GREENFIELD — For nearly 12 hours Wednesday, they came: bleating and bawling, dragged, pushed and pulled by 4-H’ers, some half the size of their charges but equally determined.
It was sheep show day at the Hancock County 4-H Fair.
Somewhere near 300 sheep in more than two dozen classes and a dozen breeds began lining up at the main show ring gate early Wednesday.
John Apple, 4-H sheep superintendent, said the numbers were down just a tick this year, but the quality was still there.
He said he’d put this year’s entire supreme champion lineup against any other county in the state.
“We have the reputation of being the best county fair for sheep,” Apple said.
In the vernacular of the trade, a small group of sheep is known as a flock; a large group is commonly referred to as a band or mob.
It was clearly a mob on hand Wednesday, judging by numbers and temperament.
Despite a delightfully adorable exterior countenance, a sheep can be ornery and hardheaded, especially when expected to present peaceably in the ring.
“You have to get them to walk and then stand square on all fours, but they have their own minds,” said 13-year-old Dory Ratliff, who’s in her second year showing sheep at the fair.
Unfortunately, not all the otherwise cuddly and seemingly docile sheep are of the same mind with their handlers when the gate opens.
There seem to be two ways to get an uncooperative sheep into the ring. Some handlers use a halter to pull the animal; others hold the head from above and below and wrestle the animal in when it balks.
If the sheep decides to protest by rearing up, it’s simply a matter of brute strength and determination.
“You’ve got to be the leader,” Dory said. “You’ve got to be the boss.”
For some, the matchup is inherently unfair from the get-go.
Aden Garrison, 9, who weighs in at 60 pounds fully clothed and soaking wet, had a rough go with his 130-pound wether, who dug in, acted more like a mule and refused to set up squarely for the judge’s eye.
Quiet and shy leaning against the pen after the show, Aden managed to smile about his first-year effort but admitted a preference to showing cattle, which he said are significantly more cooperative.
Perhaps the very nature of sheep, once one gets to know them, is why so few have names at the county fair. Most referred simply to the tag number in their ears; and the question, “What’s her name?” was almost always met with a look of disbelief.
There was Big Momma, a North Country Cheviot ewe bleating at 13-year-old Angelina Ostermyer-Feeney’s belt as they waited their turn to enter the ring, but the tall teenager noted Big Momma was more what the animal was called than a proper name.
That’s not to say those who show sheep don’t develop a close relationship with their animals.
“He’s my best friend other than my dog,” said Loren Matlock, speaking of his crossbred wether, which took the prize for grand champion market lamb.
It takes a lot of work to bring in a champion, watching what it eats and walking it daily “to keep it loose,” Matlock said.
Juliann Apple, a 10-year 4-H’er who lives on a family-owned sheep farm, has been showing sheep since she could walk.
“It’s in my blood, I guess,” Apple said. “You have to walk them, feed them, make sure they get the necessary medications, and then there’s lambing in the winter. It’s a 24-hour job.”
The work paid off for Apple. On Wednesday she took home honors for supreme ewe: the Big Daddy of the show — or, more appropriately, the Big Momma (No relation to Angelina’s entry.)
The man who made the final decisions traveled from Illinois to spend about 10 hours in the big show ring, intently scrutinizing and critiquing both sheep and shepherds.
Van Cruit knows sheep, and people know Cruit, and that’s why he’s returned four years straight to judge the 4-H Sheep Show, which he always finds impressive.
“The quality is outstanding,” Cruit said. “They are well-presented, and I just can’t say enough about them.”
Win, lose or just happy to get out of the ring in one piece Wednesday, the 4-H’ers and their stock gave another good showing, according to those in the know.
When it comes to sheep, Hancock County is not following the herd.
“This county is loaded,” Cruit said.
By 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, it was all over. The 4-H’ers, some red-faced and sweating, retired to canvas chairs or went to change clothes to enjoy the fair outside the ring.
The mob, now calm and lying peacefully in the pens, went back to being the cuddly little animals non-sheep folk assume they always are, allowing themselves to be petted and chewing hay.
Or the conveniently misplaced broom handle.