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Mutton busting: sport of the future? Bill Armstrong takes a break from running the Payson Rodeo to talk to Babble's Infant Industry.

While urban parents jockey for preschool slots and fuss over sandbox safety, some of their more countrified counterparts pay money to have their children ride – and likely be hurled from – giant running sheep. Is this some sort of fairy-tale nightmare punishment? No: it’s the increasingly popular rodeo event called “mutton bustin'” – basically like bull or bronco riding, only with no ropes, no saddles and no riders over fifty pounds. The technique: grab some wool and hang on for dear life. The longer the kids (usually five to seven years old) stay astride – or the harder they cry when they hit the dirt – the louder the crowd cheers them on.No one’s sure how and where mutton bustin’ got started, but the event – like rodeo itself – has become big business. Now, Justin Boots sponsors mutton bustin’ at rodeos nationwide, promoting events and providing protective gear. Bill Armstrong, sixty-nine, who has run the Payson (AZ) Rodeo (the “world’s oldest continuous rodeo”) for twenty-five years, talked to Babble about why mutton bustin’ is not only good for rodeo, but also “the best thing in the world for kids.” – Lynn Harris

How did mutton bustin’ get started?

As far as how it got started – well, I know who started the bulldogging – but this probably just started out as fun, something the younger kids could do when they couldn’t participate in other events. Before mutton bustin’, we used to have a event called the Calf Scramble where the kids would try to take a ribbon off their tails, but turns out calves kick pretty hard. A lot of times kids would get kicked in the jaw or get a tooth knocked out.

But mutton bustin’ is safer?

I’ve watched a thousand of these and I’ve never seen a kid get hurt. Maybe scratched. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s their feelings that get hurt because they get knocked off. Justin Boots provides them a helmet with a mask so the sheep can’t step on their face, and a bulletproof-type vest so that if the sheep steps on their chest all their vital organs are protected.

How popular is it now?

We usually have a waiting list to get kids into the event. It’s really getting big, especially for city people, big-town people from Phoenix and Tucson who don’t really know anything about it. We’ve got parents who call six months ahead of time, or traveling two, three hundred miles to get their kids here. Also now cowboys are traveling with their families, and their little kids, they come ready – though it’s not really fair to have them ride against the other ones.

And it really brings people into the seats; it’s really increased our ticket sales. The crowd loves watching it. Sometimes the announcer will really butter it up and everything – “He’s riding a world champion sheep! He could be the next world champion bull rider!” – though we found out that sometimes that scares the kids. We don’t want to scare them – we just want them to have a good time.

How does the event work?

They ride the sheep right out of the big bucket chute where the bulls start. They have someone to help set them down and get them out. The cowboys get behind them and help them get on and tell them how to hold on. The cowboys are real good about that. And cowgirls, too, you better put.

How do you hold on?

Rather than sitting up on the sheep, they usually lie down and hold on with their hands in the fur, like a monkey riding a football. Some of them have spurs – they just hook ’em in and hang on. The sheep will duck and dive and run and stop real quick – they won’t spin like a horse – because they like to get the kids under them as fast as they can. A lot of kids don’t get out of the chute in the first place, but a lot ride clear to the other end [of the arena]. There is an eight-second clock [as with bull and bronco riding] but they usually don’t last that long, and if they don’t they’re dragging underneath. Usually the rodeo clowns ride along and help pick them up. Or if they make a good ride someone will stop and catch them, too. A lot of times the girls do better than the boys. At that age girls are a little more coordinated.

And then how are they scored?

There’s one judge, usually one of the professional judges. Both the kid and the sheep – how hard he is to ride – are included in the total score, just like with the cowboys. But Justin gives a bandana and a belt buckle that says Mutton Bustin’ Champion to every kid that enters. The winners at each performance get a new pair of boots. We line them up and announce their names and give them their prizes in front of the crowd

What kind of sheep are these “muttons?”

They use a big white sheep that looks like a Suffolk. Preferably before they’ve been sheared or trimmed – that leaves nothing for the kids to hold on to. These sheep are range sheep. They’re not penned-up sheep. They walk two, three hundred miles to get from one pasture to another.

And they don’t hate being ridden?

No, it doesn’t bother them. They like it. They’re just trying to get to the end of the pen so they can eat some more. I’ve never heard any complaints that it’s cruel to them or anything. The PRCA [Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] has real strict rules and I work real close with the humane people here, so if there’d been any problem, I’d have heard about it. There’s nothing tied to them – they just run free. That’s why we keep the kids’ weight limit under fifty pounds. It’s good exercise for the sheep, really. We’re more worried about the kids getting hurt.

Do kids mainly do this for fun, or are they starting rodeo careers?

It’s mostly the novelty of it at first, but the ones that enjoy it could go on and become world champions. Go on and put in there that Ty Murray started out riding sheep. And he’s the seven-time world champion all-around cowboy.

Kids getting thrown off sheep, bursting into tears – there are some parents who’d think this is terrible for kids, if not downright crazy.

It’s the best thing in the world for kids. It gives them athletic ability and coordination. It’s about mental preparation too. It gets them involved with animals, but it’s better than a petting zoo, because they’re riding on top. And if they’re doing that they’re not out there doing something wrong. It’s good wholesome fun. The cowboy life’s a good life. Rodeo used to be a rough sport, but now it’s a nice family sport, and it’s getting bigger and better every day.

Article Posted 8 years Ago
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