Taking the Wool by the Horns

by Natasha Ball


Mutton busting is that curiosity tucked between lines of tall letters on rodeo posters, usually toward the bottom. It’s never explained, what mutton busting even is, and outsiders to cowboy culture assume that it’s some bone-cracking, crudely named rodeo game that everyone who wears an old pair of Ropers knows all about.

The real secret is, you’d find out more asking those rodeo folks where to buy the latest Carrie Underwood album than what you’re in for when the mutton busting part of the program rolls around. I asked around at a bull riding competition in Broken Arrow this summer, and it turned out that a 10-year-old rodeo princess was the best to clue me in:

A child, usually between the ages of five and seven, slides down from the side of a cattle shoot onto the back of a 120-pound-plus ewe. Her wool has been allowed to grow long and thick, and the child digs his ankles into her haunches. He buries his hands to the wrists in the wool behind the sheep’s neck, and he grabs on. He flattens his body against hers. Then the gate opens, and she bolts.

At first, the child looks like a bullet riding bareback. After a few seconds—six, if he’s good—he hits the dirt, maybe spilling head first over the ewe’s shoulder as she stumbles over him, somehow missing his face and his belly and his groin with her lance-like legs. Some of the riders wear chaps and cowboys hats. In many competitions, helmets are optional. Parents are usually required to sign a medical release.

“A friend started riding sheep, right when I was starting to think I’d like to try,” said Evy Becker, the rodeo princess, and the wearer of the tooled leather sash of the Will Rogers Stampede Rodeo. “She fell off, and it broke her elbow. It’s dangerous for the little ones, with their delicate bones.”

The city slickers and goat ropers alike shrugged when the rodeo announcer called the mutton-busting participants to the staging area. It happened after a half hour of bull riding, the chaser to an opening show starring a rodeo queen, pyrotechnics, and a cowboy prayer set to the theme from the movie Titanic.

The first rider scurried out from the crowd, dwarfed by the sheet of numbered paper pinned to his back. Later I saw another boy headed toward the sheep pen, flanked by two men, all three wearing white straw hats. The boy looked up at the man on his right, and I saw his gap-toothed smile. He was beaming, ecstatic with anticipation. I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d look without the rest of his teeth.

After the competition, I found Lanie Collins on tiptoe outside the bull pen. Kaden Collins, her six-year-old son, had just taken first place in the mutton-busting competition. He was standing in the staging area, looking seriously, almost gravely, into the flood light of a TV camera, giving an interview for the local news. “Oh, I bet he’s so nervous,” she said.

But Kaden’s done this before. At home, he has a five-foot trophy he won for mutton busting, along with a collection of belt buckles that are big enough to violate the dress code at his elementary school. He has several of those over-sized checks we’ve all seen on Publishers Clearing House, the kind you’d need either the signature white van, or at least a pick-up truck, to haul home.

Kaden was two the first time his parents put him and his twin sister on the back of a sheep. She was the one who loved to ride back then. Now Kaden rides one-handed, and he opts for a wrap like the bullriders use rather than a fist full of wool. He practices his riding at home on the arm of the living room couch, and sometimes he joins his father—former competitive bullrider Brandon Collins—at the Muskogee rodeo grounds to train. About two years ago, Brandon left his rodeo career after he broke his leg during a ride.

“It was harder to watch his dad compete,” Lanie said. “I mean, those were bulls. These are sheep. His sister has hurt him worse than a sheep has.”

Kaden turned seven in May, forcing him off the sheep forever. Which is fine by him. He’s been itching to switch to calves anyway.