At Washington International Horse Show, ‘mutton busting’ lassoes young talent

Lilly Justice is a first grader who prefers pink bows in her blond hair and loves to ride ponies near her home in Middleburg, Va.

Thursday evening at the Washington International Horse Show, she’ll test her riding skills at a miniature rodeo. But instead of bulls, these bucking beasts will be bleaters. Justice and about 15 to 20 other kids weighing 60 pounds or less will take part in Thursday’s event, known as mutton busting.

According to organizer Mick Rodgers, the rip-snortin’ mounts will be “grain fed and ready to rumble.”

Styled like a professional bull-riding competition, mutton busting allows children the opportunity to realize their rodeo dreams on top of fluffy sheep. The children will wear helmets and protective vests, Rodgers said, and will be ensured a soft landing in the arena sand at Verizon Center.

“They’re beaming afterward,” said Rodgers, 41, adding that prizes will be awarded to the participants. “Kids want to jump right back on and do it again.”

A dozen sheep will be trucked in from the Richmond area for the event. Each sheep will be sheared with a large hump of wool over their shoulders to provide a gripping point for the mutton busters.

“They’re old school,” Rodger said of the sheep. “They know the drill.”

Rodgers, a native of Nyora, Australia, owns an equestrian clothing shop and has been a vendor at the Washington horse show for years. He became involved in mutton busting through a fellow Australian, Greg McDonald, who will be providing Thursday night’s sheep.

Back in Australia, Rodgers used to compete with his brother and cousins to see who could ride on top of a sheep the longest.

“I just remember we were falling off from laughing so hard,” Rodgers wrote in an e-mail. “We later braved riding a young steer. . . . That was a little scarier and a lot further to fall than a sheep.”

Whitney Justice said she was nervous at first about allowing her daughter Lilly to participate in the event. After watching some mutton-busting YouTube videos, she and her daughter laughed hysterically.

“I couldn’t resist the opportunity to enter her in this,” Justice said. “Lilly immediately said, ‘I’m not gonna just do it Mom, I’m going to win.’ ”

In an interview, Lilly said she was not afraid to hop on a sheep. She said watching videos online helped build her courage.

“It looked a little scary but not really to me,” said Lilly, who has skied mountains in Aspen, Colo.

Whitney Justice said mutton busting may provide valuable life lessons for her daughter. Everybody falls down, she said she told her 6-year-old daughter. Everybody gets back up, too.

“It will probably good for Lilly to get thrown off a sheep and get dirtied up,” Whitney Justice said. “It’s good old American fun.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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