The Sheepherder

105182105411181CDPby Neva Bodin

“No speak Englese,” he said.

The man, probably in his thirties, stepped out of the sheep wagon sporting a wide, gap-toothed smile, a five o’clock shadow, and a tan not entirely due to the elements. He was flanked by three small border collies.

The “No Speak Englese” sheepherder’s wagon.

That effectively ended my, “Hi, so you’re the guy we’ve seen riding by us on your four-wheeler and horse looking for sheep!” We commenced to petting the dogs who seemed more inclined to come forward with a welcome and “get to know me” attitude.

We recently camped back in the pines and aspen near a main artery to the popular Louis Lake in Wyoming. Several times a man on a four-wheeler, driving sensibly slow in comparison to the many other vehicles on the road carrying weekend vacationers through the incredibly gorgeous scenery, passed by. He came on a dirt trail from across a meadow, obviously searching for sheep in our minds, since we had seen the small collie riding on the back and also heard the bleating of many sheep in the distance. We had noticed some sheep on a hill nearby to the east the first night, enjoying perhaps a respite from the larger flock we could not see behind the hills and forest, to the west.

The sheepherder with his trailing companion.
A few of a large flock cared for by the sheepherder.

That morning we had seen the shepherd riding his horse, the three dogs eagerly running beside, heading for the small band of sheep on the hill. A ways behind, a beautiful honey gold horse followed, having a slight limp, but determined to trail the rider, obviously not about to be left in camp by himself.

The sheepherder’s appearance brought to mind another encounter about over twenty years back with another sheepherder in a sheep wagon, on another mountain. We had stopped to visit and that man did speak English. He invited us into his wagon and talked about his reclusive life, guarding a 1000 head of sheep. He had a “boombox” that gave him entertainment in the form of listening to ball games and music. He got one four-day weekend a month off, to go into town for personal supplies and leisure time.

Neva and Frank sheepherder 001
Myself and Frank the Sheepherder 1990

Once a week, the rancher he worked for brought food, fuel and water for him, food for his dogs and horse and salt for the sheep. He gathered the sheep together at night by putting out salt. He carried a gun to protect them from predators, which included foolish humans who sometimes harassed the sheep while out joy riding in pickups or all-terrain vehicles. There aren’t many areas untouched by humans anymore.

Where we camped recently, coyotes from three different directions yipped and howled one evening, perhaps complaining they hadn’t had any mutton to eat lately.

The sheep wagons definitely come under my definition of early campers. Developed in the 1870’s in Wyoming, they have a two by six foot floor, with sides expanded above that, equipped with bed across the back above cabinets and drawers, one or two burner plated wood stove near the opening in front, (ready to throw out if the fire threatened the wagon, the man said), and shelves with doors to store clothing and food stuffs, all protected by a round metal or canvas cover. They are a tiny home away from home. In the past, the tongue in front was long enough or shaped for a horse or horses to pull; they now are adapted for pickups to transport to the grazing spots.

They are an intriguing tie to the past, the future, and to the Basque people who were some of the first sheep herders in the state of Wyoming. But that’s another story!


19 thoughts on “The Sheepherder

  1. Neva, this was very entertaining. I love animals, including sheep. I had a black sheep when I was little. We have also owned goats a couple of times. It’s hard to find an area that is not polluted by humans. Some people can come and go without leaving a trace, others are not so careful. Cher’ley


    1. Thanks Cher’ley. I love sheep and all animals also. We raised sheep on our farm when I grew up and had many “bottle lambs” that soon became my children. One named Margie lived by our house like our dog and had twin lambs each year behind our car. And yes, we ride our 4-wheelers up some pretty rough trails, or walk in the woods, only to find a beer bottle, plastic bag or bottle cap or broken glass near the trail. So I try to focus on teh beauty instead of the signs of humans.


  2. What a treat to learn about the sheepherding in Wyoming! Especially enjoyed the living accommodations of the sheepherders. It must be a lonely life, but also rewarding being in the great outdoors with one’s horses, dogs and sheep. I went to a festival once where they showed champion sheepherding dogs. How fascinatng! The dogs know their business and have those sheep just where they want them by forcing them into a group so they can herd them home. I was very surprised at how great the dogs were. They sure know what they’re supposed to do. Thank you for a very interesting post!


    1. Thanks Linda. I am fascinated by the talent those dogs have also. And I love sheep, a sentiment not always echoed by everyone. But we are compared to sheep in the Bible so we probably shouldn’t ridicule them! Yes, the isolation would be balanced by the fresh air and scenery I would think. Neva


  3. Neva,
    Thank you for a very entertaining post. People sometimes forget that sheep probably preceeded cattle in a lot of the West. The sheephearders area fascinating people. The question always comes to mind, why choose this lifestyle?


    1. I know, I ask myself too what kind of person would be a sheepherder. I would love to interview one in more depth some day. Early days, I have read the Basque came over to learn the way to ranch over here, make a little money then start their own operation. Today’s herder may have other motives. Thanks for the comment. Neva


    1. You do wonder don’t you? It would take a lot of webcams though considering how many places we saw small bands of this guy’s sheep. We wondered how he ever kept track in those rocky and heavily forested mountains. We did see a ewe and lamb by themselves, far from the rest, obviously left behind. Thanks for the comment. Neva


  4. Fascinating post. Do the shepherds stay in those wagons during the WY winters? Or do they let the sheep wander during the good weather and confine and feed in the bad? The wagons don’t look up to handling major blizzards.


    1. As far as I know they take the sheep to a winter pasture near the ranch in the winter and the herder works there or goes to warmer climes. But I have seen sheep in fenced pastures (big pastures out here) very early in the spring and late fall, but they are usually at lower elevations. The herders we’ve talked to were at the 8000 to 9000 foot elevation. Our city is 5123 elevation and probably considered a lower elevation here. Thanks for reading! Neva


  5. Really interesting–and well written, Neva. What a life! I guess it holds a certain appeal–there are times I fantasize about being a hermit–but probably being that isolated would make me crazy. I saw an episode of Longmire that featured Basque sheepherders, so I have that frame of reference now. 🙂


    1. I think my husband and I have two great worlds right now, our camper for short get-aways, and thank goodness the camper is bigger than a sheep wagon all though at times it doesn’t seem so, and then a house and community to go back to. The sheepherders life might be too much of a good thing. Thanks for reading. Neva


  6. Loved this post. I was just thinking that one could almost think he or she had stepped back into the past — and then you mentioned the sheep wagons first apparently used in the 1870s in Wyoming. When I read about sheep and shepherds, I always think about the link to Jesus and the New Testament.


    1. That is a pretty strong link back to the Bible isn’t it? I do that too. And laugh at people who call sheep dumb because we are compared to them so many times! And I raised some fun pet sheep who were ingenious in getting what they wanted sometimes. Thanks for the comments. Neva


  7. Great post, Neva! I remember watching a shepherd with dogs on Muddy Mountain several years ago — fascinating how human and dog work so well together for a common cause (works in many instances if we really think about it!) I’ve observed sheep herdings/movings near Kaycee and seen many a sheep wagon in the mountains and on the plains — my mother once said she would have liked to have lived in a sheep wagon when she was younger — I’d prefer my cabin! Thanks for an interesting and educational post (and great photos!!)


    1. Thanks Gayle. The pic of Frank, the Sheepherder, and me was taken on Casper Mountain, right after you run out of black top. Your cabin is much bigger than a sheep wagon, so yeah, I’d prefer that too. Those dogs are amazing.


  8. What an amazing glimpse of life. The story of them was new to me and very interesting. I’d never read before that salt was used to draw in the sheep. Thank you!


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