Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mutton Bustin'

A few years ago I went to a rodeo. I enjoyed it very much and was fascinated by the sub-culture of cowboys and cowgirls that it represented. It was a world of its own that some people build a life around, and that many devoted fans follow; much like the sub-culture of ballroom dance that I am a part of, only with fewer rhinestones and more leather.

One of the things I remembered most from the rodeo was the Mutton Bustin'. In this event a child age 3 to 6 is placed on the back of a sheep and released into the arena to see how long they can hold on. Kind of like bull riding with training wheels. I remember thinking, for some reason, that I would love for my kids to do this. I don't know why I thought this. But it just seemed like a really unusual, gritty, and memorable experience to have. But the idea left almost immediately. Since I don't wear Wranglers and spend my time at rodeos, I knew that this was probably not going to happen. We are a family of dancers after all, not bull riders.

But yesterday I found myself at the Puyallup Fair. I was in the bathroom when a woman said to her daughter, "If I sign you up you are really going to have to hold on to that sheep's neck . . . " and then she was out of range. But I had heard enough. There was Mutton Bustin' to be had.

So we found the arena. And I tried to talk the girls into it. Cora was too old, but under the weight limit, so she could ride as an exhibitionist. Sydney could compete. Maryn was too little. Unfortunately, Maryn was the only one willing to do it.

So we just watched the competition. We saw a lot of kids falling off sheep and face planting in the mud. As I watched I realized that there are few activities that would be more wrong for my tutu-wearing, princess-loving daughters than this one. Just the mud itself was enough to make them cry, nevermind the animals, and the crowd, and the falling, and the getting stepped on by little hooves. Oh well. I released the idea into the universe once again.

But as we were leaving, Cora completely surprised me by saying, "I want to do it."

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied. "I want to do it."

There was another competition scheduled for 5:30. So we went and entertained ourselves for bit and returned. I kept expecting Cora to back out, but she was excited. By this time my own heart was beginning to race. (Sydney was not to be persuaded. Since she had worn a skirt to the fair, I didn't press it. Maryn was still ready to go: "Wanna ride a sheep!")

We got Cora signed up, outfitted with a vest and a helmet, and gave her some coaching. Matt and I, having neither of us ever mutton busted before, couldn't resist giving advice nevertheless.

Matt said, "Do you want to know a secret? Sheep don't care if you pull their wool. It doesn't hurt them one bit. So you just grab on to that wool and don't let go."

I said, "Cora. You are very strong and very light. You know how you can skip bars on the monkey bars at school? If you can do that, you can do this easily. Use all of your muscles and just stay right on top of his back. Squeeze onto him with your legs like you are doing a piggy back."

Matt took Maryn and Sydney into the crowd to watch and I went and waited behind the gate with Cora.

In bull riding, the goal is 8 seconds. In mutton bustin, it is 6 seconds. Most of the kids we had seen that day stayed on for 2 seconds or less.

Since Cora was one of the older kids, she was second to go. She climbed over the gate and they loaded her onto the sheep. I couldn't believe I had actually talked her into this, and I hoped it would end well. I whispered, "You go girl! You can do this!"

With that, they opened the gate and her sheep shot across the arena like a bolt of lightning, with Cora clamped onto his back like a baby monkey. I couldn't believe she was still on it when he reached the other end and started to turn. She fell off sometime after that, but it was definitely one of the best rides of the day. She hopped up and ran through the mud back to the starting point. (Later she told me that when she was getting up she saw one of the sheep pee, and she bashfully reported that she even thought it was her sheep that had peed. I told her she probably scared the pee out of him. She laughed and laughed.)

Meanwhile, the crowd was cheering and the announcer was telling them: "Come on! When they smoke 'em like a bad habit you've got to cheer louder than that!"

I was amazed. Cora was completely inspirational. I couldn't believe her courage. I couldn't believe how completely out of her comfort zone she had gone.

The next time I am afraid to try something new, I am going to remember watching the wooly backside of that sheep speed away from me with Cora bravely and deftly clinging to his back in front of an arena full of strangers. I find that image delightful. I hope she always feels that kind of power in her life. The thought of it makes me feel like I can do anything.

My Cora. My hero.