The under 4-foot crowd gathered below the announcers dressed for their performance: helmet with face guard, black vest and a black number on a white background.
Outside the staging area, parents hovered around the gates.
“You sure you want to ride?” one father asked his little guy.
His son nodded through his helmet, eyes wide and somber.
Next to him, a girl, a head and shoulders taller, stood with arms crossed, eyes squinting at the sheep bleating in the stock pen.
She seemed to be sizing up the challenge.
For these brave sheep riders, the event represented their first experience at what the big boys do in the rodeo — bull and bronc riding.
Mutton Bustin’ has a huge following. The sport even has the Wool Riders Only World Championship at The Big Fresno Fair in California (scheduled for October of this year).
Other events, such as the Washington State Fair draw hundreds of contestants. The Washington Mutton Bustin’ has five shows a day with 40 to 50 contestants in each show.
The event allows children, ages 4 through 7, weighing 60 pounds or less, to attempt to ride the back of a sheep for six seconds.
Just as with bull riding, the pint-sized riders straddle their sheep in a chute. Once the gate opens, the kids hang on for as long as they can.
The little ones are scored as a bull rider would be scored, how long they stayed on and how difficult was their ride.
To participate, parents must sign a waiver.
At the Women’s Professional Rodeo Cactus Series on Thursday night, 13 mutton busters participated in the second round of the event at 7:30 p.m.
The riders fidgeted and squirmed as they waited for their event.
“Get ready guys! You’re going to go out there and wave to the crowd!” said Lynn Waters to keep them focused as they waited.
Parents who have participated in the past say Waters and her daughter do a fantastic job organizing and supporting the mutton busters.
“I’m gonna win,” said one little boy.
“It’s my first time riding,” said another little boy as he climbed up the fence to get a better look.
“OK, we’re ready to walk out,” said Waters.
The gate opened and the contestants stoically tromped out to the chute, only reluctantly turning to wave at the crowd — it seemed they would rather focus on what sheep they would get to ride.
The sheep started bleating as they saw the riders approach.
After a little organization, the first rider mounted her wooly steed.
She leaned over the neck of the sheep, clutched two handfuls of wool, set her cheek on its neck, grasped her knees around the middle of the sheep and held on tight.
The gate opened and the sheep bolted for the other end of the arena hoping to shake off its cargo.
“It’s a little bumpy there, but she’s learning to be a good cowboy,” said the announcer.
Within two seconds, the sheep had shook off its rider.
She lay on the ground still and laid out as if shocked it had ended so quickly.
“Good job, Jordan!” said the announcer. “And she did it in pink.”
Waters came out and scooped up Jordan giving her a big hug as she carried the little girl off the field pink boots dangling, head drooping onto her shoulder.
Waters gave the girl a pat on the back and whispered in her ear.
Jordan seemed to perk up, picked up her head and looked toward the gate.
Each rider had a different response to falling off the sheep. Some got up and walked away, while others had twisted up faces from the pain and needed a hug and a pat on the back.
Cody VanBuskirk, a kindergartner from Payson Elementary School, complained he had hurt his leg and limped until his grandpa bought him some ice cream on the way home.
Soon he was all smiles again.
“Ice cream makes everything better,” said his grandma, Paula.