By CRAIG REED
For the Capital Press
ROSEBURG, Ore. — Katherine Ritchie was up to the challenge when it was implied that shearing sheep was a man’s job.
Several months later, the young woman from the Roseburg area attended a shearing school at Washington State University in Pullman. She has now been shearing for six years.
“It is very physically demanding work, very mentally demanding,” she said during a break at a four-day shearing school on the Dawson Ranch. She was an instructor at the school that attracted four teenagers, one being a female, and one adult.
“You have to convince yourself to grab another sheep,” said the 25-year-old Ritchie. “When you are standing around feeling tired, no sheep are getting shorn.”
Because of the physicality of holding a 150-pound ewe or a slightly lighter lamb between your knees and feet while working electric blades over the animal’s skin to remove the wool fleece, shearing is not a job that attracts many women.
Ritchie was inspired to learn how to handle sheep and the clippers back when she was helping push her family’s sheep through a chute and into a shearing trailer. She said it was a 100-degree day so she had stepped inside the trailer for some shade when a guy on the shearing crew made a sexist comment, insinuating that since she was a girl, she couldn’t handle shearing.
Ritchie has since advanced to where she is not only a full-time shearer, but also an instructor. She has also earned the respect of that person who inspired her and they are now friends. In addition to instructing five students at the recent Dawson Ranch school, she was an instructor at a week-long school at Washington State University in April.
“You really have to want to do this,” she said of shearing. “You have to want to learn. You have to learn how to hold them (sheep) and to have the proper footwork.”
Wendy Wyatt Valentine of Langlois, Ore., and Diane Isenhart of Coquille, Ore., are both long-time shearers. They both got into it because shearing is in their family’s history, dating back several generations. Their fathers, Fred Wyatt and Hank Isenhart, were on some shearing crews together.
Wendy Valentine, who is 53, and Diane Isenhart, 42, agree that there aren’t many women in the profession. They admit it is hard work, but add that women can do it and that there is a need for more shearers.
“It’s a tough world, it’s a man’s world, it really is,” Isenhart said of shearing. “But I’m not saying a woman can’t do it. You just need to learn the physics of it, how to do it the easiest way because we’re not built like men and we’re not as strong as men. If you learn to do it right, if you learn how to control the animal, then you can still get that big sheep sheared.”
Valentine said she is happy to see anybody get into the shearing business because many older shearers, like herself, are easing up on the number of sheep they are shearing and there is a need for younger people in the profession.
“It’s a male-dominated profession, but even though we’re built different, we can still shear sheep,” she said of women.
When she was 20, Isenhart traveled to New Zealand and sheared 250 lambs in a nine-hour day. On that same trip, she did 204 ewes in an eight-hour day.
Valentine, when she was in her early 20s, sheared 208 sheep in just under eight hours. She stopped because there were no more sheep.
Isenhart said that now she just does small flocks of sheep, but she still loves working with the animals.
“You don’t do something for 28 years and not like it,” she said. “Anybody can shear sheep, it is just a matter of whether you’re going to shear the second one and then the 10th one when your body begins to hurt.”
Valentine said the only women she knows in western Oregon who have been shearing full-time are Isenhart and Ritchie.
While Valentine and Isenhart are shearing less, Ritchie has been working on some bigger jobs that have ranged up to a few thousand animals. In addition to Oregon, she has sheared in Washington, Montana, California and North Dakota. She was planning to attend an advanced shearing school in South Dakota this month.
“There’s always more to be learned,” she said of shearing. “There’s always little things you can learn to be better.”
Ritchie doesn’t mind sharing those details with students at shearing schools because she has seen first-hand that there is a need for more shearers. She explained that if a veteran shearer is injured and can’t continue, that’s up to 200 animals a day that aren’t being sheared, putting a shearing crew behind and there’s only a few spring months to get the job done.
At the Dawson Ranch school, 19-year-old Chloe Fink was learning how to shear under the guidance of Ritchie. Fink had learned how to clip lambs for show during her 4-H years, but now she was learning shearing techniques.
“I think we’re just as capable,” Fink said. “Men are stronger, they have natural-born strength, so sometimes we (women) just have to work smarter than harder.”