Sheep gone wild

mutton webI’ve finally found it! Here’s the first thing that’s made me say, “no way my kid’s doing that.” It’s mutton busting.

We didn’t know anything about it before we showed up at the Routt County Fair last weekend. I saw it listed on the day’s schedule of events: Mutton Busting, open to kids 3 through 7. Hmm, I thought. My daughter qualifies: She’s three. Should be fun.

So I waltzed by the fair office to inquire if any open spots remained. “Nope,” I was told. “Mutton busting is all full. More than full, actually.” Simone will be bummed to hear that, I thought. I myself was a tad disappointed. Sure enough, when we climbed into the bleachers to watch the other kids, Simone cried, “I want to ride a sheep too!”

“Next year,” we assured her. “You watch it once, and then next year you’ll know what to do.” Except I’m pretty sure there’s not going to be any next year—not for this family, anyway.

A trailer full of sheep was parked beside the pen where kids would try to cling, for as long as they could, to the shorn backs of frenzied, 160-pound ewes. Four burly men were assigned the brutally physical task of herding the animals one by one into the staging pen. It looked like a Sumo match, except it was crouched man against lunging sheep. The teenager standing in the trailer with sheep got stampeded when they bolted, en masse, for the open door. Kids were fitted with full-face helmets and chest pads. Ben and I exchanged glances.

The first tot was loaded onto the sheep’s back, the gate sprung open, and the kid promptly landed in the dust. The second kid emerged from the pen riding backwards, ankles locked around the sheep’s neck and hands gripping its haunches. He rode to the end of the pen before he was bucked. All good.

Then the wreckage really began. One kid’s head got stuck between the bars of the pen as the sheep bolted out. Another landed so hard, she was carried away. She soon joined her family beside us on the bleachers, crying as she held a paper towel over a bloody nose and complaining that her back hurt. Hm. Another kid was also carried out after he couldn’t stand up on his own: The sheep had stepped on his thigh during the fracas.

“The trick is, you can’t let them see what’s going on until it’s their turn to ride,” I overheard one mother say as I waited for my hot dog at the American Legion lunch trailer. Her two kids wore red “Mutton Buster” t-shirts, and had emerged from the stunt unharmed. But as she described other injuries—ones I hadn’t noticed from my seat in the bleachers—the tally started to seem like an awfully heavy toll. Suspected concussions. Suspected bone breaks.

Nope, I decided. Simone’s not going for that shirt. Maybe if she were a farm kid, the type who’d grown up riding beasts the way my daughter grew up riding bicycles, who’d developed the instinct for how an animal moves and how to separate yourself from its bucking mass before disaster strikes--maybe then she would be ready for such an arena.

Then again, maybe not.

Click here to browse more of my family blog posts for the Steamboat Today and