Culture / Sporting Life

Behind the Scenes at Mutton Bustin’ — When Kids and Sheep Collide: Dreams of Being Jose Altuve, Funny Rides, the Tough Cut and Slushie Celebrations

BY // 03.10.18
photography Annie Gallay

At The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, it’s not Mutton or Bust. It’s Mutton and Bust. The now classic competition where 5- and 6-year-old kids ride sheep like bulls steals the show — and the crowds heart — each and every night.

There’s nothing as endearing or flat-out funny as Mutton Bustin.’ Kids falling off that wool on wheels is a given. The pint-sized competitors shake it off while the audience shakes with laughter. People get truly invested in these seconds-long sheep rides. Or sometimes, even shorter.

Every night after the Calf Scramble, 14 to 15 pint-sized cowboys and cowgirls have muttons, but they don’t all have the chops to be a champion. Consider them RodeoHouston winners on a small scale. They go zooming out of the chute one at a time, hands gripping the furry ewe.

The sheep are unpredictable, given to swerving and stopping short. Some kids still manage to cling on all the way until the sheep runs into the growing herd at the end of the track.

The strategy is simple, 5-year-old Brynn tells PaperCity. “Put your feet on their sides. Then you have to hold onto their neck tight.”

And if that doesn’t work? “Hold on more tighter,” Brynn replies.

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A common trait among these junior athletes: patient, patient parents. Each and every child that walks wide-eyed into NRG Stadium in their official vest and helmet has taken a ride on one, or both, of their parents.

You’ll hear a variation of “I practiced on my dad,” or “with dad in the living room,” from every contestant. You’d better believe there’s bucking.

With a weight limit of 35 to 55 pounds, it could be worse. Six-year-old contender Tannon took both of his parents for a practice spin. He gives himself a goal time: six seconds.

Mutton Bustin 5
The children test the dirt of the competition floor.

The longest-ever ride clocked in at “probably 10 or 12 seconds,” Mutton Bustin’ committee chairman Rainey Janke says. “There are some kids that fall off immediately. There are some that hold on for as long as they can.”

Some are motivated by the thought of victory. Kasen, age five, has a one-track mind. Why does he do it? “So I can win,” he says plainly. He fuels up for his race with cookies.

Mutton Bustin’ has been Houston tradition for nine years now. The unconventional sport came to Bayou City by way of San Antonio.

The first year, “It was crazy,” Janke says. The little rascal race predates the committee. Initially, there was a task force of 75 volunteers. Now, there’s a committee of 440. “It was a huge crowd-pleaser from the beginning,” Janke says.

There were a few kinks to iron out, on the adult end. “With the kids it came naturally,” Janke says. But some city slicker volunteers weren’t so quick to adapt to living it up with livestock. “It was a transition,” Janke laughs.

Mutton Bustin’ 101

You can find two types of Mutton Bustin’ at RodeoHouston: arena-style and walk-up. Out on the carnival grounds, parents can pay $15 for their children to Mutton Bust. Hours run from 11 am to 7 pm. “That’s more of an attraction,” Janke says.

Riding in the arena is a whole other ballgame. Contestants must apply by November. Every year, 2,500 kids sign up for a total of 300 spots. A lottery system narrows it down.

All of the winners come back to battle it out on the Houston Rodeo’s very last night. Each has already earned a buckle the size of the their head.

These rodeo reenactments aren’t just for recreation. The little kids have big dreams. That’s Janke’s hands-down favorite part of the event. “It’s the kids and their honest responses!” he says.

A little girl named Marley won the first night of the 2018 season. She told the crowd she wants to be a spy when she grows up so that she can stop the bad guys. “That’s just such an honest, innocent response,” Janke says.

Wyatt Sowell, Wednesday night’s winner, said he wanted to be a Houston Astros player. Jose Altuve of course. Sowell was a little man of few words, “very happy” to have won.

He could tell he was in the lead — despite an unclear scoring system that even leaves the adults scratching their heads— while he was still straddling his sheep. He earned 86 points and made it across the makeshift field with the animal.

“I was thinking I was,” Sowell says. “I just did.” He celebrated afterwards with his twin sister, Maizey, who also competed. The two drank down “blue and raspberry” slushies.

Winning has never looked so cute.

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