Grabbing the sheep by the wool

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American Royal’s mutton busting is a fan favorite for some, family time for others

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For a good portion of her life, Jennifer Pope’s participation in rodeo was as a fan.

That’s changed, now. With her husband, Bret, they are now the parents of rodeo cowboys, and there’s not much that’s going to change that for their three boys: Jess, 13; Ty, 10; and Judd, 6. Most weekends, you’ll find the Popes traveling from their Garnett, Kan., home to a rodeo of some sort so the boys can do their thing.

And for the youngest, part of that competitive fire will take place during the American Royal Rodeo during the mutton busting, a competition for youngsters who get their first taste of the rodeo lifestyle while riding sheep. It’s always a fan favorite, which is why it’s always a big piece of the puzzle for the annual rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, and Saturday, Sept. 29, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, at Hale Arena in the American Royal complex.

For the first time, children will be able to sign up to mutton bust at the American Royal. Competition will take place at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. before the rodeo Friday and Saturday, and at 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Anyone under the age of 7 can sign up to compete. It is $10 to participate, and the top kids from each go will get to compete in the pro rodeo.

“We were involved in 4-H and county fairs,” said Jennifer Pope, who grew up outside of Olathe. “Usually when you have a county fair, the rodeo is always involved.

“When I was a kid, my mom would have season tickets for the American Royal Rodeo when it was like 10 days long, so I’ve been around it all my life.”

It wasn’t until she took the oldest boys to the Franklin County (Kan.) Fair a few years ago that the rodeo bug hit full time. She asked if they wanted to ride sheep, and the family’s riding legacy was formed. Now Jess is a junior bull rider, and Ty is a steer rider. Judd rides sheep and is a wool fighter – the junior equivalent of a rodeo bullfighter who works inside the arena to keep cowboys out of harm’s way during the bull riding.

So why is mutton busting such a big deal?

In addition to getting the crowd into the fun of the sheep-riding, it’s a way for youngsters to fall in love with the sport.

“I think it’s good for kids because we need to get more kids involved in the sport itself,” Pope said. “It’s a stair-step to get them involved in the other things like calf riding and sheep riding. Even for the timed-events, these kids get to be around the roping side of rodeo, too, so they can learn so much.”

Now the family is heavily involved, oftentimes traveling to events in Oklahoma so the boys can participate. The appeal, though, goes far beyond the competition itself.

“It’s something we do together,” Pope said. “We travel together, and we get a lot of time together in that vehicle. You also get to know a lot of people … a lot of really good people. You know if you break down, somebody is going to be there for you.

“We have a lot of people we know through rodeo that are closer to us than our own family members. That’s why rodeo is a family. You can count on each other.”


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