You’re never too young to start your rodeo career, even if you don’t want to take it to a professional level. At the children’s mutton busting patch set up on the fairgrounds’ midway, children of all ages are invited to partake in a bit of sheep riding, so long as they are 50 pounds are under.
Any child is invited to participate, and is outfitted with a protective vest and helmet as they hit the eight-inch thick dirt in a race to the pen’s end. Objective: hold on a cross the short stretch without falling off.
The event is one gaining ground locally, and has been a part of the outside activities among the carnival for the past three years, Angelo State University Agriculture Professor Corey Owens says.
Video: Kyler O'Neil of Wall, Texas scores 90 points during this Mutton Bustin' ride at the third performance of the rodeo, Feb. 15, 2014:
“They have competitive mutton bustings at every major stock show nowadays,” Corey explains. “We started this one outside, here on the midway, three years ago and it’s been very successful. We’ll have mutton busting inside in the coliseum during all the performances and so forth. This was an opportunity to let kids that don’t have the opportunity to get inside the coliseum to be able to participate in it.”
The 30 sheep on the midway mutton busting are on loan from the Angelo State University Research Center, where they are raised, bred and marketed. Despite the newness of the open event at the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo and the relative newness of mutton busting in general, Owens says the event is gaining in popularity.
“It’s usually pretty popular. Last year we had over 400 kids do it in the two weekends that we were out here, so yeah, it’s really popular,” he says. “I would say probably within the past eight years is when it’s gotten really, really popular. There’s some of these that are really, really big, and ours is growing, it’s just in its infancy. It doubled in popularity last year from the previous year and I’m hoping to do the same this year.”
On a good night, Owens says each of the 30 sheep will run three times. The dirt is soft and eight inches thick so children don’t injure themselves, and the decision to ride is left up to the parents. The first rider on Friday, Owens said, was a little girl who is 2-years-old. “…the biggest thing they ever do is every time they hit the ground you can tell how soft the dirt is because it will pack in the mask,” he said. “It’s relatively safe.”
The sheep selected are between 2- and 5-years-old, sturdy and healthy, so as to provide a good ride without overtaxing them. For the animal’s safety, children over 50 pounds are not permitted to ride. “You start getting kids that are any bigger than that, the sheep, they can’t run as fast, so it starts to get a little heavy for them,” Owens said.
While the outdoor event is open to all, occasionally, a real good buster emerges and as invited inside. One child qualified in the midway pen last year and was brought into the coliseum for the mutton busting that takes place during rodeo performances.
“He did really good so we took him to the coliseum and he rode the sheep one and a half times around the coliseum,” Owens recalls the young mutton buster. “[He] wouldn’t let go. If you get a kid that’s sticky, the sheep will keep running as long as the kid will hang on. He did an outstanding job. We’ll always have several in here that will ride them all the way to the back of the pen.”
One such kid is Michael Rodriguez, who was on the fairgrounds Friday afternoon waiting for his “knucklehead” brother to arrive and try his hand at mutton busting. Rodriguez himself has three rides behind him, but has unfortunately outgrown the event since last year at a proud 61 pounds.
“I did it last year three times,” he said. “I passed the half line, then I fell off. Then the second time I went on, the sheep went crazy and ran into the fence and I fell off. The last time, I almost made it—I made it to the end. It’s fun.”
Mutton busting on the midway will take place on weekends throughout the rodeo at varying times.