I’m standing against a seven-foot-tall livestock fence made of round metal tubing. My boots are sinking into the damp soil of a loamy bull-riding arena. And I’m not alone. There are a dozen parents with me, including several women who look like suburban soccer moms and several fathers with close-cropped haircuts and the sorts of wraparound sunglasses you wear only if you play outfield for the Dodgers or take fishing very seriously. Everyone is white. Everyone is working-class. Everyone looks like they would spend a Saturday afternoon in a rodeo grounds constructed by the interstate in rural Ohio.
We are all focused on the massive, beat-up bull chute gate. As we watch, a cowboy tugs a rope to heave open the gate and a roughly 100-pound sheep darts out with a 6-year-old, 40-pound girl, armored in a hockey helmet and reinforced vest, clinging to its back. The girl squeezes her legs around the sheep’s middle. Her arms reach around the animal’s shoulders, her fingers seeking purchase in the wool. She rides — if you can call it that, it’s more like clinging — for about five seconds. Then gravity and fear and the wriggling beneath her collaborate to deposit her abruptly and head-first into the dirt. Her helmet clatters.
“Oh, shit,” mutters a man I presume to be her dad. It’s a thought many of us parents will have today, and many parents have had before us because today we are mutton busting.
The first documented mutton-busting competition went down at the National Western Stock Show in Colorado sometime around 1980. The event was sponsored by former rodeo queen Nancy Stockdale Cervi, but further details are hard to come by. Mutton busting has historically been, after all, more of a casual pastime, something ranch kids too small to break horses or ride bulls did to pass the time and prove their mettle.
The leap from folk children’s pastime to spectator sport was inevitable. The youth sports industrial complex is a world-eater and parents in rural communities are both deeply proud of their children and, frankly, looking for entertainment. Mutton busting checks a lot of boxes. What’s a bit harder to imagine is how mutton busting became increasingly popular through the 1990s and 2000s as American parents became increasingly, obsessively protective of their children. But it did. Counterprogramming, I suppose.
Now, thousands of kids ride thousands of sheep on thousands (or maybe hundreds) of rodeo grounds across the country every year. Mutton busting is the standard opening act for big boy rodeo, and rodeo is not going out of style anytime soon. From Washington state to Reno, to Houston, to Minneapolis, to where I am in Northeastern Ohio, mutton busting is a staple at state and county fairs and livestock shows. It’s on the up-and-up. It’s very much a thing.
Still, this ain’t Little League. There’s no nationally recognized set of rules or governing body for mutton busting. That would go against the ethos of the thing. At its most basic level, mutton busting is simply a contest where kids attempt to ride an untrained (and untrainable) sheep longer than their peers. Like bull riders, mutton busters are given a random sheep and their rides are typically judged by the same judges who work bull competitions. At state or national stock shows, prizes are given for the rider with the best time and style. But at smaller, local competitions, mutton busting is mostly a reward of its own, a way for kids to take risks and delight fans who thrill at the sheer rough-and-tumble cuteness of it all.
Mutton busting is inarguably charming. Seeing a child on the back of a sheep is every bit as weird, funny, and thrilling as seeing a monkey riding a dog, or a bear riding a bicycle. It feels like it shouldn’t be happening, and there’s a distinct sense that the whole shebang could go terribly wrong at any moment. But for a few seconds, it’s terribly adorable until the child hits the dirt, at which point it’s terribly concerning, and then, finally, triumphant when the kid walks away unharmed. In other words, it’s a helluva ride for spectators and riders, both.
I live 20 miles from Cleveland and roughly 56 miles as the crow drives from Creek Bend Ranch, a sprawling, pro bucking-bull breeding center with a rodeo grounds at its center called Buckin’ Ohio. I decided to visit for the first time after getting this assignment and opted to bring my boys because it’s precisely the sort of thing I wouldn’t normally do. I am — and I pride myself on this — a reassuring presence in my boys’ very safe lives. But that presents problems. A little bit of nervousness can be good. Challenges can be good. I want to raise kids who know how to cowboy up. And this is where ranch owner Eileen Thorsell and her cast of bull riders and stock handlers come in.
Thorsell is a kind, grandmotherly presence. Her face, framed by wispy blond hair, is delicately lined with fine wrinkles formed by her permanent smile. She is a bit distractible, but in a way that shows her wonder about the world. During our first conversation on the phone, as I was arranging my trip to the ranch, she stopped abruptly, mid-sentence to delightedly describe a bluebird that had landed outside her office window. When she speaks, every sentence seems to start with a smoky chuckle.
But Thorsell doesn’t take shit. She dishes it out. Her commands to her workers are blunt, unapologetic, and obeyed without question. This is likely a byproduct of her work. She breeds and cares for bucking bulls as well as sheep. Being around them requires sharpness and care. In Thorsell’s line of work, a few staccato words uttered and obeyed can mean the difference between life and death.
Thorsell has been holding mutton-busting competitions as part of her monthly summer professional bull-riding programs for 17 years. Each year during the mutton-busting season, kids can ride at all five of Buckin Ohio’s pro bull-riding events at the ranch. Just like the grownups, they are given points for their ride. The kid with the most points at the end of the season gets a big belt buckle, just like the pros. Looking to increase competition for that brass ring, Thorsell started her mutton-busting “school” five years ago, offering a single morning of training for brave kids willing to give the sport a go — kids, in many cases, without sheep at home. Kids between the ages of 5 and 9, and weighing no more than 65 pounds, get instruction, safety gear, and lunch.
Because this is 2019, parents sign a waiver of liability and indemnity which explicitly places responsibility on the parents if kids get hurt while busting. That’s the price of entry. Also $65.
“We decided to do the school because it’s fun for kids,” Thorsell says matter-of-factly. “Especially for kids who really aren’t exposed to animals at all — kids from the city. It gives them a fun experience.”
That’s exactly what I was hoping for my own children, whose exposure to livestock has been relegated to children’s books with cows that can type and the occasional petting zoo with belligerent, snack-crazed goats.
But it was clear that some of the 19 kids in our group — chasing each other through the gravel of a half-scale Western town built from a variety of sheds — were quite familiar with the sport they were supposed to learn. One kid, in particular, stood out, and not simply because he was wearing a construction-orange T-shirt and a black eye. It was more about his intense focus and high energy. I learned in group introductions that his name was Jason. He was a small 5-year-old with close-cropped, blond hair, and a stocky compact frame. He’d ridden sheep before.
“I got a shiner because I jumped off something and when I landed my knee hit my eye,” he told the group. His mother, Ashley McCarty, grinned sheepishly. There were scattered giggles.
Jason started his mutton-busting career having competed the week before in Buckin’ Ohio’s first event of the season. He’d learned about the sport from their neighbors, his mother tells me. His interest was so intense, she says, that they went to a livestock auction and bought a lamb. It’s too small to ride yet, so they’ve come to the school for more practice.
“He really loves this,” she told me. “I’m scared it’s going to lead to bull riding, which I think is going to happen. But I can’t hold him back. He’s either going to do it with me knowing or behind my back, which can be more risky. I’d rather be by his side and support him.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about Jason. He is energetic and fearless. He talks to the bull riders as if he were one of them, teasing them back in his own excited drawl when they tease him. He looks like a handful compared to my boys, who are more timid and say, “Excuse me,” before asking questions — and who sit on a bench, just one row in front of Jason with looks of growing apprehension on their faces.
We are gathered by the bull-riding arena, surrounded by empty aluminum grandstands. A giant banner proclaims the presence of a massive bull named Trump. Old Glory proliferates. Jason can’t sit down. He’s all in. But he’ll have to wait just a bit longer while Thorsell quizzes the group about sheep.
“How did sheep come to the U.S.?” she asks.
A flurry of answers: By a trailer! From England!
“But who brought them to America?” Thorsell clarifies.
“God?” asks a small voice.
“Well, God made sheep, yes. But they were brought to America by Columbus!” Thorsel says before continuing her quiz. And while that sounds apocryphal, it’s true. Columbus did bring sheep to the New World in 1492, but they did not proliferate on the American continent until Cortez further aided the spread of sheep into Western North America and Mexico.
We also learn that sheep are mentioned in the Bible 500 times.
The non-biblical sheep that Jason and my kids will ride with unequal success today likely have genetic signatures from those first American sheep. A ranch hand, slopping through mud in the tangled maze of livestock pens lines the sheep up in a tight line. Their hooves schluck through the mud at the end of sleek black legs that emerge incongruously from fluffy oblong bodies of unshorn wool, kinked in tight tufts and curls. Their long black pointed faces are held tight to their neighbor’s flanks to find comfort and protection while their watchful eyes take in the scene.
Sheep information acquired, we are introduced to a cowboy named Dusty. He wears a brown beaver-felt top hat with a feather stuck in a hatband adorned with coral-colored beads. He also sports a neat, but voluminous goatee, round mirrored sunglasses, and an enormous belt buckle. He’ll be our children’s instructor for the day. He’s joined by two 20-something bull riders named Brooks Robinson and Luke Praghen. They sport cowboy hats and relaxed grins. Robinson wears a red T-shirt tucked into his jeans, while Praghen sports suspenders with his jeans tucked into his boots.
Dusty begins with a simple explanation: “When you get on the sheep, you’re going to lay flat on their back, put your head to one side and give them a big bear hug,” he says in a deep jocular drawl. And that’s about it. He leads the children to a small pen where they are placed on hay bail or cooler to practice their form.
“There you go, cowgirl! Ride ’em!” he says to Kaliyah Pierce who is wearing a bright pink cowboy hat and matching blouse. She’s one of four girls here among the boys. She’s not being treated any differently.
Jason keeps asking Dusty to give him a fast sheep. He practices dutifully while a bull rider jostles the cooler, but he’s clearly ready for more. Dusty likes the kid immediately and starts calling him “Squirrely” or “Squirrel.”
“There’s my Squirrel,” he says as Jason clings to cooler.
The sheep are taken into the chute one by one and lifted onto the back of the sheep to practice their form. The animals do not seem perturbed by this turn of events, and Dusty talks gently to each kid, offering pointers and teasing them gently.
“Hug it like you would hug your Daddy if he was away for a week,” Dusty encourages one child. “Hey, I think this kid fell asleep,” he jokes with another.
Jason starts to protest the sobriquet Dusty has given him, but his mother, ever watchful from the sidelines, chimes in.
“You always said you wanted a nickname,” she calls to him. “Well, now you got one.”
I ask Jason’s mom, a thin brunette sporting a star-spangled blouse, aviator shades, and cutoff jean shorts, why she decided to be so supportive of the endeavor. “You’re going to make them stronger and it’s way better than them being in front of a TV,” she says. That’s her biggest worry, that Jason will become too enamored with the TV. She tells me she does everything she can to keep him away from screens.
This makes a lot of sense to me.
Soon the first kid is ready to leave the chute. This is what we’ve been waiting for. The gate opens and the sheep darts out. It all happens so quickly. The kid hugs and clings, the face-mask of his helmet buried into the thick wool of the sheep’s back. But seconds later, the kid is on his back on the soft dirt, being helped up by Luke who pats him gently on the back asking if he’s OK. And he is.
Not all of the rides end so easily. A couple of kids land hard in the arena, with the plastic of their helmet clattering. When they are helped up, some are tearful. They have dirt in the grill of their helmets and mud on their goggles, and they are shaken up.
When my youngest son leaves the chute, he’s unbalanced, in less than a second he slips off the side of his sheep and lands with a thud. I suck air in through my teeth as he rolls over quietly in the dirt and starts to cry a long low wail. I run to him along with the two bull riders and help him up. We ask if he’s hurt, but he’s more surprised than anything. The two young bull riders are bent at the waist beside him, leaning close and talking into his ear gently. They are kind and encouraging.
“It doesn’t hurt as much as it did, right?” Luke asks. My son hiccups and nods. “Attaboy, you did it,” Luke says softly handing him over to me as we walk out of the arena. My sons crying stops, faster than usual. I am unfathomably proud of him.
My older boy rides later, encouraged by Luke, who says he’ll stay with him during the ride. And true to his word Luke lopes alongside the sheep as my reluctant mutton buster rides. Luke pulls him free by the back of his jeans before he can crash in the dirt. Nevertheless, as my kid walks out of the arena, he has tears in his eyes. The ride jarred a few teeth loose, he tells the bull riders. Luke smiles.
“Ain’t never been a bull rider that didn’t lose his teeth,” he says pointing over at Brooks, who is at my son’s other shoulder. Brooks grins revealing a large gap in his row of pearly teeth. “And he’s 28,” Luke laughs.
My boys are content with one ride for the day. But Jason and Kaliyah both put in two stellar rides. They are naturals, which surprises Kaliyah’s father, Matt Bowman, a great deal and Jason’s mother not at all.
“We actually didn’t think she’d go as far as she did,” Bowman says. But he’s pleased she did. He feels like novel adventures like mutton busting can help her improve her cognitive abilities. And just like Jason’s mom, Ashley, he worries that kids are being taken in by technology.
“Too many kids sit and play video games and play on their parents’ phones. They need to be exposed to everything,” Bowman says. “There aren’t as many farmers as there used to be and there aren’t as many farms. They’re all disappearing to make housing developments. Plus, kids don’t talk about their best day of playing video games ever. They’ll talk about this for life.”
Jason rides his sheep nearly across the length of the arena. When he falls he pops up and pumps his fist, swaggering, bow-legged like the big boys, back to the bull chute. Dusty intercepts him and offers a fist-bump.
“There you go, Squirrel! Riding bulls and punching fools!” he hollers, then points to Praghen. “You rode the bull now punch that fool.”
Jason runs at Praghen, swinging. The bull rider grins and laughs, dancing nimbly out of the way with his hand on Jason’s helmet to hold him at bay.
At the end of the day, despite some rough falls, the kids are happy as they eat hot dogs and peanut-butter sandwiches. Sure, some kids come away with scrapes and bruises, but nothing serious. As parents, we have given our kids something to do, access to risk, and a story to tell. There’s also a certificate of completion. Even mutton busters hand out participation trophies.
Driving home, the boys fall asleep in the car. As we take the youngest out of his carseat, we find a piece of wool clutched in his hand, a reminder of how he was a cowboy. If only for a literal second. He’s a different kid than Jason, and I don’t see rodeo in his future, but I don’t regret putting him on a sheep. A bit of busting did far more good than harm.