Six-year-old Tess Bowman plans to don her lucky belt buckle for what could be a wild Saturday-night ride at Folsom’s Dan Russell Rodeo Arena.
The prize: $75 in cash, which she’ll save for her dream car – a large black van.
Her strategy: an indestructible bear hug, just like she’s practiced on Daddy.
Her opponent: the woolliest of barnyard creatures, 130 pounds of mutton capable of hitting speeds of 20 miles per hour.
Mutton busting, a competition in the spirit of American rodeo, has helmet-sporting children ages 5 and 6 riding the backs of full-grown sheep, holding on for seconds of glory before potential flight and touchdown on soft arena dirt.
The competition, which often accompanies standard bull and horse rodeos, has been a part of the Folsom event for the past 20 years. The city’s 54th annual Pro Rodeo started starts today and runs through Saturday.
Each evening features a mutton-busting circuit, with 12 competitors scored on time, crowd response, riding style and their outfit. Participants receive a T-shirt and belt buckle with a bull on the front and their name engraved on the back. Cash prizes are awarded to the top three riders each night.
Rides last anywhere from zero to six seconds, with most cowboys and girls holding on for around three seconds, said Kris Keables, a spokeswoman for the Folsom Chamber of Commerce.
“Some of them get out of the chute and that’s about the total of it,” she said. “Sometimes it takes the rodeo clown to peel them off the sheep.”
Preparing for her third mutton bust, Tess knows the drill and plans to get decked out in full cowgirl regalia – pink shirt, hat and boots.
Tess’ parents asked her if she wanted to try mutton busting at last year’s rodeo. They said they wanted their daughter to get a taste of community involvement through participation.
“It’s nice to go to the rodeo and have somebody to root for,” said Jessica Bowman, her mother.
Tess didn’t win last year’s mutton bust, but she loved doing it, her mother said.
“She pretty much has no fear and would try anything,” Bowman said. “She puts a lot into whatever we present her with.”
Though Tess aspires to one day work as a veterinarian, mutton busting is often the first step for children interested in becoming professional bull riders, said Daryl Shepard, president of the Pacific Coast Junior Bull Riders Association.
In California, Shepard trains 27 mutton busters for the organization’s eight yearly rodeo competitions. To the victor go the spoils in the PCJBRA, with cash and rodeo gear given to winners.
Winners can qualify for national championships across states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico and Nevada. Top prizes at those events can range from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the number of riders.
The sport may not be for every 6-year-old, if YouTube videos are any evidence. Some tear-stained children refuse to ride after signing up, terrified and pleading that their parents to let them off the hook. Some endure but look baffled after the ride ends with a roll in the dirt.
Sheep aren’t built to be ridden, and the result may be a terrified animal that’s simply trying to survive, said Steve Hindi, president of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, an animal rights nonprofit organization.
“The sheep has no rules,” he said. “It’s just trying to get whatever the heck is on their back off of them.”
Like any contact sport, mutton busting has its risks, and they’re not limited to being forcefully hurled to the ground.
In a rare case in 2010, a 3-year-old rider caught an E. coli bacterial infection after swallowing a mouthful of dirt mutton busting in Texas, according to ABC News. The boy lived despite the infection causing congestive heart and kidney failure.
The Folsom rodeo hasn’t seen any of its riders suffer serious injuries, Keables said, and Tess’ parents said they aren’t worried.
“A lot of things out there are dangerous,” Bowman said. Roller skating, she pointed out, can be precarious. “I’d be more concerned if the skates fall out from under her.”
According to Tess, riding the woolly creature is a wonderful feeling.
“It feels like you’re hugging a soft pillow,” she said.