By: Heather Bateman
In the past all sheep that were shown had relatively long wool and were carefully carded and trimmed to look great, but in recent years it has become much more popular to slick shear show animals and the art of fitting has all but died. Hopefully this article will help you to understand a little more of how its done and give you some pointers on getting started, but there is no substitute for hands on examples or practice.
To get an even smooth coat to start with, I like to shear my sheep about 2-3 months before the show. This way the wool is fairly new and easy to work with and much more uniform in length and quality. I use a 20tooth goat comb on a 3inch Oster Shearmaster or Showmaster for this job but almost any shear will do the job (the goat comb is great for beginners because it is hard to cut the animal with it). The advantage to doing this rather then just blocking out the wool is that it is much quicker and easier. When shearing to the skin you don't have to worry about getting it even as much and it is much easier for beginners. Once the animal is sheared you can relax for a couple months (on the fitting front anyways). Just be careful when feeding not to get too much grain or hay in the wool because it is hard to get out!
Depending on how much time you have you need to wash your animal anywhere from 1-4days before the show. If you have a lot of animals it can be up to a week as long as they are kept blanketed to stay clean. I use dish soap to wash my lambs with, just the cheapest I can find since it has always worked for me. Be sure to rinse them well so the soap doesn't irritate the skin. If your animals have white or light colours on their legs and head "Show Clean" (made for horses by Absorbine) will get them clean and white in most cases. After the animal is washed I like to use a cattle blower to dry them since it is much quicker and it helps to separate the fibres in the fleece, make the carding job easier. When they are just a little damp I stop blowing them and get out my tools.
To get started you'll need a good set or two of sharp hand shears (its nice to have a long pair and a short pair), at least 2 cards (or carders depending on what you want to call them), a curry comb, a grooming stand is real nice(otherwise a good pair of kneepads is nice), and a lot of patience. Though expensive, I have found that Howard cards are worth the money you spend on them and probably the best you can get. Most of these supplies can be ordered from Nasco, Jeffers or Premier1 supply. To begin with start carding out the fibres by pushing the teeth of the card straight into the wool and lifting up and forward. This should make the wool stand up. It takes a while to get the motion just right but after a lot of practice you will be able to move the card in the way that works best for you. Card out the whole body, it will take some time, but it's the first step to a good fitting job.
Once you have carded the whole body start with the top line of the animal and with the hand shears carefully clip small amounts of wool away starting at the front and moving to the back to make the back a nice, even, straight line (be sure the animal is standing fairly straight while doing this, or you will do more harm then good!). Work down the shoulder and then back towards the hip. I tend to square the animal up and then carefully round the corners where the back blends into the side. This may not be how they're done in your area, so try to attend a show and see how people shape them. When you get to the rear flank I like to clean out the wool there a little bit, but not take off so much as to make it look like the stomach is separate from the hip, just make a little definition between the parts.
When you get around to the rear of the animal try not to trim too much off the hindquarter because that is an important part of the animal. If the animal has a tail, lift it away from the body and card out the wool, then take a little wool off each side on an angle towards the end of the tail so the tip of the tail is a little narrower then the base. Don't make a point, cut the end of the tail straight across so the tail is shaped something like this \_/ but with the sides a little straighter. I always make the tail look separate from the rest of the body by taking away some wool around the edges of it. Since most breeding sheep in the US don't have much of a tail this should not be a problem for American readers.
At the base of the open area under the tail there is a line going down under the twist of the animal where the wool naturally separates. Card out the wool around this very well and then separate the wool on the line. To make the animal look wider I always clip the wool on an angle so that the wool angles into the part or split. I also try and trim some wool between the hind legs to widen the appearance, but if the animal lacks width on each leg don't trim it down much.
Work around the other side of the animal, trying to achieve the same look as you created on the first side. Remember that the more carding you do the smoother the finished product will be.
The front end of the animal is kind of tricky because it can drastically change the look of the animal both for better and for worse depending on how it's treated. If the animal has a heavy neck I try to take off more wool (especially if it's a ewe). Always blend the body parts together carefully, leaving a distinction but not making the animal look like a bunch of parts thrown together. Depending on the breed you may have some wool on the face to work with, in breeding animals I generally shave the face of a Suffolk or other open faced breeds, but carefully fit the wool cap on a Hampshire or other wool cap breeds. I like to trim most of the hair off the ears to show a cleaner look. I also use electric pet clippers or other very small clippers to shave the hair away from the top of the hoof to show a clean look there too. On breeds that have wool on the legs it is nice to carefully clean and card the wool and shape it to make the legs look uniformly well boned and straight.
If the surface of the fleece gets damp as you trim use a spray bottle to dampen it lightly, its harder to work a soaked fleece then a dry one. When the desired trimming has been completed use a wool setting product to lightly mist the wool and then either use the back of the card to pack the wool or place a cloth over the wool and use a flat surface against it to pack it in place. When the wool is sufficiently packed, place a clean blanket over the animal to keep it clean till show time.
Before you go into the ring check for pieces of wool sticking out and trim them off, clean the ears, hooves and skin under the tail with a baby wipe. If desired spray with a shining product like "final mist" or "show sheen" to bring out the shine in the animal. The more you practice the better you will get, try not to get frustrated.