AURORA, Colo. — Kaden Bustamante tottered out of the rodeo arena after the brief, rough ride he had endured on a careening mount landed him face down in the dirt. He spit dust from his mouth and tried to stanch the blood that had begun to pour from his nose.
Then he wailed for his mother. Kaden is 3; this was his first time riding a galloping sheep.
Mutton busting, as the sport is known, is the pint-size equivalent of competitive bull riding. Children cling to the backs of sheep, and generally speaking, whoever stays on the longest wins. But just as in bull and bronco riding, even the most talented rider ends up on the arena floor.
Playing make-believe rodeo with sheep has long been a pastime of rambunctious rural children. But the sport has begun to move from horseplay, and the occasional rodeo halftime show, to wider, sometimes suburban, audiences and competitors, toward becoming a codified sport with its own gear and championships.
Kaden was among the 20 or so children, most 3 to 6 years old, who competed during a mutton-busting event put on by Wool Riders Only at the Arapahoe County Fair here in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. Wool Riders Only is the sheep-riding affiliate of a company, Tommy G. Productions, that produces events like bull riding competitions and demolition derbies.
“I think it builds character,” said Meredith Templin, a registered nurse whose son, J. T., 6, had begged to compete again after finishing second out of about 27 children at last year’s Arapahoe fair. She lamented “this age where we sanitize our kids’ hands every 30 seconds.”
“I think that same mentality of parents being overprotective is the same as not wanting them to experience failure,” she said.
J. T. is small for his age, Ms. Templin said. Successfully riding sheep “did so much for his little ego. He was so proud of himself,” she said. This year he came off quickly and took a hoof to the groin. He dusted himself off and came back for a second ride later that day.
“We are teaching our kids that yes, you are going to fall. You can lose, too, and that can mean something,” Ms. Templin said.
Kaden’s older brother, Logan, 6, competed last year and returned to the fair “to rematch my enemy,” he said. “The sheep.”
But it seemed the sheep was too daunting an adversary. As he was about to mount up, Logan’s chin trembled; he bolted into mother’s arms.
The sport’s popularity seems based in sentiments like Templin’s — a rejection of the trend of bubble-wrapping childhood — and a move toward embracing traditional, rough-and-tumble Western culture, according to interviews with participants.
No data exists for how many children participate nationally, but there are several associations that feature the sport, like the National Junior Bullriders Association, most as a steppingstone to competitive rodeo.
Tommy G. Productions offers the sport to suburban children, as well, and in 2005 expanded from one event at the Colorado State Fair to 16 stops from Dallas to Las Vegas, and a “World Finals,” in Fresno, Calif. Some of the approximately 125 cross-bred Suffolk and Columbia sheep make the tour in a custom, double-decker trailer.
At the Arapahoe County Fair, more than 30 children rode in one day; Wool Riders Only estimates that this summer, 8,000 children will ride — and fall off— its sheep.
“It’s scary to get on a live animal and ride down an arena,” said Lisa Lawson, the director of operations for Tommy G. Productions. “When they do it, they feel like they are invincible.”
Not all feel that way. Avery Martinez, 7, shook and cried after getting a face full of arena dirt at the Arapahoe fair. But her sister, Jordan, 5, hung on to her woolly mount for 2.79 seconds, even when it flipped over.
Even wearing helmets with face cages and protective vests, children do sustain injuries, Ms. Lawson said, usually of the schoolyard variety: scrapes, bruises and the occasional bloody nose. Parents must sign a waiver acknowledging the danger. The sheep sometimes sprain limbs, Ms. Lawson said.In an age of rubber-covered playgrounds, a sport in which a child can have 150 pounds of sheep roll over him defies expectations. That it is gaining in popularity defies comprehension, at least to some people.
“Growing up on the East Coast, you don’t see kids in any kind of danger, ever, and these parents are purposefully putting their kids on these crazy little sheep,” said Stacey Berry, 25, a Massachusetts native who is spending the summer in Jackson, Wyo., and who saw her first mutton-busting event this summer.
“It looks cute; it’s a fun idea,” she said. “But I think it definitely borders on child abuse.”
Mutton-busting regulars reject the analysis.
“It’s not that we’re out there to put our kids out there to get hurt,” said Amy Wilson, 37, who helps run the Jackson Hole Rodeo. Her husband’s family added mutton busting to the rodeo when they took it over a few years ago. “It’s probably just like in the cities,” Ms. Wilson said. “Just like a kid going out for basketball and getting hurt playing basketball, or going out for football and getting hurt playing football.”
Even though her son Tipton, 7, broke an ankle at age 5 when a bolting sheep left him hanging from a gate by one leg when he was practicing at home, he still competes frequently.
One day this month in Jackson, a 2-foot-high cowboy in sky-blue-fringed chaps careened out of the chute, somersaulted off the sheep and rose immediately, dust-covered, pumping tiny fists to wild applause.
At the Wool Riders Only in Aurora a week later, however, would-be riders were far from exultant. Handlers shoved bleating animals into the sheep-size steel chute and hoisted children onto their mounts.
The air in the holding pen was at times as soaked with sobs as the first day of kindergarten. The more suburban a competition, the more tears, said Randy DiSanti, the event’s announcer.
After Lachlan Murphy had a winning ride of 4.89 seconds that day in Aurora, all he could think about was the shiny medallion around his neck. He planned to come back to compete in the weekend championship, even though his sheep had scraped him off on the arena’s metal fence — his mother, Shannon Murphy, said it was her worst fear.
But Lachlan was as staunch as a seasoned cowboy.
“It’s just a small sheep,” he said, clutching his prize. “I just care that I won.”