Steamboat Springs Marianne Sasak’s soft but firm voice floats on a warm spring breeze across her pasture west of Steamboat Springs.
“That’ll do, Dot.”
With quiet flicks of her hand and a watchful gaze, Sasak works her three border collie dogs around the flock of sheep as if she’s solving a puzzle. The dogs crouch and slink around the field, and the skittish sheep baa and balk, shuffling into the perfect spot.
After 10 years of training sheepdogs, Sasak says the dogs have taught her a few lessons, too.
“They have to learn to take the pressure off things,” she says. “Then the sheep relax. It’s the same with people. You have to know pressure and release.”
Growing up in Southern California, Sasak always wanted to be a cowboy. Now, she’s the driving force behind the Steamboat Stock Dog Challenge, a Labor Day weekend event she started on her ranch eight years ago, which then moved to the Stanko Ranch as it expanded.
Ranch owner Jim Stanko, who has known Sasak for 20 years, says the event showcases Steamboat’s ranching heritage.
“She brought something new to Steamboat that reflects back to our agricultural image,” he says. “And agriculture is part of why people come here.”
The event attracts dog handlers and their animals from across the country and acts as a precursor to the Meeker Classic dog trials a few weeks later.
Sasak says she also is careful to incorporate education into the event: Announcers explain every movement on the field, and it serves as an outreach tool for local youths to learn about local ranching heritage and agriculture.
The Stock Dog Challenge isn’t the only outlet for Sasak’s ambition or business degree from the University of Southern California. In winter, she travels to stock shows with her clothing company, Steamboat Ranchwear.
Stanko’s wife, Jo, says Sasak’s insatiable drive turns whatever she does into a success.
“She’s very committed and lively,” she says. “We’re lucky to have her in the community to carry things forward with such energy.”
For Sasak, the drive for working her dogs is just cultivating the passion already present in them.
“They just live for it,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to take a dog that doesn’t have a job and give it one.”