A Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo favorite
Shelby Stegent recalls a nail-biting moment watching her then 5-year-old daughter, Caroline, holding on as tight as she could, as a sheep darted as fast as it could across a pen in NRG stadium. Caroline started to slip towards one side, but her tight grip allowed her to ride all the way across.
“Caroline never let go. They had to peel her off the sheep at the end,” said Shelby. She still remembers the audience attendance count that evening at the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) – 57,351 people to be exact. It was an extra jam-packed crowd – country music superstar Jason Aldean was performing. “It was crazy hearing that many people cheer for your little girl,” said Shelby.
Mutton Bustin’, the Rodeo event Caroline was participating in that evening, is a HLSR fan-favorite. Mutton Bustin’ happens each night of the Rodeo and is one of the final events before the concert starts. In the event, youngsters (children aged 5 and 6, and weighing under 55 pounds) attempt to ride a live sheep across a gated pen. Whoever rides the furthest without falling off is the winner. Win or lose, the kids leave the stadium with an experience they (and their families and friends) will never forget.
Mutton Bustin’ appeared in some rodeos in the 1980s. In the event, a sheep is held in a chute and the little rider is placed on top before it is let loose to run by the opening of the chute. The children wear safety helmets and are often adorned in full rodeo outfits like a real bull rider. Most of the kids participating fall off the sheep before it reaches the other side, but occasionally a child rides it all the way across the pen.
The winner of the night is then interviewed live. The rodeo announcers often ask questions such as, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What was the hardest part?” and the answers the kids spout off engage the crowds and get everyone chuckling.
Recently, we spoke with some Buzz residents on their Mutton Bustin’ experience. One mom called it an “experience of a lifetime” while a kid called it “the best night of my life.”
Caroline’s mom Shelby recalls the nerves and the excitement of being a mom on the sidelines. The kids who are participating in Mutton Bustin’ get to ride in the Grand Entry Parade to kick off the rodeo, and Shelby says that was a big highlight for Caroline.
To prepare for Mutton Bustin’, Caroline “practiced” riding around the house on her dad Jason’s back. This year, Caroline’s younger sister Emerson, 5, will be Mutton Bustin’. She will be participating the night of the New Kids on the Block rodeo concert on March 7. “Ironically, that was my first concert when I was 11 at The Summit here in Houston,” said Shelby, laughing. “It will be cool to share that with her. It will be her first concert too.” Emerson has already started to practice – also by riding on her dad’s back – and she plans to wear the same shirt that Caroline wore in 2018.
Patty and Sam Bowen’s son Sam participated in Mutton Bustin’ in 2022 inside NRG as well. At the time, he was 5. Patty says little Sam and big Sam spent time “practicing” as well – with Sam being the sheep and little Sam riding on his back around the house. She said they did not want to get his nerves too high. “We played it off as just Sam and Sam playing around to keep it light,” said Patty.
Patty recalled a calm and collected little Sam on the big night. “He never seemed to be that nervous,” said Patty. The chute opened and the sheep took off. Sam held on tight, and he made it to the end. He was picked up by the rodeo clown and gave a huge wave to everyone in the stands. “I’ll never forget all the cheers for our little guy,” said Patty.
Little Sam grew up visiting the Rodeo and the carnival since both Patty and Sam have served as volunteers on the Mutton Bustin’ committee. “He’s been around the Mutton Bustin’ tent since he was a baby,” said Patty. “Sam would bring him to my shifts and I would take him to Sam’s so he could see the sheep.” He was ready for his big night.
“The funniest moment was realizing [country singer] Cody Johnson was in the background of most of our photos,” said Patty. “He was there to see his daughter ride a sheep as well.”
Alicia and Kyle McIlheran’s son, William, 5, is getting ready to ride this year in Mutton Bustin’. Alicia says that while he is a more cautious child by nature, he is excited. “He is also nervous. He keeps asking, ‘I only have to do it once, right?’” said Alicia, laughing.
Alicia, who has served as a volunteer on the Mutton Bustin’ committee, says her favorite part of the job is seeing the Mutton Bustin’ kids in their full rodeo getup attire. “It is super cute. They have on rodeo chaps, spurs, and hats.” A lot of the kids talk about their practice sessions by riding on their dad or granddad or uncle’s back – or their large dog.
There are two ways to participate in Mutton Bustin’ at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The first is to register in the fall to participate in NRG Stadium. This fills up quickly as there are limited spots. The second way is to sign up in person to participate in the Junction outside of NRG ($15/ride). That is on a first-come-first-served basis, and it allows for many children to participate. The Junction runs all day during RodeoHouston, this year, Feb. 28- March 19.
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