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.

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