Up The Road: Go West, Young Pup: Red Bluff Bull & Gelding Sale

Jan 25, 2017

This week we're heading Up the Road to the Red Bluff Bull & Gelding Sale, "where the best in the west meet and compete." It started out as the Red Bluff Bull Sale but these days could be called the Red Bluff Bull, Heifer, Feeder, Gelding & Stock Dog Sale, with Trade & Art Show Plus Bull Riding. Yep, that's quite a mouthful-even before downing a few beers at the Buyer & Consignor Dinner out at the fairgrounds-and not all that poetic either. So most people, still, simply say "bull sale."

Why is a bull sale such a big deal? If you're new to these parts and think of the world in urban terms, keep in mind that farming and ranching were here before any city. Long before the rise of farmers' markets and the call to "buy local" reminded even Northern Californians that area agriculture matters, farming and ranching were deeply rooted. 

And like ranchers everywhere, cattlewomen and men here wanted to continue improving their herds. Refining herd genetics was quite the challenge, however, given the north state's geographic isolation. The quickest way to upgrade a herd is turn a good bull out with your cows so next spring, voila! Better calves, including heifers. But who had time to drive or fly all over the West to go bull shopping? Thus the Red Bluff Bull Sale was born-a reason for top breeders to bring bulls here, for highly competitive sales. That cattle ranching win-win eventually became a win-win-win, when well-started cowhorse geldings (neutered stallions) were added to the sale catalog, then a win-win-win-win with the addition of stock dogs capable of managing cattle.

About those stock dogs: I confess to being able to watch a Border Collie work a crowd-be it sheep, goats, cattle, horses, or even geese-for hours on end. There's something about the honesty of it all that's 100 times more compelling than any virtual reality. The herd critters are determined to go their own way, thank you very much, and to stick together, because experience tells them that there's safety in numbers. That fairly small, woefully outnumbered, and fiercely focused dog is so much more determined that, no, you'll all do it my way. If you watch long enough, quietly enough, you'll be inside the dog's head, thinking it all through with them, spotting problems and solving them, then anticipating the next challenge and heading it off. What could be cooler than that?

Watching Border Collies work cattle-not all cattle dogs are collies, but that's mostly what you'll see in Red Bluff-is stock-dog coolness on steroids, given that cattle are big and tough-skinned and have a tendency to go wherever they please, including right through a barbed-wire fence if it's in the way. Really, where does a 50- or 60-pound blur of fur even get the idea that she's going to change the mind (and direction) of a 1,500-pound bull with nothing but a big, toothy snarl and a nip on the nose? From the distant species memory of being a wolf, of course, but without the throat-tearing follow-through. Somewhere deep in their bones, cattle and other herd animals remember wolves too, and they respond accordingly when being stalked by stock dogs.

It's a real thrill to watch working stock dogs, whether single dogs or teams, allowed to do the problem solving on their own. How useful for ranchers, being able to send dogs after the cattle, even miles away, knowing they'll round up every cow and calf-no matter how well they're hiding-and bring them all safely home. And yes, those dogs are expected to open and close all gates along the way. Basic ranch manners, and dogs don't get a pass.

The working stock dogs you'll see at the Red Bluff Bull & Gelding Sales are judged in part on obedience, or how well they obey their handler's commands, so dogs won't be working on their own. Stock dogs are part of a team, so responding well to whistles, voice commands, and other communication counts. Dogs are also judged on their ability to stop a moving herd, and to control cattle while moving around and through various obstacles-the test that separates top dogs from the rest. By the time you get to the event's championship round, by the way, it gets quite crowded around the rails of the outdoor course, so be sure to get there early if you want a good vantage point.

In addition to the stock dog trials and sale, according to the bull sale's Adam Owens, another big attraction for the general public is the western trade show that runs throughout the event. Just wandering through you'll appreciate various essentials of modern ranch life, such as solar-powered ranch gates-my favorite-but there's so much more offered by vendors here, especially for folks who just like the lifestyle-western-style riding, furnishings and homewares, western art, cowboy hats, boots. Like the stock dog trials and almost all other events here, the trade show is free-like the art show and wine and cheese tasting-so just show up at the fairgrounds.

If you're a fan of equine talents or in the market for a good all-around ranch horse, you'll want to watch the working geldings too. There's a beauty pageant at the beginning, where the fellows are shown in halter, but the real fun begins with the cutting horse, stock horse, and other competitions.

The Red Bluff Bull & Gelding Sale is a five-day event. It started Tuesday this week and runs through Saturday, culminating in a bull-riding competition with cowboys from all over California, Oregon, and Nevada. By now you've missed the very first stock-dog round, but the second round is Thursday night at 7 pm, and the championship round is Friday at 1 pm. A full schedule of bull sale events, including dinners and other social opportunities, go to the website.