How Important is it to Have a Lead Animal?

I never really understood what a blessing a lead animal could be until this past spring . My dad managed a thousand head of cattle and the same number of sheep but he never used a lead animal. I’m sure they were present because the most dominate female leads the herd or flock but he never used them. A good one takes the flock or herd to the best grazing, to water, and governs the other animal’s well-being but how to use them I never experienced.


(Tom’s sheep)

It was a friend, Tom, who raised 1,300 to 1,400 sheep that kept emphasizing to me how important a lead animal was to the herd and in managing them. On occasion, he’d buy a dairy goat from me that was gentle, well trained to lead, and he would raise bum lambs off of her after she’d raised her young. He’d use her to lead his sheep all year. She’d come when called and if it was a longer distance he could put a leash on her and the sheep would follow after. He said it kept things simple and far more stress free.

IMG_0700(Our one granddaughter loves cake too.)


In contrast, my dad and us kids would herd the woolies off of horseback or sometimes in the pickup. Push them is what I learned, the sheep herder way. The fastest way to gather them was to honk the horn because it meant cake would be the reward but that only worked for short distances and required of course cake. Not the birthday cake you are thinking of but a hard pellet comprised of grain and hay mixture. Some call it range feed but in our area it is cake because of how well the cattle an sheep like it one of our grandchildren.

When we had a few head of sheep and goats the kids showed in 4-H, I trained them to come when called and would go on walks with up to 12 animals at a time. It was like in the Bible, “My sheep know my voice and they come follow me.” We learned about being shepherds, not sheepherders. People would say our sheep and goats behaved better than their dogs. I was the lead animal having raised them all from birth with the help of their mamas whom I’d raised also. I called, they followed, trusting in me.

When 4-H and FFA days ended, we sold the sheep. Except for a few bums here and there we raised for meat, we’ve not raised them. Then this past spring a friend called.  She had a ewe with severe mastitis and her two, few day old lambs, which had been without milk for a while. She and the lambs needed care she wasn’t set up to give. To my husband’s dismay, I rushed to get her, excited grandkids in tow. This Dorper ewe had been raised wild, only handled three times a year.  The prairie was her home come snow, hail, rain, or sunshine. It might be a wild rodeo, I thought.


(Note the black heart on her knee.)

We got home just before a spring snow storm and when I showed her a warm stall, she ran inside. She really did not feel good. I handled her for a week, spoiling her before letting her out with the goats. Her babies I kept separate and bottle fed. If I’d left her little ones with her, she’d of kept them from me an they’d of starved.

I’d forgotten how much I love sheep, especially Dorsets but what do they have to do with our Dorpers? Dorpers are a Dorset / Persian cross. Our one daughter raised Dorsets for fair while the other two kids raised Suffolk. The white ones with a black head and legs. The Dorpers we have are very similar in personality to the Dorsets, not surprising. We call our once renegade Dorper – Virginia. Her black faced lamb, Caroline, after Carolina, and her brown speckled face sister, Georgia. When we add a buck, he shall be Texas.

Though Virginia lost most of her bag to gangrene, she is “healthy as a horse” as they say. The plan was to bring her back to health and then put her in the freezer. What I did not expect was how much she wanted to be a part of our goat herd and she wormed her way into their hearts and mine. She has even sweet talked the goat buck, Bravo.  She’d sleep by his pen and they’d talk and talk. When we let him out to breed the does, he checked them out, found no one cycling, and then ran to her. They butted heads and played and played until his tongue was hanging out plum tired. Then they intertwine their necks in a hug and went off to eat.


We’d spent years – literally dragging goats off to pasture leaving them bawling at the gate. Grazing seemed to be beneath them. We had beef five of the first years living here but none of them cared for goats. During this time we’d find ourselves hiding even in the house. If they saw us a chorus of bawling protests would emit. You would have thought we were torturing them. My dream of placidly grazing goats never happened despite year after year forcing them to pasture. Then entered Virginia. She took her weaned lambs to pasture each day along with the two youngest weaned kid goats. Then we’d drag the older does to pasture after milking. Soon the older does wanted to go too. When it began to snow, they’d still follow Virginia to pasture. Who were these goats that previously acted like they were allergic to snow?

Goats that demanded stalls at night come winter now prefer a lean-to shelter. Virginia taught them that. Then when we hauled the sheep back to their previous home to be bred, they were plum happy when they saw the sheep buck. I on the other hand felt I was being tortured. I wanted to get my sheep back in the trailer and take them home. I can barely stand waiting. The goats – well, they haven’t left the corrals. They are waiting too.

Two weeks have passed and my husband insists it hasn’t been long enough. I want my little black faced Caroline with a black heart on her knee. Our Georgia, her light brown speckled face, I don’t miss so much. She’s kind of wild and poorly constructed. My friend says I might just be surprised come spring how much she changes. I’m skeptical. My husband has been from the start but the ease of workload has won him over. Though Virginia isn’t exactly cuddly like she is with the other animals, she will stand next to me and comes when called. I’d say that’s pretty good for a wild raised sheep. Caroline, to the grandkids dismay, loves me and only me. Georgia likes me only sometimes, mostly those times I have something for her. But I’m mama, I’m queen of the herd, and so it is to me the animals look to. IMG_5726.JPG

(She hardly lacks attention from the others either. )

All except Comedy, our oldest goat. She has a thing for my husband. It’s hilarious to watch her come on the run when she sees him. She raises up and cocks her head like she is going to ram him but then drops down and comes in for a head rub. He loves her back and as he works, she putters along with him around the yard.

I’m finding that I love sheep more so than goats. I love that they aren’t as demanding because my life is VERY much so. I love how much more enjoyable and easier because they are here. They blend in. I get it now, I know how much a herd animal can work magic. Virginia has done what I could never teach the goats to do. Yes, we will probably have to bottle feed her new lambs come spring. It’s okay, there should be plenty of goat milk. I’ve bottle fed lambs since I was a little tyke so nothing new there. Besides, it’s worth it. A couple months of labor and meanwhile Virginia will school the new goats, new lambs, and keep the others trailing off to pasture. We are greatly indebted to her.

I asked Virginia’s age when I dropped her off with the buck sheep. She’s only two. Not so old after all and that means she could be around a while. The Savior said, “My sheep hear my voice and they come follow me.”

Unlike modern sheepherders, the shepherd always walked ahead of his flock. … “At night shepherds would bring their sheep to a corral called a sheepfold. High walls surrounded the sheepfold, and thorns were placed on top of these walls to prevent wild animals and thieves from climbing over.”

The sheepfold being full of flocks of several owners. Come morning each shepherd would enter the fold and call his sheep by name. They knew his voice and followed him. 

I don’t want to be a sheepherder, I want to be a shepherd. I don’t want to trudge down the steep slope of the pasture and back up again herding my sheep and goats. I don’t need to. They know their names and if called, come follow me. Yes, Tom, many years have passed but I get it, lead animals are indispensable. The cowboys knew this between  1850’s to 1910 and at the head of each cattle drove that trailed north to the railroads was a lead cow, always a female at the helm, as it is with the bison herds that roamed the west. So Ole Virginia, you shall be our lead. I shall be your shepherd. Hopefully together we shall follow the greatest shepherd of all time, the Lord, Jesus Christ.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s