Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah, U.S.A.
The fourth day of June, 2017
Summertime – clear skies, hot days, cool nights
Though still in a stupor after a 24 hour plane trip from Kolympari, Crete to Moab, Utah, via Athens, New York, and Salt Lake City,
I changed into cowboy clothes and went off to town just in time to catch the evening performance of the Canyonlands Rodeo.
I grew up in West Texas – never missed a local rodeo – even rode in a few – so missing the Moab rodeo was just not in the cards.
Admittedly, watching a western rodeo while jet-lagged to the max is somewhat hallucinatory. I saw a lot of things that were not there, and others that were there that strained credulity. Here’s an example:
Simply said, mutton busting is an American rodeo event involving sheep and young children. Or more precisely – a full grown female sheep – and a kid between 7 and 9 years of age who weighs less than 65 pounds.
The goal for the kid is to stay aboard the sheep for 8 seconds and get points from judges for style and technique.
There are prizes in the form of ribbons, applause and peer approval.
The goal for the sheep is to shake the kid off, while running as far and as fast as possible. Sheep don’t buck like horses or bulls do, but they can be unpredictably jumpy, and tend to just fall down to unseat a rider.
The prize for the sheep is a return to its flock and its feedbag.
Isn’t this dangerous? Yes and No.
The kid must wear a helmet and face protector, along with upper-body armor – just like many adult bronc and bull riders do. According to the event organizer, the kids don’t get hurt any worse than they do on playground equipment. The arena dirt is very soft. And sheep are pretty mild creatures – they don’t bite or claw or turn around and attack the fallen passenger.
As for the sheep, it’s also a pretty benign experience – no prods or kicks to get them running, and the kids can’t wear spurs or use whips.
Simple job – run like hell and dump the kid off its back.
I’ve chosen my description with care, anticipating concerns from animal rights supporters about sheep abuse, and concerns about child abuse as well.
I neither defend nor condemn mutton busting.
I’m just telling you that it’s become a standard event in rodeos.
There are always more kids who want to ride than the number of available sheep. Their parents must enter them and sign a permission waiver, so I guess parents must approve the sport.
The other side of the argument is that mutton busting offers a sheep exercise, attention, and a short break from the daily life of being a sheep, which is pretty boring, or so it seems to me.
As far as abuse is concerned, we do shear their wool and make clothes out of it. We butcher their lambs to eat, and milk the ewes to make cheese and ice cream and cosmetic products. Sheep are more or less expendable.
They’re not an endangered species – there are more than a billion of them.
In other words, the purpose of a sheep is to be used, one way or another.
Taking a little kid for a full-speed ride on its back is not asking too much of a sheep, but, then, the sheep don’t say.
Why am I telling you this?
For one thing, mutton busting is next to bull riding as the most popular event at the rodeo. For whatever reason, watching a little kid hang on for dear life while a sheep charges into the rodeo arena is hilarious fun for spectators.
The only event guaranteed to provoke laughter.
It’s essentially harmless, unlike the other events that involve horses and steers and bulls. The tenacity with which the little boys and girls hang on is admirable – clinging like Velcro – on the top, sides, and even underneath.
The real crowd-pleasers are those kids who somehow get turned around on the sheep and finish the ride backwards.
It’s hard not to laugh – impossible not to laugh – at mutton busting.
Go to You Tube and take a look at a video – there are many.
Just before I left Crete last week, I told my friend, Michaelas about mutton busting. He’s a shepherd by profession, running several hundred head of sheep – mostly for milk to make cheese and ice cream – and lamb chops.}
He laughed at my story – sure that I was making this up –
Ride a sheep? Ha!
Then I invited him to my house to see videos and photos of the event.
He was dumbfounded – more proof that Americans are crazy.
Would I enter the mutton busting event if I was seven years old and under 65 pounds?
But, alas, I can’t qualify.
Because, as of this day, I am eighty years old and weigh 220 pounds.
And the real reason I’ve written about mutton busting is that today is my birthday, and I didn’t want to write about that or think about that or do anything about that – just avoid the subject.
And that’s what I’ve done.