When Howard, Kansas, 4-H and FFA member Hannah Whetstone steps from behind the curtain at the Kansas State Fair, her place in the spotlight is a direct reflection of her place weeks and months before — illuminated by truck lights as she spends every spare minute, day or night working with her sheep to accomplish her goals.
A freshman at West Elk High School, Whetstone’s laundry list of 4-H and FFA show projects — sheep, goats, horses, steer, heifers and even her golden retriever — reads like an ideal candidate for Round Robin showmanship. Ironically, that’s exactly where she fell in love with sheep for the first time.
“Showing my horse at the county fair qualified me for the Round Robin contest and the moment I got my hands on a sheep I was hooked,” Whetstone said. “I was just 11 and of course I thought they were cute at first, but it’s the unique personality each sheep has that has made them my favorite to show.”
Whetstone said the time she spends forming a bond of trust with her animals and learning the nuances of their personalities is a big contributor to her success. Her connection and ease with her sheep projects stood out in contrast to her other species and quickly she realized showing only at the county fair would not be enough.
“With the help of my sheep breeder I was able to win showmanship at the county fair my first year with a sheep,” Whetstone said. “That day I decided I wanted to go to the state fair and do this on a bigger scale.”
Success doesn’t come immediately and Whetstone’s first year at the state fair earned her average awards but her presence was enough to spark goals for the coming year.
“Watching the grand champion drive from the stands was an experience in itself and I knew I wanted to be participating rather than watching,” Whetstone said. “The next summer I worked harder than ever to make it happen.”
The following year, a reserve champion placing in her breeding class gave Whetstone access to be front and center for the drive she watched from the stands the year before, and one taste of success was enough to change her goals.
“Getting to go behind the curtain at the state fair is definitely one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had,” Whetstones said. “The crowd is so loud and you’re elevated above everyone else — it’s a completely different experience.”
With success and a new belt buckle, Whetstone continued her sheep-showing career with another trip behind the curtain and a win for senior showmanship in her first year of eligibility. While the accomplishments themselves are impressive, Whetstone’s dedication to her sheep and the effort she devotes to them are the true prizes.
“When I started high school this year I had to choose what my priorities were and I realized I couldn’t do every single club or team,” Wheatstone said. “I knew I had to choose to make my show career and agriculture a top priority and those choices taught me a lot about time management.”
While Whetstone’s many projects each have a purpose on her family’s working ranch — goats for pasture management, heifers and steers as part of the family cow-calf operation and horses to work and sort the cattle — her sheep endeavors are uniquely hers.
“I knew I wanted to take it up a notch this year and go to bigger shows like the American Royal,” Whetstone said. “Knowing I would be competing at a higher level really pushed me to make time every single day wherever I could to work with my projects and avoid looking foolish on a bigger stage.”
Keeping her sheep projects to a careful exercise-and-feeding schedule is only part of the daily work Whetstone takes on to win. Establishing a bond with each individual animal and understanding their unique quirks — both at the feed trough and in showmanship situations — is a big focus in her operation.
Ultimately from selection to the show ring, Whetstone wants every outcome to be a direct result or her efforts at home — win or lose.
“What makes the wins more meaningful for me is that at the end of the day I can tell myself I earned it,” Whetstone said. “When I walk into the ring I know that leading up to that point I have put all the work in to achieve the end result.”