domesticated hunting instinct, these dogs require a physical and mental outlet; otherwise, they become problems: digging, barking, chasing. They need work, and herding livestock is a natural fit.
But you need someone who understands their language. Otherwise, disaster can strike.
“All sheep dogs can kill a sheep,” Basson told them.
The dogs’ predator drive is what allows them to move livestock and become invaluable workers on ranches. It is also what can allow them to run a sheep into a barbed wire fence or chase cars if not properly channeled.
Kaileigh Medalin, one attendee relatively new to herding, drove her border collie Ryker two hours from Superior for the clinic. Her first rescue dog chased horses and livestock and was not a good fit for herding, but Kaileigh said she “got the bug and the rest is history.”
The first day
On the first day of the clinic, several dogs arrowed too close to the sheep, blasting them apart in dusty havoc. Basson shadowed each student. He asked questions and corrected missteps, occasionally taking off his cap and smacking it against his knee or asking students to loudly thwack a wand of duct-taped newspaper against their legs to get a dog’s attention. Timing was everything.
“All dogs understand movement,” Basson explained.
With younger dogs and less experienced handlers, he works in an enclosed arena, sprinting between dog and sheep and handler to create a fluid triangle. His motion and body placement affect both dog and sheep, creating a seemingly spontaneous dance that is actually choreographed by extensive experience and deeply rooted instinct.
Not wanting to use fear or domination, Basson gave each dog a chance to do right as he believes dogs are honest; they disobey when they don’t understand a person’s intentions.
“If your dog knows what you want,” Basson said, “I think they will do it for you.” And the responsibility for clarity falls on the human.
Basson demonstrated the dynamic relationship between sheep and dog. A handler must know when to apply and release pressure through body movement. Voice commands and whistles are part of the training, but simply shouting “Come by” to move the dog clockwise around the sheep or “Away to me” to ask for a counterclockwise arc around livestock is insufficient.
If the dog merely reacts to the words, without thinking or understanding its job, then the dog becomes “mechanical” and moving left or right or forward is irrelevant. A wreck becomes inevitable. And the human, not the dog, has failed.
“The most important thing a dog should do is take care of the sheep,” Basson explained. “The handler should learn how to take care of the dog’s mind.”
This symbiotic relationship depends upon three factors. The most important one is balance. A complex concept, balance requires the dog’s instinct to cover sheep and bring them to the handler at a good pace. The dog must also have an efficient stop command to control the dog’s position (not the chaos) and a reliable recall, which Basson feels is “the most underrated command.”
The second day of the clinic brought marked improvement. Basson eagerly praised students, bestowing the title of “most improved” on one person after another. As Basson reminded the group several times, “It’s always from the small things that the big changes come.” And the changes were evident.
Lest anyone become frustrated, Basson reminded his students that the learning never ends — for humans or dogs. Mistakes happen, even for experienced handlers. And that is where the growth occurs. He referenced Tiger Woods as he discouraged negative self-talk.
“Don’t lower the bar or your expectations,” Basson said, “but don’t be too hard on yourself.”
Katy Fitzgerald used her dog Capone to set out sheep in a large field for the more advanced handlers. Her first border collie was intended as a trail and riding buddy, but she quickly realized his herding behavior could not be ignored. He became “the gateway dog.”
Beware: Herding can be addictive. It allows humans to connect with the natural world. It offers a reprieve from the electronic buzz filling our lives. While some approach it as a weekend hobby, a chance to get outdoors and into open space with their four-legged friend, many become hooked. They end up seeking land and sheep and the people who share their passion. They practice and eventually want to assess their progress against the measuring tape of a clinic or the yardstick of competition.
Diane Prather drove from Tularosa, New Mexico, with her border collie Jacson. Starting to herd with Australian cattle dogs, she found it challenging and “character building.” She then acquired a border collie who “hated agility but came to life with herding.” And now she is hooked. Today, she competes and says, “I love the analytic and competitive nature of herding.”
Some eventually compete against experts like Basson, bringing the cycle of student and teacher full circle.
The Meeker Classic
This year Basson is not in the running order at Meeker. Instead, he and his dog Finn, who earned third place overall at Meeker last year, are in Ireland, representing the United States at the World Sheepdog Trials. This event is to herding what the World Cup is to soccer.
But some of Basson’s students from the April clinic are there, and perhaps they will smile as they recall Basson’s humor about wanting them to remain a bit confused so they will return to future clinics with him.
Perhaps they will achieve a personal best score by recalling his insights about reading and reacting to their dog and the sheep.
Whatever the outcome, Basson would emphasize the gift of clearly communicating with dogs to improve the partnership with every experience.
Because as sheepherders say to call a dog off of livestock for a job (hopefully) well done, that’ll do.
The Meeker Classic began Wednesday and continues through Sunday. For a full schedule of events or to watch the action live, go to MeekerSheepdog.com/.
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