During the final weekend of the National Western Stock Show, January 21 and 22, the underbelly of the Denver Coliseum was a mirage of leather and rhinestones. The musk of livestock and hay held in the air.
For city slickers eager to get their cowboy on, the aroma might have been a little overwhelming. But for those who live in the world of rodeo and agriculture, it’s the smell of a way of life.
On Saturday night, nine children were lined up against a wall wearing protective vests and hockey helmets with metal face cages. Debbie Mills, a veteran Stock Show volunteer, peered through an arena entryway leading to the bucking chutes and waited for a cue to usher in the children. Announcer Boyd Polhamus conducted the rodeo events with his buttery voice, and when he said “mutton bustin’,” Mills sprang into action. With the help of Mills and their parents, the children walked to a holding area behind the chutes, their small bodies suddenly submerged in bright white light. Loud applause rippled through the crowd. Exceptionally woolly sheep were huddled in an adjacent pen.
The rodeo schedule was tight, and the volunteers had exactly four minutes to pull off a mutton bustin’ show.
Mutton bustin’ takes place at rodeos and fairs across the country. The premise is simple: Children ages five to seven ride sheep across an arena and try to hold on for as long as they can. For the safety of the sheep, children must be under 55 pounds and can’t wear equipment like spurs.
At the Stock Show, announcer Polhamus gives each rider a score based on how long they stay on the sheep, how far down the arena they make it, and how good of a grip they have on the wool. The winner receives a $100 voucher from Stock Show sponsor Frontier Airlines.
After the event, children line up in the middle of the arena and professional cowboys hand each a three-and-a-half-foot-tall trophy. The crowd goes wild.
Mutton bustin’ at the Stock Show is extremely popular. Registration opens on February 1 a year prior to the next annual event, and hopeful contestants are placed in a lottery system. There are 26 rodeos at the Stock Show, and all but four include mutton bustin’. About ten mutton busters participate in each of those rodeos.
The event was introduced to the Stock Show in the early 1980s by Nancy Cervi. Cervi’s husband, Mike, is the founder of Cervi Championship Rodeo, a renowned rodeo-production company. The Cervis do everything rodeo-related, from raising bucking horses and livestock to managing the logistics of each rodeo performance. They also supply the mutton bustin’ sheep, which are selected based on their size and kept woolier so the kids can get a good grip.
The origins of mutton bustin’ are foggy, but Nancy Cervi says it might have been spread to the rodeo-circuit masses in the ’70s by Jim Houston, a world-champion bareback rider of the ’60s.
“I haven’t been able to find out where it actually first started, but back then I heard they were doing it up in Idaho,” Houston says. He brought mutton bustin’ to a rodeo he was producing. “There were a lot of tourists that came to the rodeo,” like families from New York and California, Houston says. “One night we didn’t have any local kids who wanted to ride, so we signed up some kids from back east, and it was a big hit!”
Nancy Cervi points out how mutton bustin’ makes the rodeo accessible for more people. “Kids don’t have to own a horse or be part of an agricultural family to learn and be part of the rodeo. [Mutton bustin’] does a lot for the kids’ self-esteem.”
One of the mutton busters participating in the Stock Show last weekend was seven-year-old Hayden McKee of Castle Rock. She competed in the event last year, but next year she’ll be too old, so this was her final ride.
A few hours before the start of the afternoon rodeo on Saturday, McKee waited patiently in the National Western Complex with her older brother Chase and her mother, Cammie. McKee was wearing pint-sized boots and a pink plaid button-up.
She didn’t grow up on a ranch or a farm, but her grandfather, Pat Grant, is chairman of the Stock Show, and she has been raised with an appreciation for the culture.
“I’ve been practicing in my basement,” McKee said, her voice soft but sure. “I go on my brother’s back, and I grab him.”
McKee’s oldest brother, Beau, was the first mutton buster in their family and introduced the sport to his two younger siblings.
“It was really important for me to try and instill appreciation for agriculture, the Western way of life and hard work in our kids,” mother Cammie said. “And this is a fun way to expose them to it.”
She said riding sheep may seem like just a silly pastime, but that it instills certain values in children.
“Yes, it’s only a sheep, but a sheep is a powerful, large animal, and after the child has the opportunity to ride, I think that child develops a respect for the power and strength of the sheep,” she said. “It’s a cute, fun activity. It’s certainly entertaining, but I think there are all these other dynamics that come out of this.”
Before Saturday’s mutton bustin’ event, helmets and protective vests were laid out on some tables. After a rousing performance of the national anthem, volunteer Mills (one of 600 at the Stock Show) escorted the mutton busters to the tables to get suited up. “Are you going to ride with your eyes open or closed?” Debbie asked as she adjusted the chin piece on Hayden McKee’s helmet. “Open,” she replied without hesitation. She is the event’s sixth rider of nine.
As they geared up for the event, the youngsters were led in some stretching exercises by volunteers. The riders did jumping jacks and squeezed and opened their hands to warm up their fingers. A bucking-bronco rider with a large arm brace sauntered past them. Eighteen eyes trailed him.
Two rodeo queens walked around the corner, and the eighteen eyes shifted their focus. Rodeo queens volunteer with the mutton busters during each rodeo; this time it was Crystal Hart, Miss Rodeo Washington, and Lisa Lageschaar, Miss Rodeo America. Both wore sashes and white cowboy hats adorned with rose-gold detail. They led the mutton busters in another round of warm-ups, trying to keep their minds occupied in the final minutes before they rode.
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As the volunteers ushered the children into the arena, the crowd roared. One sheep was released from the pen so that the others, natural herd animals, would follow. Rider number one was placed on a sheep’s back, and the animal took off running.
Everything after that was a blur of wool and dirt. Hayden’s ride was short but steady. She was gripping the wool as hard as she could, but the powerful stride of the sheep sent her sliding off to one side. She hit the ground, and the rodeo queens were quick to run over and pick her up. Polhamus gave her a respectable 78 points.
A strong contestant named Blake won with 98 points. After the brief trophy ceremony, the children headed back out of the arena to remove their gear and take photos with the rodeo queens.
Hayden said she kept her eyes open during the whole ride.