Maybe Sorta a Shearer

Yesterday, I was reminded of the wise words of one of my shearing mentors. While we were out on a difficult job last year, he said “Sometimes, a sheep lets you know how it’s going to be sheared.”

Sometimes, he said, you get a 300 lb. ram and have to shear one side and then the other while he’s laying down, rolling him from one side to another because you can’t handle his weight enough to shear him in traditional, proper position. Sometimes, you get a tiny sheep that you have to shear on your knees, because it would otherwise be too far away from you if you were standing upright.

And, sometimes, you get a 200+ lb. Jacob wether who, as he ages, is reverting to his natural ram nature, charging people and animals and stomping his front right hoof the minute anyone approaches his pen. That’s the sheep I sheared yesterday afternoon, so his owner could have his gorgeous fleece before Mr. Wether departs this world.

But “shearing” is a generous term for what I did. I managed to flip Mr. Wether three times, but it took all I had to do it and was awkwardly executed. Turning his jaw over his shoulder did nothing: it did not induce him to sit or do anything but stiffen up (much like some of the nine Navajo Churro I sheared last year). He was so big around that, with my left hand holding his jaw, I could barely reach my right arm around him to his right front foreleg. And, when I did, my face was right in back of his horns. Not a smart place to be, even with my left hand on his jaw.

I weigh not quite 150 lbs. I have sheared a few dozen sheep who weigh the same as or slightly more than I do, but not 50 lbs. more than I do. I want, so much, to have the upper body strength of a 200 lb.+ man who has been shearing for 15-20 years, and I don’t. I’m working on it, lifting weights a lot, but I am not there yet. And yet, I feel like my size and weight is no excuse. I am seriously considering if some sort of martial art, the kind that focuses on resistance and using your own weight and that of your opponent, may not help my shearing strength.

Anyway, I got him flipped three times and into proper position once, and he was pretty calm there. I sheared his belly wool off and then noticed what I was dealing with: long, thick wool, very full of lanolin and very, very dirty. The kind of wool with so much dust and dirt that you’re sandblasted in the eyes and face as your shears kick it up. (Lesson #1: Buy some eye protection.) My portable shears were barely making headway. I had to push them, which is dangerous because you can cut the sheep that way: normally, you “let the shears float” and just guide them, and they move with their own power. But it wasn’t happening. (Lesson #2: Always bring your full sized motor and drop in addition to your portable shears, even if you’re only shearing one or two sheep. You may need that power.)

I had no choice but to try to adjust the comb and cutter, which meant letting the sheep get up while I did so. I could hardly stand to do it, after I’d worked so hard to get him down and him quite calm while in position, but I had no choice. I only had 13 and 20 tooth combs with me (Lesson #3: Buy a 10-tooth comb.) so I adjusted the comb to bring the cutter farther forward, as close to the tip of the comb as I could get it. Even so, it was very slow going and left a lot of wool on the sheep. And I was pushing the tip of that comb down. I buried it and there was still a lot of wool on Mr. Wether.

It was harder to get him down again, so his owner suggested shearing him on a halter. I’ve never sheared a sheep this way, but I have sheared a few goats while they were standing up, albeit not on a halter, so I adapted what I remembered from that. Mr. Wether’s owner and some observers also had tips from what they’d seen of “stand-up shearing,” so I proceeded. It meant the fleece would be in two pieces but his owner did not mind. I sheared from near the top of his tail, straight up his spine toward his neck, and stopped when I thought I could not safely continue without cutting his neck. I sheared horizontally down each side, and it went all right, save for the amount of wool left on him. But, there were not too many second cuts.

I then cleaned up his neck and tops of his legs, again very carefully because of awkwardness and limited visibility: I did not want to cut one of his hamstrings.

There was just so much more wool left on Mr. Wether than usual. On the bright side, his flock still recognized him! (After shearing, sheep can struggle to recognize each other, since their wool is gone and smells and appearances changed. Not so for this guy. Sigh.)

I was at this poor woman’s property for over two hours, though she at least seemed genuinely happy to have Mr. Wether’s fleece and a calm, un-cut animal. (I did have one small nick on a teeny nipple on his belly, but it was not at all bad and scabbed quickly without any help from me. I was honestly surprised there weren’t more given that he was standing and his skin was not as taut as it would have been if he were in proper shearing position.) I felt awful for how long it all took me. I did at least refuse payment, which was the best I could think to do.

It’s times like these where I leave a property, start the long drive home, turn on the heated seat for my back muscles, and shake my head thinking “What are you playing it? You’re no shearer. You’re maybe, sorta a shearer, but not a real one, no matter how many UC certifications you might have under your belt, no matter how many sheep and goats you’ve sheared.” And then I try to remind myself that it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something, and I’m nowhere close, but gaining, hour by hour, some hours much, much longer than others.

2 Responses to “Maybe Sorta a Shearer”

  1. Deb Bykowski

    Don’t be so hard on yourself! An ornery, old ram that has got you by 50 lbs? Sounds like you adapted as the situation necessitated. And the rest? Lessons learned. I always feel it makes us stronger and wiser. 🙂

    • anysteph

      Awww, thanks Deb. You’re so kind. One of my shearing mentors (the one I reference in the first paragraph) said “There is no wrong way unless you don’t get it done.” I’ll try to remember that!


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