Grab some wool and hold on.
Mutton busting, the sport where kids attempt to ride sheep, spans generations of Jackson Hole Rodeo-goers.
It’s often the way the youngest rodeo aficionados start in the arena, with their heads tucked and little hands gripping fistfuls of wool.
“Kids just love putting on a pair of chaps and a cowboy hat,” Brandon Wilson said.
“I remember my first pair of chaps and cowboy hat,” he said. “You want to be like one of your heroes, and if you’re in the rodeo world, that’s usually a bull rider. It’s a way to live out your dreams as a kid.”
Mutton busting is a way for children to “be a cowboy and not just a spectator,” he said.
Like his dad, Tipton Wilson, 14, started riding sheep when he was around 3 years old. Now, he rides mini-bulls and wins competitions.
“When it came to my turn I felt like I was a part of the rodeo and I got to be there actually doing something,” Tipton said. “It was one of my favorite times because I got to go out there and do what I love to do. That’s all I loved to do: just get on sheep.”
Mutton busting helped Tipton feel like he was doing what his rodeo idols were doing.
“You know that later, when you grow up and get bigger, you’ll be able to do the same thing,” he said.
Sheep ridin’ strategies
Is there any strategy for staying on? Not really, Brandon Wilson said.
“It’s pretty haphazard,” he said. “The idea is to just keep a low center of gravity and hold on.”
Some kids ride backward so the bulk of their weight is closer to the center of the sheep. Others try to ride the sheep like a bull and sit up straight, a tactic that doesn’t always pan out.
“Other than that it’s just grabbing a bunch of wool and holding on,” Wilson said.
His son approached the question a bit more philosophically.
“Just get out there and have fun,” Tipton said. “If your heart is really in it you’ll try your hardest and just kind of sit there and get a good hold and hope for the best.”
Tipton can thank a little luck — and his grandfather Phil Wilson — for introducing sheep to the family.
Phil Wilson rode calves, not sheep, as a child.
“No one had any sheep around here, period,” he said. “We were just never around them.”
(Read a Q&A with Wilson, who runs the Jackson Hole Rodeo, on page 8.)
Sheep as sport
A twist of fate brought sheepherders through Jackson and some lost sheep on the way. It wasn’t worth their while to go back and get them, so Wilson gave them to his kids — one of whom is Brandon Wilson.
Phil Wilson said everything tends to go well as long as the first kid up doesn’t crash.
“If one of them sheds a tear, then you’ve got troubles,” he said.
Bull riders often act as spotters for the mutton busters, picking them off right before they hit the ground.
“It makes a better experience for them,” Wilson said. “They’re just thrilled to death, and they don’t have to hit the ground and bite the dust, as they say.
“You have to build your confidence up before you do it,” he said. “If you lose your confidence and become scared then your ride is over before you start. A lot of rodeo is a head game.”
Although Brandon Wilson said he’s seen “some pretty wild crashes,” that isn’t the norm. He and others involved in facilitating the event try to make it as safe and fun for kids as possible.
“It allows them to participate without having a huge amount of danger,” Wilson said. “I haven’t really seen many head injuries in the sport, but we still try to promote safety in every aspect of the sport.”
That means safety vests and helmets offered to every kid on a case-by-case basis.
“One thing we will not do is let parents force their kids on,” Wilson said. “We want them to have a good experience.”
When Tipton was little, his dad said, he loved riding so much he’d sneak back to the pen. If a child was crying and didn’t want to ride, he’d gladly take his or her place for a second or third try.
Brandon Wilson admitted he did the same when he was young, sneaking behind the chutes until he could be considered a contestant and “had a right to hang out with the big boys.”
Children’s attitudes aside, sheep aren’t always the most willing participants.
“Sheep are not exactly the easiest animals to get to perform,” Brandon Wilson said. “They can be pretty sheepy. They’re stubborn. Very stubborn.”
The sheep he uses are usually the younger, bigger ewes, or female sheep, that didn’t breed and have a baby that spring.
“If you’re a sheep rancher you’re all about making babies and selling the babies to the market next fall,” Wilson said. “A ewe that doesn’t take is no good.
“So we provide a place for them to come out and live on the place and run around and keep our feeders cleaned.”
Rams are occasionally used, but they can be more assertive.
“We don’t want that for the kids,” Wilson said. “We don’t want them having a bad experience at all. Ewes tend to be more docile and a little bit easier to work with in that respect.”
The Wilsons are strong advocates for keeping mutton busting around for generations of rodeo peewees.
“I know sheep can’t talk, but I know they’d rather be sitting at our rodeo, maybe running around the arena once or twice a week, than be in a slaughterhouse,” Brandon Wilson said.
“I’ve never seen any adverse effects of letting kids ride them,” he said.
His father said everyone — from locals to tourists — gets a kick out of watching kids mutton busting.
“The parents get to take pictures,” Phil Wilson said. “If they’ve never been around rodeo, it’s a big deal to have their young boy or girl get to ride a sheep. They can send pictures to grandma and grandpa.”