MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Be patient. That is the key to shearing a sheep, Sara Ulibarri said.
“If you calm down and you’re patient, the sheep will respond, and if you’re really uptight and nervous, the sheep is also going to be nervous,” the high school junior from Pullman, Wash, said. She plans to shear her flock and other sheep during the summer.
“Each sheep, I try to apply one new thing I’ve learned from either watching other people or being taught, so I feel like I’m gradually improving,” Ulibarri said.
Each volunteer shearer provided tips, she said.
“It definitely depends on the sheep,” said Elsa Willsrud of Fairbanks, Alaska, also a high school junior. “Each sheep is totally different. Some, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it,’ and the next one is all over the place.”
Willsrud and her family keep a small flock of Shetland sheep.
Her father, Tom Zimmer, shears sheep. He first attended the school 10 years ago, and accompanied his daughter to “try to clean up some of my bad habits,” during the school’s advanced tune-up session, he said.
One of the instructors at the school can shear a sheep in 49 “blows,” Zimmer said, while it takes him 60.
“I shear mostly Shetlands, Icelandics — smaller, wiggly little bastards,” Zimmer said. “You can always learn more, and that’s what I want to keep doing.”
At 80, Bill Moomau was the oldest student. The Rochester, Wash., farmer handles sheep for Muslim customers who butcher the animals for their holidays. He wanted to learn how to shear the sheep to make them more presentable, he said.
He has never sheared before.
“When you get old, you should learn new things,” he said. “I’m here to learn a new skill to keep my mind working.”
The school is offered by Washington State University Extension and the Washington State Sheep Producers, with assistance from Columbia Basin Sheep Producers, Washington Wool Growers Auxiliary and American Sheep Industry.
Jerry Richardson has volunteered for the course since it began in 1977.
“When I first started shearing sheep, I didn’t know what I was doing — I thought I did,” he said. “Every year, I learn something more, and I’m not a youngster.”
One of the reasons Richardson keeps coming back is watching the students learn during the five days.
“Until they shear 3,000 or 4,000 sheep, they don’t really get this down pat,” he said. “It’s a learning process. Every time, you learn.”
Students were slated to shear roughly 500 sheep during the week.
WSU Extension educator Sarah Smith provided exercises leading up to the class. She cautioned students that the course was physically demanding.
“(She warned that) some people have dropped out, so I was concerned,” said Moomau, the 80-year-old. “I’m not concerned now. I don’t think it has been that difficult. I think almost anyone could learn to shear.”
“Yeah, I’m a little sore — not as sore as I expected to be,” Ulibarri said.
Has the course changed her mind about shearing?
“No,” she said. “It’s made me want to do it more, I’ve really enjoyed it.”