Stratton, Neb., man finds enjoyment in creating mutton bustin’ and calf ridin’ events for kids
August 4, 2017
Concentrating on the ride ahead, she checks to make sure her helmet is secure and her protective vest is snug before tightening her bull rope. Once she is ready, the gate flies open and the 6 second ride begins. Holding on tight to the bull rope with one hand, while the other is high in the air, the girl rides the bucking calf everywhere it goes, while listening for the buzzer.
Once she hears it, she lets go of the bull rope and crashes into the ground, feeling a sense of pride for completing her ride.
When Gene Jolly, of Stratton, Neb., started the Southwest Nebraska Mutton Bustin' for kids, it was just for the pure enjoyment of giving children an opportunity to compete in rodeo. Six years ago, Jolly started to take his own ewes to rodeos and fairs, holding mutton bustin' events where kids would just grab the ewe around the neck and try to ride them any way they could.
After talking with some cousins with a similar event in Missouri, Jolly found a more organized and competitive way to put on the event. Jolly's form of mutton bustin' is similar to bull riding. The kids have to set up on the sheep in a bucking chute, like a bull rider would sit on a bull. The kids use a bull rope, hold one hand in the air, and ride like a bull rider when the chute gate opens.
The kids have to ride the ewe for 6 seconds, and judges give them a score based on their ride. While some of the score is determined by whether or not they make the 6-second buzzer, the judges can also add points for how well they sat on the ewe and maintaining their balance. They also can't touch the animal with their hands during the ride.
"We're a little tougher on them than traditional mutton bustin', but not too tough," Jolly said.
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Some members of the Trenton Fair Board made Jolly a miniature bucking chute more suitable for youth. "I found while watching the kids ride that some were scared of being lowered down into the standard bucking chute, so we had this special chute made for them," he said.
The chute is 6 feet long and about 30 inches wide. There is enough room for someone to be in there with them during the mutton bustin'.
Last year was the first event, after gaining the approval of the different boards and fairground committees. Jolly held three shows at Culbertson, Benkleman and Trenton, Neb., where the final championship round is held.
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He also has found sponsors for the event, and awards prize money to the kids. The champion wins a buckle Jolly donates himself.
"Last year, a little girl won the buckle. I still remember watching her ride that sheep clear across the arena hanging about half off the sheep most of the way," he said. "She wouldn't let go. She wanted that belt buckle really bad."
Since last year's event went so well, Jolly was asked to create an additional event for the older kids. In response, he added calf riding to this year's contest. While the mutton bustin' is for children from 4-6 years old and under 55 pounds, the calf riding is for children 7-13 years old and up to 90 pounds. "The calf riding is a 6 second ride, and judged the same way. The kids have a rope and a bell. The difference is we require the calf riders to wear helmets and protective vests," Jolly said. "I am thankful we do that because we had a girl get kicked in the side of the head just recently, but because she was wearing a helmet, she didn't get hurt. I heard her telling her mother later that she was glad she had a helmet on."
Jolly started to lookk for calves for the event last September, and eventually settled on some Angus cross calves that were raised on nurse cows.
"They are really gentle. They are not at all like a range calf, but they still hop a little coming out of the chute," he said. "The calves probably weigh around 450 pounds now."
For this year's events, contestants are required to pre-enter. They can enter one rodeo, or all three. The entry fee for the mutton bustin' is $10, and calf riding is $20. All entry fees are paid back to the kids, along with sponsorship money. Jolly limits each rodeo to five mutton bustin' contestants and 10 calf riders. All five mutton busters are awarded prize money, but only the top five calf riders. The champions from each rodeo are invited back to compete in the finals at Trenton in August.
"It is such a kick for me to see these kids doing this type of thing," he said. "I just get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It is a great thing to see the expression on their faces. Some get thumped pretty good, and some don't. You just never know."
After watching the PBR Finals, Jolly plans to make the championship in Trenton even more special this year. "I watched them shoot off fireworks at the PBR, so I thought it would be neat to shoot off a few fountain fireworks and bring the six finalists into the arena and introduce them," he said.
Jolly also has more plans for the future. Next summer, he hopes to have some college bull riders help teach a school for the kids.
"I would like to have a machine that mimics what a calf might do and how it will act," he said. "Hopefully, these bullriders can help the kids in the chute, and give them some pointers. Maybe it will give them more knowledge. Most of these kids don't have any experience and no knowledge when they ride a calf or sheep, so they don't know what to expect," he said. "I think it would be fun to have a one-day school that the parents can bring their kids to," he said. "I would enjoy visiting with them and watching the kids."
For more information about Jolly's mutton bustin' and calf riding, see his facebook page: SW Nebraska Mutton Bustin' for Kids. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.