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April 18, 2011

Taking stock in dogs

WEATHERFORD — We are waiting alongside the road in Silverado On The Brazos, a Weatherford horse community, while Dallas, a beautiful 6-year-old border collie, attempts to round up half a dozen Holstein heifers, hidden behind a clump of trees.

A few minutes ago, at the command, “get around,” the eager animal bounded into the brush as his offspring, 2-year-old Grace, and mate, 9-year-old Lillie, remained obediently but anxiously perched in the back of a small red cart.

Lillie is literally trembling with anticipation. Owner Sheri Forrest-Matthews has her fingers tucked securely into the newly trained Grace’s collar.

“For these dogs the reward is getting to work,” Forrest-Matthews explains. “Telling them to stop is a punishment.”

Dallas at last emerges, racing back and forth behind the heifers, which are bunched and moving at a respectable trot. As he drives them to the fenceline, he is relieved by Forrest-Matthews, who sends the slender glossy-coated Lillie out to demonstrate a far more subtle form of mastery.

Siren-like, Lillie slinks to the ground and creeps forward with such intensity that most of the heifers give up quickly. One or two turn to face her, but their aggressive postures soon wilt, and they turn tail, fleeing Lillie’s evil eye and commanding aura.

It is a skilled performance, a blend of finesse and grit that Forrest-Matthews never tires of watching. For her, it now requires one more element: a well-trained horse, which can carry a dog’s handler out into the field to share the experience.

If you factor in a good cutting horse, Forrest-Matthews believes, the event is much more fun. That’s why she and her husband Jeffrey, who moved to the Weatherford area less than a year ago because of the cutting industry, want to introduce the Rodear style of stock dog competition at a cow dog clinic and trial at the end of April.

During the event, handlers will work alongside their dogs, instead of standing off to the side, helping them move cattle through obstacle courses from the back of a horse.   

“The best part of this is the feeling when you’ve got your dog out there, and you’re on the same wavelength.” Forrest-Matthews explains. “Our dogs are different to us than our horses. They sleep in our houses.”

The three-day clinic, set for April 29 through May 1 at the Matthews’ Ranch in Silverado, will showcase the Rodear style, a form of stock dog competition pioneered by Merle and Sandi Newton, who are coming from California to help host the event in Parker County.

The Newtons, a husband and wife team, have trained dogs for Forrest-Matthews for the past five years, she said, and they will bring two of their best animals for the demonstration. She said the couple has had many years of experience getting the best out of stock dogs.

Rodear has been popular in the western states of Oregon and California for some time, but it is new to Texas and Oklahoma, said Forrest-Matthews, who hails from Northern California.

Spectators are encouraged to come watch the dogs learn the basics, she said. The event is free and entertaining.

In one arena, puppies age 4 months to 1 year of age will learn to work sheep with their handler on foot. In a larger arena, as well as in an adjoining pasture, a field of 15 intermediate-level dogs will team with a mounted handler to move dog-broke yearling cattle through an obstacle course.

Most of the canine contestants will be border collies, a breed known for working sheep, but two Australian shepherds and a mixed breed are also in the running.

“About 85 percent of our dogs are border collies,” Forrest-Matthews said, “The breed has evolved and stemmed off, and we are breeding tougher ones with a lot of bite.”

“We want a really tough dog with finesse, a lot of look,” she said, “instead of just blowing in there.”

Forrest-Matthews believes that the Rodear style will be attractive to cutters and ranchers because they will enjoy working stock with their good dogs.

Most horse people have dogs, she said, they just don’t know how to team the two animals.

“‘My dog won’t follow me when I’m on a horse,’” they tell her, “and I tell them that’s why they need to come. It does take some work.”

A former writer for Performance Horse Magazine, the Quarter Horse News and The Reiner, Forrest-Matthews came to Weatherford a little more than a year ago. She and her husband, a successful cutting horse trainer for almost 20 years, married in their ranch home at Silverado On The Brazos last June.

In December, one of the couple’s horses, One Time Royalty, won the open futurity in Fort Worth. As of Friday morning the horse had advanced to the semi-finals in the Super Stakes, the second leg in the NCHA’s Triple Crown.

For more information about the Rodear event, visit the website at www.weatherfordrodear.com.

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