Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Competition 2024 preview | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Competition 2024 preview 

A family atmosphere follows the event to a new date on the calendar

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A handler and his dog competing in the Soldier Hollow Classic - CAROL CLAWSON
  • Carol Clawson
  • A handler and his dog competing in the Soldier Hollow Classic

Over the course of its 20-year existence, the Soldier Hollow Classic sheepdog competition has experienced some changes, and a couple of pauses. But as it returns to Midway in 2024 on a new weekend, the event remains the same in some key ways: the nature of the competition itself, and the community that has emerged around it.

In 2023, as the venue at Soldier Hollow underwent renovations, the organizers of the Soldier Hollow Classic—showcasing the art of working with dogs for gathering sheep—took the year off from its traditional Labor Day weekend timeframe. That hiatus provided an ideal opportunity to move the event to Memorial Day weekend, a shift that had long been under consideration.

"It was so hot, in the high 90s and into the 100s, in 2022, the last time we held it [on Labor Day Weekend]," says Judy Klautt, Event Coordinator for the Soldier Hollow Classic. "It impacts animal behavior, human behavior. [Spectators] don't stay as long."

Competition Coordinator Carol Clawson—who is herself a dog handler—adds, "The prior years, I ran my dog in 100 degrees. And I was nervous about it. Every day, all you heard on the radio was this 'heat dome.' ... And this venue is incredibly beautiful in the spring."

Not surprisingly, it required a little bit of research to make sure the move would be logistically possible. There was the matter of making sure the venue was available (it was, after a previously-planned event was willing to move), the sheep were available ("It's really hard to do a sheepdog trial without the sheep," Clawson says with a laugh), and that the competitors were available. And it required checking in with all of the regular vendors, many of whom had been with the event since its inception. Klautt recalls that one such vendor—the Greek restaurant 8th Street Catering—was devastated upon realizing that a scheduling conflict would not permit them to participate this year.

"He literally cried when he realized he couldn't come," Klautt says. "The loyalty of the folks who have given their time and their expertise and their passion to return year after year, is really incredible. It's a family. This event is a family."

It's easy to understand how those kind of connections develop when people have been working together for so long. Both Klautt and Clawson have been working with the Soldier Hollow Classic, in various capacities, since day one; now, they jointly manage the LLC that has taken over operations of the event. Clawson in particular discovered a new passion when she became a hander herself—despite having been an owner of the sheepherding-specialist border collies all her life.

"They were just pets," Clawson recalls. "Then during the Olympics, at the ski jump, they had an agility demonstration on the snow. The last border collie I got was, quote 'my son's dog,' but you know how that goes. Soon after that, I started agility with [champion handler] Shauna Gourley. They had a little 3-acre field they worked in, and she said, 'Come out and see what we do.' I just looked at her and thought, 'If I can have a dog that can do this, I can die happy.'"

Over time, and after working with her own dogs, Clawson grew in her appreciation for the skills required to handle a champion dog. "A great dog is probably born, but you have to have the right combination, the right team," she says. "And as with any sport, you realize the top ones have the mental game down. Sheep change, weather changes, time of day changes—there are so many variables you work through. Those with the mental game know, if you miss an obstacle, you just move on to what's next. You have to be able to let it go."

Despite the intricacies of the sport, both Klautt and Clawson believe that the event is one that lends itself well to spectators who might never have watched a sheepdog trial before. The festival atmosphere provides plenty of family-friendly activities. The venue itself is ideal for spectators, Clawson notes, in the amphitheater-like views afforded by the hill surrounding the field; the Soldier Hollow renovations have also created additional viewing areas. And the event's announcer "really helps you understand what the elements are, and what they're being judged on," Clawson says."

Those who are new might just find they appreciate all the connections—between the people running the event, and between the handlers and their animals. "One thing that really stands out about this sport, at least for me, is the magic," Clawson says. "Every time I send a dog, whether 400 yards (like Soldier Hollow) or sometimes almost twice that distance — they know the job. They know that if you ask them to go, there are sheep they need to find and bring back to you. ... And then, they let you guide them as well—the handler (or shepherd) can communicate with these dogs at great distances and be [in] a partnership. There is something magical that happens there with these incredibly intelligent dogs."

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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