By Denise Strawn – I want to share an amazing experience with you: I learned how to sheer a sheep in a sheep shearing trailer during a 6-day course. First let’s get it out there that as I’m writing this, I’m 43 years old, a mother of four; grandmother of three. I have wanted to learn how to shear a sheep for about nine years—maybe even 10! I was going to take the course with my oldest son; unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Still, I wanted to learn how to shear a sheep. Over those years of aspiration, I’d been raising a small flock of about 10 head of sheep, mainly providing market stock for the 4-H and FFA kids. Our shearer during those years was named Jim. Jim was wonderful with the kids and with the animals, making a positive impression on my hopes and goal of learning the skill. Finally, during this past year I was able to attend this program and learn how to shear a sheep in a sheep shearing trailer.
The shearing school was a five-day course put on by the Washington State Sheep Producers. Some may think five days is too long, but I’m here to say five days is probably perfect, for reasons that will perhaps become, shall we say, exhaustive.
Day One— The class first met together in the Fuller Building at the Moses Lake Fairground, which is located near the center of Washington State. What we all first received was a wonderful binder full of so much information it would take me weeks to go through it all.
We filled out data sheets concerned with “emergency contact information,” not always an encouraging note on which to start.
From there we went straight to the sheep shearing trailer to start shearing. The sheep shearing trailer was set up with nine shearing stations with sheep shearing equipment, one for demonstration purposes, eight for students: In our case, two students per shearing station. You could say this was “baptism by fire”— jumping in head first.
I think in this eight-hour day I managed to shear three sheep.
Day Two— We sheared sheep. I think I sheared five this day. Bruises were starting to show up in places, and I was struggling to remember the shearing pattern while holding a sheep in a stance that halfway resembled how I had been instructed. All the while I was mainly trying not to cut myself or the sheep with these scary sheep shearing clippers moving a hundred miles an hour! Oh, and did I mention this: The sheep really don’t want to cooperate.
At day’s end, I was exhausted! There had been minor injuries to sheep and man, but thankfully no deaths: time to get some much needed rest! I had curiously discovered how little it took to remind me I was no longer a teenager.
Day Three— Back to the sheep shearing trailer again! I believe I sheared seven. Everyone was exhausted, and yet we logged the most sheep through those facilities of all the days we’d been doing this. I believe the total lot of sheep added up to 102 head for the day— not bad for 16 people with only two days of shearing under our belts. We had managed to complete the task ahead of schedule.
Minor injuries were sustained once again. Sadly though, we lost one of our students, who decided to leave. That day was probably the most taxing, but things were coming together.
Day Four— Can you guess—more learning how to shear a sheep! Even so, things were starting to flow well: (1) Fewer sheep, (2) Early release from class, and (3) They informed us, “Tonight is banquet night!”
The Washington State Sheep Producers (WSSP) and their Auxiliary — along with numerous volunteers, instructors and the county extension team — were there to recognize our accomplishments, and we were able to acknowledge what they had all been doing for us. The students all got to stand in front of the crowd and tell a little about why we each came to the school and what we thought of it.
My personal reasons were: First, I had a desire to take up the role that my past shearer had performed so well. Secondly, I wanted to try my hardest to fill his shoes — not an easy task. Then too, I wanted to become friends with shepherds in my area and be a mentor to the 4-H and FFA children.
My opinion of the class was that it was amazing. It was well put together with a more than adequate support group. Later in the evening I very happily received a scholarship! I can’t help but give thanks here once again to the auxiliary for that scholarship. I will probably… buy cutters and combs with it!
Day Five— Last day of beginner school.
People were now at the point of sharpening their skills: Perfecting “holds” and “blows!” To those not familiar with shearing, a “blow” is the strip of wool clipped in each full stroke of the shear. It was exciting to look upon the ground we had covered and the point to which we all had come over the previous five days. Friendships had been built, bonds made; beginnings of businesses were being created in that sheep shearing trailer.
What if we had quit on day three? I don’t know if my confidence could have ever fully developed. I know if we had quit, many would detect that we weren’t really ready to shear for anyone other than maybe our own flock.
There was a sad ending to that day: Everyone except one other participant and me was leaving for home. I really hope to cross paths with each of these people again.
Day Six: Advanced class— What was I thinking? To this day I am not even sure the number of people who were in this class, maybe 10? We had 130 sheep coming that day! And, of all days, I was an hour and a half away from home and got a text message from my pregnant daughter – her water broke and my grandson Carsen was coming, like it or not! I set my mind to just stay and get my sheep done. I sheared five before lunch.
That made me feel rather successful. Lunchtime was spent with my husband in our recreational vehicle, getting a bit emotional over not being with our daughter. Then, back at it. I managed to shear a total of 10 that day. I received my certificate and we got on the road home! Baby Carsen was born before we got there, but we went straight to the hospital to hold our newest addition, and boy, was he beautiful.
Now that you’ve heard my story, I’d like to share a little about the program. The sheep shearing trailer is what it sounds like: a trailer—it’s mobile! It folds together in a way that allows it to be hauled safely down the highway just like any other trailer. It has eight tip-out gates to allow the operators to move the sheep from the chute into each of the eight shearer stations. With room for two skirting tables in the middle, the operation runs like a well oiled machine.
The instructors are top notch; I believe they are all on a volunteer basis. And they really take the time to teach and mentor every trainee.
These are people I feel will be among my contacts for years to come. The sheep shearing courses that are put together by this group deserves to be recognized. I made up my mind I really wanted to thank them and their passion for the sheep industry, along with the many high-quality shearers they’ve guided to proficiency.