South Farm Hosting the Buckeye Sheep Dog Trial in October
September 21, 2023 by Ann Wishart

Historically, South Farm in Middlefield Township has focused on horses.

Historically, South Farm in Middlefield Township has focused on horses.

Over the decades, it has been Northeast Ohio’s premier venue for recognized horse trials, fox hunts, clinics and horse shows — events many area horse owners have missed.

This year, South Farm owners Sarah and Chris Greer are starting a new chapter as the site of the Buckeye Classic Sheep Dog Trial Oct. 20-22, a new event sanctioned by the U.S. Border Collie Association.

Esther Gates, of Chagrin Falls, is working with the Greers, Michael McNutt, of Zanesville, and Katie Carothers, of Mount Vernon, to organize the trials, which will be open to the public.

The three handlers recently gathered with some of their border collies and a few sheep in a 40-acre hayfield at South Farm on Bundysburg Road to scope out the venue.

“It’s always nice to come to a new field,” Gates said, adding she has been friends with the Greers for a long time and is grateful they are willing to have the trials on their farm.

The rolling green acres and soft blue sky could have been transplanted from the borderlands of England and Scotland where border collies were first bred and trained to herd the flocks.

Gates said she started training and competing border collies six years ago and has five of varying ages. The two she brought to South Farm that September morning, Ella and Bree, were bred by McNutt, who has a breeding and training operation in Southern Ohio.

Border collies are known for their intelligence and inborn skill at herding, but it takes consistent training to actually move a herd of sheep from one pen to another under handler direction.

A border collie’s reward for performing well is to be allowed to “walk up on sheep,” Gates said. They may be working dogs, but they apparently don’t think of herding as a job.

“I think their work ethic is what allows us to train them for what they do,” she said. “They’re biddable. They like to listen to you.”

McNutt and Gates opened the stock trailer and six ewes hopped out into the hay. The border collies immediately homed in on the small flock but, without direction, they did not move toward the woolies.

Gates said there are only a few words the handler uses to direct the dogs: Walk up, come by, away, lie down and that’ll do (meaning we’re done). With those phrases and border collie skill, the team of human and dogs control the herd.

Carothers arrived at South Farm with two red border collies and Storm, called a lilac collie because of the uncommon color of her coat.

Carothers and her husband, Brad, have a herd of about 250 hair sheep called Katahdins at New Slate Land Management LLC, Gates said.

They will be providing the flock needed for the three days of sheep dog trials, she said.

“Finding a flock that big is not easy,” she said.

Carothers said as their herd grew, handling the sheep became difficult.

“We got the dogs because of the sheep,” she said.

That was the same reason McNutt got into the business about 12 years ago, he said. Getting his flock rounded up became a chore, so he found someone with a sheep dog.

“I had to have a friend put my sheep in the barn for me,” McNutt recalled.

That’s when he decided to invest in some four-footed help.

“I knew it would take a lot of work, but it became my new passion,” he said.

McNutt put his female, Win, the mother of one of Gates’s dogs, to work, herding and holding the sheep on command back and forth across the field. His other three border collies avidly watched the display from where they were tethered, waiting their turns.

When Win was done, they returned to the trailer to let the sheep catch their breath.

The other border collies, black and white, red and lilac, kept their eyes glued to the milling herd, work ethic — or maybe the drive to join the game — clear from tips of ears to tips of tails.

McNutt stood admiring his dogs, but not just for their sleek coats and bright eyes.

“The most beautiful dog is whoever handles the sheep the best,” he said.