- Vickie Close
For generations, herding sheep has been a practical matter for ranchers around the world—keeping the animals on which your livelihood depends from scattering into the landscape. Events like the Soldier Hollow Classic showcase the overlap between that real-world need and people who simply recognize the beauty in the intricate relationship between a sheepdog and its handler.
Mark Petersen, who founded the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship in 2003, grew up on Salt Lake City's east bench, in a suburban setting far removed from the world of professional ranchers. But on a trip to the U.K. in the 1990s, he attended a major sheepdog championship, and became fascinated with the event and its immense popularity there. "I came back from that trip with a puppy that was well-bred, and a dream of putting on a championship in Utah," Petersen recalls. "I couldn't do it right away, because I didn't have a place to do it."
That place made itself known in the wake of the 2002 Olympic Games, when Petersen saw the possibilities of Soldier Hollow. At the time, he was marketing director for Dan's Foods and felt he had the ability to stage an event that would appeal to locals. "There's always been in me, from the time I was young, a little bit of the 'let's put on a show, sell some tickets and make money,'" Petersen says. "Then, all of a sudden, I had something I believed in, and a vision."
The first event drew 10,000 spectators, according to Petersen, but has continued to evolve. What began simply as a sheepdog competition with food for guests has subsequently come to include splash and agility dog competitions. "I wanted this to be a family event," Petersen says, "and some of the people in the herding community said, 'It'll never be that; kids' attention spans will never hold out.' Now it's all things canine."
The focus remains on the sheepdog competition, however, which draws invited handlers and their dogs from North America, the U.K. and even South Africa and Switzerland. It's a high-caliber event that draws the best of the best, which Petersen is quick to say does not include himself. "Out my front door, I have 30 sheep that I take care of, and three dogs," he says. "People ask, 'Are they in the competition?' They're pretty good dogs, but this is the NBA of the sheepdog world. You and I might be able to shoot a basketball and put it in, but that doesn't mean we belong on the court with the best."
Those "best" include Amanda Milliken, a Kingston, Ontario-based handler who has won the Soldier Hollow Classic's gold medal twice—most recently in 2016—and has been competing for 35 years. Unlike Petersen, Milliken began as someone who kept sheep, and learned about sheepdog handling for practical purposes. "I saw a clinic at a sheep expo in Ontario," Milliken says, "and I went so I could learn how to train these dogs. There's always one star pupil the trainers point out, and my dog was it. I went home for a year, did exactly what [the instructor] said, then I came back to learn the next steps. I entered my first trial, and won it. And there's nothing that keeps you interested like winning."
Over the years, Milliken has trained many border collies, all descended from the first one she acquired in the 1980s. That process of working with multiple dogs has brought into focus how these competitions are not just about the dog, or just about the handler, but about the complex relationship between them. "People think you can go out and buy a dog [with a winning pedigree] and be an instant winner," Milliken says. "It's way more complicated. When you develop the elaborate relationship that winning dogs and handlers have, that's when you go out and start winning all the time."
"If you ask any good handler," Petersen adds, "they watch these dogs responding from 400 yards away. They'll say, 'I expect the dog to disobey me if I'm wrong.' That's a true competition of trust, when you want the dog to override you to do the right thing."
For people like Petersen and the thousands of spectators who come to Soldier Hollow annually, seeing the way that trust plays out on the Heber Valley hillsides becomes something like watching a unique kind of ballet. "Once you understand the refinements, it becomes increasingly compelling," Milliken says. "A step to the left, a step to the right. It's an elaborate taming of instincts to work for you. You live vicariously on the wild side, but it becomes an increasing thing of beauty."