Sheep, people put their best feet (hooves) forward at National Western Stock Show event

Judith Kohler
The Denver Post

You start with the basics of the National Western — livestock — add dashes of fashion, style, family tradition spanning generations and a love of agriculture. And you have the Sheep Lead.

This is a more genteel side of the National Western Stock Show. It’s a chance for the sheep to look pretty and show off — and for their human escorts to look good, too.

The Sheep Lead gives contestants — four-legged and two-legged — a venue to perform before a panel of three judges. The people model clothes made of at least 50 percent wool. Many of the outfits are handmade.

The sheep’s attire is pretty much ready-to-wear, or sheep chic, if you like. The animals also sport hand-knitted scarves, hand-sewn blankets and ribbons that match their escorts’ attire.

Contestants — sheep and human — are also judged on how they handle themselves. The people are scored on how well they handle the sheep, which are led around a small arena by a rope.

The event, which was held on Jan. 26, shines a spotlight on an animal important to Colorado’s economy, said Mike Monell of Montrose, the National Western’s Sheep Lead superintendent. Colorado is among the top five sheep-producing states, usually fluctuating between the third and fifth spots, said Monell, who was in the sheep business his entire career.

The event is also a showcase for one of the important products sheep provide — wool. Contestants in the Jan. 26 show wore capes, coats, vests and dresses made with wool. Tessa Delmore, 14, of Wellington, the overall first-place winner, wore a cape she made with wool her grandmother got but never used.

“It was pretty awesome,” Delmore, a 4-H member, said of her win.

Nine-year-old Tatum Carlson of Henry, Neb., the overall second-place winner, modeled a coat her mother, Jessica, made with wool from Donegal, Ireland. She showed a Hampshire sheep owned by Michelle Sterkel and her family, who farm in Erie.

“This just teaches you confidence and teaches you some fashion consciousness,” said Jessica, who used to show sheep provided by the Sterkels when she competed in the event.

Of course, when live animals are involved, not everything goes as scripted. There’s the issue of having to step carefully when walking the green carpet to avoid the sheep droppings. A couple of the sheep on Jan. 26 were more interested in jumping through the short, white decorative fences instead of walking inside them. One rambunctious sheep clipped a freestanding metal arch as it exited, sending the arch crashing down.

While the sheep industry has deep roots in Colorado, the National Western’s Sheep Lead was actually introduced by an Englishman, John Kroge, a written history of the event supplied by Monell says. Kroge, who lived for a while in Canada, moved to Colorado in 1963 and taught many young people how to feed, trim and show their sheep. He competed at the National Western for several years, until his death in 1980.

Monell said Kroge modeled the National Western competition after a “ladies lead” held at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky. The event was described as a contest in which women wore “stylish, handmade wool garments while showing a well-fitted sheep.”

The event was later opened to men and renamed the Sheep Lead. The competition is divided into four age categories, starting with the “mini” division for kids up to 8 years old. Handmade outfits have a special category.

When Kroge started the contest at the National Western, he provided the trophy: a traveling tea set.

“The winner used to take it home,” Monell said. “But it got to be so heavy and young people really don’t use those things any more.”

The tea set is now in a display case and brought out at the annual event for people to see. Winners’ names are engraved on a brass plate on the case.

Through the years, farmers have sponsored participants by providing sheep for people who don’t have their own. Sterkel’s family has both participated in and provided sheep for the stock show event for 25 years.

“This will be the third generation for us,” said Sterkel.

Her 20-month-old granddaughter, Presley Sterkel, showed off her red wool outfit. Her sheep wore a matching red scarf. Sterkel’s grown daughter, Kimberly, started showing sheep at the National Western when she was 4. On Jan. 26 she helped Presley lead her sheep around the ring.

Participating in the Sheep Lead started as a chance to get the kids involved and has become something the family really enjoys, Sterkel said. It’s also an opportunity to tell people about where their food and the fiber for their clothes come from, she said.

“It’s just a connection to the industry,” Sterkel said.