“I’m pretty sure that when the first kid met the first sheep, there was mutton busting,” says Kent Meshishnek, chairman of ticketing and arena director for the Roundup.
Mutton busting is similar to bull riding, except the animal is a sheep and the rider is a child. Typically armed with nothing more than a helmet and sheer will, young children are placed on top of the animal while it is held in the stock chute. Unaccustomed to a passenger, the sheep bolts out of the gate the second it opens.
“Those sheep are so quick,” said Meshishnek. “They go right, then left, and the kids are on the ground.”
Most rides last less than 8 seconds. But it’s 8 seconds of pure comedic fun. Or, for the riders, a dusty adrenaline rush.
“It’s just hilarious how well some of the kids can hang on to these sheep,” said Meshishnek. “Honest to gosh, they look like world-champion bull riders.”
Pint-sized riders, that is. Most competitors are no older than 7 and weigh less than 55 pounds. Though riding on top of up to 175 pounds of woolly fright, children rarely injure either the animal or themselves. Naturally, there are bumps and scrapes, but it tends to be the ego that hits the ground first.
Any event involving sheep and children and helmets is sure to raise an eyebrow or two. The sport has been criticized as abusive both to children — who might cry from disappointing falls or sudden last-minute jitters — and also to animals, who are not shown the respect it is felt they deserve.
To many, the critique is nonsense. The sheep are unharmed and properly cared for. As for the children, those participating generally welcome any opportunity for adult-sanctioned rough-and-tumble play. Those with last-minute stage — or chute — fright are allowed to forfeit their ride, staying in the chute while the sheep runs.
For both audience and participants, mutton busting mostly sounds like fun. Nancy Powell, a Lewiston resident, has fond memories of her own childhood mutton busting. She competed at the local rodeo for several years where she grew up in Northern California.
“It’s a blast,” Powell said. “At the end, you’re just so excited.”
For the adrenaline rush of the ride, the loud cheers from the crowd, and the prospect of winning the coveted belt buckle for mutton busting, this animal-loving, cautious mother welcomed its addition to Sunday’s rodeo lineup.
Growing up on a farm with livestock, Powell wasn’t the least uncomfortable being around a sheep in a chute.
“Any way you want to hang on, you hang on,” said Powell of her sheep-riding technique.
As a smaller child, she tended toward wrapping her arms around the sheep’s neck, but taller kids could manage locking their feet beneath the girth of the animal. Even though her dreams for the coveted belt buckle continually eluded her, Powell loved every minute of it.
“I felt like a big-time cowboy,” she said.
It’s that rough-stock rodeo experience that event coordinators want kids to have. Kids learn that tenacity and toughness will get them far, whether or not they’re on the back of a sheep.
if you go:
What: Lewiston Roundup – Family Day
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lewiston Roundup Grounds, Tammany
Cost: Adult general admission $15, youth general admission $7, family pass $40