LANCASTER, Wis. — Few sporting events universally end in tears for almost all who participate.
The exception, however, is a beloved staple of county fairs and rodeos, evoking hearty laughs and the generous administration of hugs after the games are over.
This is the world of mutton bustin’.
“They try their hardest,” said Lancaster resident Allen White, who brought his 5-year-old grandson, Bentley, to the Grant County Fairgrounds on Thursday to participate.
“If you’re an adrenaline junkie, then that’s what you’re going to do.”
The special event was one of many to occur during the weeklong Grant County Fair, which began Aug. 14.
More than 150 spectators turned out to watch the CC Bucking Bulls rodeo, which was to follow as the main entertainment.
Bentley awaited the start of the event with 19 other young children.
Mutton bustin’ has much in common with its older cousin, bull riding.
Each participant sits atop a jumpy sheep that is let loose into a rodeo. The youngster pinches the beast’s curly wool as it blazes across the ring until he or she falls off and, usually, is trampled.
Dressed in matching American flag apparel, Dan Blair and his sons, Liam, 5, and Noah, 3, traveled to Lancaster from Milwaukee to enter the competition.
“The kids found (a video) on YouTube and I Googled it, and this was the closest place,” he said. “They are little cowboys.”
The boys have been practicing for several weeks, taking turns riding Dan’s back.
Liam was excited.
“To ride a sheep,” he said with a grin.
Axel Morrow, of Mount Hope, stood nearby. The boy has ridden mutton for three years and can rightfully be considered a pro. He wore the blue flannel and cowboy hat to prove it.
Axel paced uneasily, like an athlete warming up for an important game.
“He’s a little nervous,” said his mother, Judy.
Last year, Axel bust.
“I got stepped on,” he explained.
Judy thinks the kids enjoy the challenge of attempting to hold onto the sheep, particularly those who are determined to make it to the other side of the ring.
Unfortunately, the sheep had other plans.
Instead of making a straight dash, the animals broke out of the gate, stumbling as they adjusted to the unfamiliar weight atop their rumps.
Some careened into the crowd of watching parents, while others bolted sharply to the right.
Without forewarning, the young riders rolled off the animals’ backs into the dirt, shielding their faces as the sheep trotted over them.
Shock and betrayal were written across their faces as they stood up.
“Come here, bud. Where does it hurt?” Dan asked a wailing Liam, who took a hoof to the gut. “You got run over like a real cowboy.”
A few minutes later, Noah announced his retirement.
Taste of victory
All contestants were named winners Thursday evening just for participating.
But even a victory evokes an outpouring of emotion.
Ringside, Axel lumbered queasily in his leather cowboy boots, drying his tears.
Judy poked at Axel’s scratches where his sheep had trampled him. Red welts were forming on his shoulder, forehead and chest.
“Did we end our career in mutton bustin’?” she asked her son.
“I don’t know,” he said.