Cole Wiley, 5, hockey helmet securely on his head, riding vest tight around his tummy, is a ready warrior.
He will ride the sheep. He will stay on the sheep. He is not afraid.
"He's fearless," said mom Sara, adding that Cole was a champ on the family horses. Plus, she said, "I've got good insurance."
"Mutton bustin'" came to Lexington this weekend as the featured event during intermission at the Lexington Rodeo at the Kentucky Horse Park. Somewhere in the annals of rodeo history, someone — several websites say it was a rodeo queen named Nancy Stockdale Cervi — looked at a sheep and looked at a child and thought: Let's put that kid on that animal and see what happens.
Never miss a local story.
The requirements are simple: You must weigh less than 50 pounds. You must be 5 to 8 years old. You must yearn to face a docile, if swift, foe.
The rules also are pretty straightforward: Sit on the sheep. Hold tight to the sheep. Fall off the sheep as gently as possible. (Sheep, it turns out, do not like having children on top of them.)
Kadie Howard, 61/2, helpfully demonstrated the proper hold technique while waiting her turn in the arena Saturday. Clasping her hands firmly, she used her arms to encircle the neck of an imaginary ewe. She replicated the hold on her father, aggressively hugging his neck and noting, "It's just like I hug my Daddy,"
Adam Hinton is the man behind what is a growing mutton bustin' trend in Kentucky. Hinton, vice president of the family business Hinton Mills, a farm supply company based in Fleming County, saw mutton bustin' at a festival in Cynthiana a few years ago.
He laughed so hard, he said, he had to learn more. That led to buying a mutton bustin' chute, a miniature version of what the big cowboys use for broncs and horses, emblazoned with the company logo.
In that way, it is a promotional tool. But really, Hinton said, he bought it mostly because he loved watching this junior rodeo event so much that he wanted to share the fun.
And people seem to share his enthusiasm.
During the 2014 festival/fair season, there were five mutton bustin' events in Kentucky. This year there are eight.
Ken Wooden is on the rodeo committee of the Rotary Club of Lexington. He said the group, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, wanted to present a gift to the community. The rodeo, sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, is that gift. Mutton bustin', he said with a grin, "is the most exciting event at the rodeo."
Indeed, the line to sign up for mutton bustin' was long. From the dozens of kids who wanted to ride, 10 were chosen at random.
Once outfitted in their protective gear, the riders had to wait a while before the event. Lined against a wall, their thoughts did meander toward what falling off might be like or whether they would get dirt in their mouths.
Kadie psyched herself up by roaring like a deranged lion, showing the gap where her two front teeth should be. Her new friend Lily Watts, 7, was ready to exhibit some girl power. "It's the closet thing I can get to a bull," she said.
To be clear, Patti Dale, who has helped run a Rotary-sponsored mutton bustin' event in Franklin, Tenn., for 15 years, said there have been some bumps and bruises but no serious injuries.
When the moment arrived and mutton bustin' was announced, people who packed the stands at Alltech Arena erupted in cheers as the first sheep went into the chute. There was none of the jostling and settling that happens with a bronco or a steer. Sheep 1 stood sedately as the first rider assumed the neck-circling position, head tight against the sheep's own woolly head.
The chute clanged open, the sheep emerged and the child rode for 4 seconds, give or take a second. Hitting the dirt, the rider is surrounded immediately by grown-ups, handed a trophy and lifted triumphantly into the air.
The crowd cheers some more.
Wooden said there was some method in the madness. If a kid sees a trophy right away, he said, there's no crying.
It works on most of the next nine riders who mount sheep and fall at a feverish pace. A few determined grade-schoolers cling to their sheep as it trots 20 or 30 feet. Some fall almost as soon as they clear the chute. Several tumble into the reddish dirt on the arena floor, lying straight like a pencil until the sheep trots over them. Most of the riders look a little dazed because of the sheep and the crowd and the noise and the dirt.
One has tears still drying on her face, but several, including Lily, have as much swagger as any of the cowboys waiting their turn in the ring.
Lily's ride was quick but satisfying. If someone was being a stickler, her ride might have been measured in a fraction a second. But she is smiling, grasping her trophy and recounting her glory. She rode the sheep. She held tight to the sheep. She fell off of the sheep.
For the record, she said, she fell off on purpose.