Shetlands should embody good sheep conformation and should also meet the additional requirements for breed type.  Head, fleece and tail are probably the most important of the  breed type components as set out in the Breed Standard.  
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It’s All About Conformation—
Judging Wool Breeds of Sheep

by Letty Klein, Pine Lane Farm Karakuls, Kalamazoo, Michigan

To become a good judge, or breeder for that matter, we must understand conformation, anatomy and skeletal function as well as the impact they have on a sheep’s health, adaptability, longevity and productivity.

Conformation is important in wool breeds, including the rare or primitive breeds. Gestation in sheep is only five months long, so while improvements and changes can be realized quickly, detrimental traits can be perpetuated too, sometimes subtly. Conformation is made up of structure, balance, and soundness, plus breed traits. How these traits apply to hardiness and survivability are paramount to our understanding of how sheep evolved.

While it makes no difference whether in a show ring or at home, judging an animal must take into account all these things with a little common sense thrown in. We as breeders must know what a “straight top-line” looks like and why straight legs are important, and why “poor growth rates and below average intelligence” are not good for any breed. We need to be aware of how our animals fit a breed standard, but more importantly we must be our own policemen.

Remember, sheep are not just coat-hangers for pretty wool, there had better be something underneath.

Many conformation traits do not take into account characteristics invisible to a judge in the show ring, but are extremely important in properly assessing any animal. These can include: health, ability to survive seasonal changes, production of good sized lambs on reasonable feed, ease of lambing, good mothering instincts, milkiness, strong, healthy teeth, good feet and resistance to disease.

So let’s talk more about “conformation.” Conformation is basically a combination of soundness, structure, and balance, with a little “breed character” thrown in. My definition of conformation is the way an animal is put together, in a way that supports the animal’s health, well-being, longevity and productivity.

Soundness—An animal should be able to move and subsist painlessly, efficiently and productively throughout its life.

•    Sheep should be in good condition and healthy.

•    Sheep should have a firm foundation—sound feet and stand squarely.

•    Sheep should have all the right body parts in working condition and in the right places, especially the three “T’s:” teats, testicles and teeth.

Structure—The way sheep parts, especially bones, are put together or arranged to form the whole animal is called structure. We must strive for structural correctness, which include the following factors.

•    Growth potential—with experience, by comparing the cannon bones we can learn to estimate the potential for growth in a lamb, to determine what size it will be at maturity.

•    Volume/capacity or depth of body—basically means that the animal has room inside—room for heart, lungs, rumen and a set of twins! Ewes should have a broad wide stance in the rear. Close-set rear legs can rub against the udder and teats when full of milk.

•    Condition—overly fat, over-finished or thin, is not desirable.

•    Legs—should be straight, come out of each corner of the body squarely and end in strong pasterns for fleetness and agility.

•    Back—should be level and strong, with no dip behind the shoulders—no weak or swayed backs. However, the spinal bones are longer in the more primitive breeds and should stand up a little when felt with your fingers. Sheep need to be able to shed rain down their sides, but should not be slab-sided. Instead they should have a well-sprung rib, with plenty of room inside.

•    Neck—should be full, and entering the shoulders high up. If it enters the shoulders low, the animal will have a “ewe-necked” appearance where there is a dip between the neck and the shoulders. When the neck comes out of the shoulders high, the animal has an alert look and can see in all directions—it’s a survival trait.

•    The eye socket—should be prominent giving the animal excellent all around vision and a picture of alertness—another survival trait.

 The above article on good wool sheep conformation is reprinted with permission from Issue 113, Fall 2002, Black Sheep Newsletter. Web site:


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