Youth Livestock Safety - 2 - Sheep Safety: Behavior Basics

Sheep Safety Lesson 2: Behavior Basics: Getting to Know Your Show Sheep

To work safely with your show sheep, you should have a basic understanding of animal behavior in general, and the behavior patterns of sheep in particular. Sheep are generally gentle animals and are often recommended as a first project animal for 4-H and FFA members, but that doesn’t mean they will tame down without a lot of work and regular contact with humans.

Sheep (whether show sheep or commercial sheep) typically have more close interaction with humans than any other livestock species, however their behavior will still be determined by genetics and experience. Work with your show sheep regularly and you will experience positive results. Sheep that are handled gently and quietly will have smaller flight zones and be easier to handle than sheep that have been handled roughly or have little human contact.

Sheep have a strong “flocking instinct” and prefer to be with other sheep. Many breeders will strongly suggest that you have more than one sheep even if you only intend to show one.

Sheep are sensitive to high-pitched sounds and may “spook” easily when they hear sudden loud noises, such as a dog barking. A sheep will generally move its head and ears toward the sound that has its attention even though it may not appear to be looking in the same direction.

Sheep have a wide field of vision, which means they can see nearly everything around them without moving their head. A sheep will pick up slight movements from a distance and may even start to run if the movement frightens it.

Sheep have a highly-developed sense of smell. This sense is helpful for mating and predator evasion purposes, but can cause a sheep to become nervous when introduced to a pen that smells different than the one at home, such as a new pen at the fair or a show.

Halter breaking is a good way to begin to tame your sheep to get it ready for showing.

When working with sheep make changes slowly. Watch closely as changes are made and adjust handling methods accordingly. Your show sheep may be calm at home in familiar surroundings, but may become agitated when taken to a different location with new, strange sights, smells, and sounds, such as the county fairgrounds.

Do your best to make the sheep’s first experience in different surroundings a positive one. For example, when moving an animal to a new pen have a full feed pan waiting and bring some water from home to help it adjust to the taste of new water at the show.

Fear causes animals to run away from whatever scared them. Animals can develop permanent fear memories that may never be erased. This means that if your show sheep has a bad experience when loaded on a trailer for the first time, it may be difficult to load again.

When shearing, allow your sheep to calm down after you have caught it and before you begin to shear. Work slowly and carefully so the sheep adjusts to the sound and feel of the shears on its skin, to keep it calm, and to avoid cuts to the sheep or you.

When shearing is finished allow the sheep to go free carefully. It might be excited to be let loose and could run over you or kick you.

Sheep move quickly and are surprisingly strong for their size. Do not underestimate their strength and be prepared to react quickly yet calmly. Learning how to lead your show sheep with a halter first will help you learn how to stay in control and help the sheep learn that you are in control. Remember, if frightened it will run from whatever scared it and if you’re hanging on to the halter and not in control your sheep might just drag you along too.

When you understand how your sheep might act in different situations you can use that understanding to help make livestock shows safer for everyone – exhibitors as well as people who are watching the show. Keeping your show sheep calm is a good start. Other strategies to keep in mind at the show include:

Be aware of where others are at the show – the general public (in the stands and walking around) and other exhibitors. Move slowly to and from the show ring with your sheep. When you get excited or in a hurry, your sheep will sense the change in your behavior, which might scare it. Remember that fear causes an animal to run from whatever scares it. Get to know your sheep’s behavior patterns and help it adjust to new surroundings. Do the best you can to keep away from crowded areas while leading your show sheep to and from the ring. Many people do not understand how easy it is to scare a show animal, because they usually look so calm when they are being led. Practice, practice, practice show day activities – at home and again when you get to the show. If you show with a halter, practice haltering; leading on halter; jumping on and off the blocking stand; leading to the show ring; leading to and from the pen or stall; opening and closing gates; washing and grooming. If you don’t use a halter, practice all this without the halter. Your show sheep will be much more comfortable doing activities it has practiced before and it will be less likely to be scared of the show ring if it’s been in there before the show.

Discussion Questions

With your project group members, discuss how you stay safe when working with your show sheep.


If you bought your show sheep, how did it act the day you bought it? Whether purchased or raised, how did it act the first time you led it with a halter and without a halter? How did you feel the first time you sheared a sheep?


How does your behavior affect the way your show sheep behave? How do its surroundings affect the way your show sheep behave?


Why is it important to practice showing your sheep? What can you do to make sure your show sheep are ready for the show ring?


List some ways you can you show others what you’ve learned about animal behavior?

GO ON TO SHEEP SAFETY LESSON 3: Facilities and Equipment

Youth and trainers for sheep fair/showing