LOVINGTON, N.M. – Whether they ride bucking beasts or rope and wrestle steers, many cowboys in ProRodeo today got their starts as youngsters just dreaming of playing on the big stage.
For a big number of those, some of their first steps involved riding sheep, better known as mutton busting. Rodeos all across the country have added the event – which features youngsters of a certain age and weight – to their programs.
But the Lea County Fair and Rodeo takes things to a different level.
“The people are beating down the door to enter the mutton busting this year,” said Larry Wheeler, chairman of the Lea County Fair Board. “It looks like we’ll have over 200 kids for our slack (on July 31). That’s a lot of kids wanting to ride sheep.”
Yes, it is. Out of those, the top 40 scores will advance to the four performances of the PRCA rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4-Saturday, Aug. 7, at Jake McClure Arena. Mutton busting will serve as a pre-show and will begin around 7 p.m. each night.
“It’s just something those younger kids can get involved in,” Wheeler said, noting that many people arrive at the arena early so they can witness the excitement and fun that comes with mutton busting. “I know it’s a big deal for a lot of the parents, but I also know that a lot of the kids enjoy it, too.”
They should. The children are outfitted with protective vests and helmets, and they hang on to the sheeps’ tightly. The longer they stay on the running animal, the better the score. Some will not make it far out of the chute, while others will ride the sheep for several seconds. And since the sheeps’ reactions are unscripted, just about anything can happen in mutton busting.
The event was developed decades ago, and the first recorded instances date to the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Nancy Cervi, the wife of stock contractor Mike Cervi and the matriarch of Colorado-based Cervi Rodeo, came up with the idea, and it has expanded from one coast to the other.
With 40 qualifiers to the performances, the Lea County Fair and Rodeo will host 10 mutton busters per night.
“More than anything, we have people who love to watch kids ride sheep,” Wheeler said. “But it’s always fun to see how much people enjoy our mutton busting. It is definitely a tradition, and we have great support for it in Lea County.”