Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Halter Training and Showing

With our local show coming up fast, I wanted to blog about how to show your Shetland sheep in the ring, since I have been told by the MSSBA president that I am not invited to the activities of the event I designed. I know my event was stolen so that a small group of people could use it as an outlet to promote and market their own idea of a more modern, commercial Shetland sheep, and I'm not invited because I keep my 1927 Breed Standard at my side (and they don't), for Wheely Wooly Farm adheres to what the breed has always been, not what we think. Shetland Showcase (stolen and renamed Handy Shepherd) is a whole concept I put together for a variety of reasons, mainly to bring support to our breed organization's member farms and the general public together for fun and support. I have no financial motive for planning and bringing to you this event. You can read all about that on earlier posts on my blog (March, and July, and August of 2010).

One of the ideas I had was short (45 minute long) classes for anyone (members and the general public). I wanted them to be about an assortment of things pertaining to our breed...but that is all on the previous posts as well. Halter training is something that I really wanted to give support on in a class (seminars, I called them), for each year at our local show, it became clear to me that our breed organization was failing to dispense info. to our membership on how to show sheep. There is info. about Shetlands not being a breed that is fitted, but people don't know how to show in the ring. So here it is!

Shetland sheep can be used for meat very nicely, however, they are shown very differently in the showring from commercial meat breeds because Shetlands are one of the world's premier handspinning and historically significant textile breeds. Therefore, the fleece should be left on, and be clean and free of vegetative matter or debris. There should be no clipping or shaping of the fleece of the sort commercial meat breeds have, to emphasize or de-emphasize a conformation characteristic. Fleeces should not be shampoo-ed or blow-dried...even if the sheep in the ring next to you IS.

Anyway, Shetlands can be shown in two acceptable ways...without a halter, or with a halter. The halter should be a rope halter that is flattering to the sheep. Many rope halters are really made out of some type of plastic (but the concept comes from rope), and are readily available at sheep supply places. The halter is traditionally put on with the thicker nose piece down under the chin, but I do the opposite. I have trained many sheep now, and I like the thicker part to the top for a nicer, and fairer response. I like happy sheep. But in the ring, you should put the thick nose band underneath, and if you've worked with your sheep on halter walking skills, it should no longer be a big deal if the thick part is underneath.

What shouldn't be in the ring? Husky harnesses, because they mush the wool and make it hard for a judge to fairly assess your sheep's wool and conformation, and dog collars, because sheep are not goats. Dog collars also crush the wool, and make the judge's job more difficult. Both husky harnesses and dog collars are not effective tools in training sheep, and can actually cause your sheep to be more panicked or afraid. This is frequently evidenced by sheep in the ring with these things on, becoming nearly unmanagable with fear. The pressure points collars and harnesses put on a sheep's body are extremely predator-like, which naturally provokes the fight or flight reaction. Fight or flight reactions take precedence over your soothing voice!! Halters on heads not only give you more physical control of your sheep, but do not provoke the predator/prey reaction, therefore, helping your sheep remain calmer.

If you plan on showing your sheep in Jefferson this year, you should get yourself a halter as fast as you can...get for the sheep you're going to show, and one for a buddy sheep. Then, put your halters on when your sheep are hungry, and walk them about your farm every day for at least 10-15 minutes, until a few days before the show. There is a very critical technique to this to achieve success!!!! I would love to share it with you, and I'm willing to share it with Shetland people because I genuinely want to see people enjoy and succeed with their Shetland sheep, but I'm not invited to my own event! So I am sad that the reality'll have to figure it out on your own. I know many of you have already tried to figure it out on your own and got frustrated. Hang in there! Rumblings are MSSBA has upset a lot of people, and maybe things will turn around. Then I can tell you the techniques you'll need to train your sheep. For you, it'd be nice to learn from a Shetland person who's trained many sheep, and succeeded in the ring.

What should never be seen in the ring? The hanging neck grip used on commercial meat sheep. The hanging sling is to give the judge the ability to evaluate the sheep's carcass, as if it was dead and hanging on the hooks already, except the opposite direction. This is not appropriate for Shetlands. Shetlands should be standing nicely, with their head in a normal, natural, comfortable position, and four feet square. This gives the judge a clear view of your animal, and makes assessment easier. Remember, Shetlands should have "level" toplines according to our breed standard. Hanging your Shetland in the carcass grip collapses the sheep's back and makes it tough for the judge to fairly evaluate your sheep's conformation. You can hang your sheep and poke in certain ways to straighten your sheep's back by force, but again, that's not appropriate for Shetlands. So just avoid that problem all together, and let your sheep stand natural and square, with a halter.

If you choose to not use a halter, be sure to halter train your sheep at home before the show anyway. There are techniques to teaching a sheep to stay with you off halter that are usually taught on that the sheep has clear directions on what to do, and you build a relationship....which removes fear in the sheep. Then, if the sheep picks the wrong choice, you still have control of it and can make appropriate corrections. Your sheep wants to trust you and do what you want...they are very sweet! So be sure to nuture that in them.

The goal is this: that people establish a better working relationship with their flocks by learning how to halter train, and thus tame their sheep. This is a critical skill, for stressed sheep equals injuries (of you, or your sheep, or of your neighbor in the showring), frustration, and possibly medical problems such as bloat.

Here is a critical point. You can tame your rams and halter train them WITHOUT losing their respect of you. ALWAYS handle your rams as rams. Never touch their horns or the tops of their heads...that is sacred ground to them and means life or death...fight or not. Training your rams to walk nicely with you makes them MUCH easier to handle come hoof trimming time, catch time, sickness or injury time, or anything else you need to do to/with them. Teaching your ram to walk with you is NOT ruining him, rather, it is improving your relationship and earning you mutual respect. Critical stuff. Again, there are techniques to this...but I'm not invited!

So short of teaching the class, like I would enjoy doing, this will at least help. Here's the summary:
1. no husky harnesses, dog collars, or carcass hanging grips
2. practice everyday at home so you and sheep learn to trust each other and know what to do
3. if you go halterless, be sure you've practiced!!!!!!!
4. don't come to the ring with an unhandled, untrained sheep fresh off a pasture...
5. don't let anyone convince you that halter training a ram ruins him. Safety is everything with a ram. The more he respects you, the better. If he comes to understand you bring good things to his life, not challenge or threat, you are WAY better off.
6. no fitting, shampooing or blow drying

Remember: if you don't train your sheep ahead of time, you could become the dreaded neighbor in the show ring (sheep leaping over and over or crashing into everyone else, or worse yet, getting loose), or get hurt, or at the very least, show a not so good side to the judge while you and your sheep struggle around. All of these problems present a poor image to other farms, as well as to the general public. These problems make the sheep look, well, wild and undesirable when they really aren't. That is not good ambassadorship, nor good marketing. So please, take the time to train them and enjoy them and celebrate their sweetness. I am always available to answer questions. You can email me at

(on a different note...anyone trying out for the RedGreen look alike contest?)

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