NOT SPORTS

Not Sports: Riding runaway sheep teaches "cul de sac kids" a life lesson

"What child doesn’t want to go fast?"

Once you’ve been strapped to the back of a stampeding sheep, a job interview probably pales in comparison. Tommy G. Giodone thinks there’s no better way to prepare your kid for real life than to take them mutton bustin' – it’s called the “toughest sport on wool” for a reason.

Giodone, 55, is the brains behind Tommy G Productions, a “producer of top entertainment” which includes rodeos and music festivals. He’s also been producing mutton bustin' competitions for at least 20 years. He estimates that his company, Wool Riders Only, has put on “100,000 or more” of shows in State fairs across the country.

A mutton bustin' competitor, by Wool Riders Only rules, can only be between three and six years old and must weigh under 60 pounds (other organizers allow for the older age range of five to seven but a lower max weight of 55 pounds). The goal is to hold on tight the back of a stampeding ewe, fingers dug into the soft wool, for at least 6 seconds.

Mutton bustin' is not the main event of the rodeos where it’s often found. But for the children who gladly strap themselves to the ewes, it provides an intense adrenaline rush that doesn’t typically happen when you’re still in your T-ball years. The kids are the center of attention as music and commentary blare. They’re also riding on the back of a running animal.

“It’s an extreme sport,” Giodone tells Inverse. “What child doesn’t want to go fast?”

Mutton Bustin at the Rodeo Houston in March 2020.

Sometimes, the kids do get hurt, Giodone acknowledges. But he thinks it gets them prepared for the knocks and bumps that they’ll come across in real life. Mutton Bustin' is “good old barnyard fun,” he says. Giodone is not in the business of handing out participation prizes.

“You just don't get a participation ribbon because you show up at work. We want you to learn that life's not like that,” he says.

“If you fall off, you dust yourself off. Pick yourself up, when you come back and try again.”

What makes mutton bustin' a sport — Mutton bustin' is guided by rules, strength, and speed.

Admittedly, the rules of mutton bustin' are few (aside from age and weight restrictions). You can wear chaps. Helmets are mandatory. You can’t wear spurs. You must hold on for dear life — that’s the only rule that really matters.

The Michael Jordan of mutton bustin' — Champion mutton busters reign wherever rodeos and county fairs happen. In March 2020, Thomas Vormbrock was crowned the champion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. His secret? Just hold on tight and get to the other side. His training regimen? “When my daddy was feeling better, I used to ride on his back,” he told NBC news affiliate Click 2 Houston.

While all champion mutton busters have to have some lower body strength, grit is the X-factor. Grit comes in all shapes and sizes. Giodone estimates that between 75 and 80 percent of the winner’s he’s seen happen to be girls.

Decades ago, Giodone saw one of the most prolific mutton busters in his career in Puyallup, Washington (he can’t remember her name, but now estimates that she’s 18 or 19 now). This unnamed champion participated in every event he ran for 17 straight days.

“She just had this sheer grit and she loved it,” he recalls. “And when she would fall off, she would never cry – never, nothing. She cried one time because she didn't win.”

She’s long given up the game (mutton busters retire at the age of 7) but her determination makes her the Michael Jordan of mutton busters to Inverse.

The spirit of mutton bustin' – Mutton bustin' is rumored to have first been introduced to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in the 1980s. The phrase "mutton bustin'" itself was trademarked in 1997 by "Boot Royalty Company L.P" based in Delaware.

That trademark posed a problem for Giodone, who had resolved to build a business around the sport when he first saw it at the National Western Stock Show in Colorado about 20 years ago. That trademark is why his mutton bustin' production company goes by Wool Riders Only. He now owns the trademark for “World Champion Mutton Bustin" and accompanying imagery.

The sport's existence has been met with some hurdles: In 2012, New York City’s Health Department refused to let the mutton bustin' event at the Madison Square Garden Invitational, a bull riding competition, go forward (they cited “health concerns” as the primary impetus for the decision). Concerns over animal cruelty were also cited when Alameda County, California banned mutton bustin' in 2019, though the move to cancel the sport from local rodeos was contested by enthusiasts.

The logo for World Championship Mutton Bustin, owned by Giodone.US Patent and Trademark Office

The culture of mutton bustin' is easier to understand than it’s complex trademarking. Giodone sees it as emblematic of a rural Americana that, today, exists as much in fantasy as it does in reality.

Most Americans don’t live rural lifestyles. Urban areas make up just 3 percent of the United States but 80 percent of the population lives there, according to the US Census Bureau. Rural areas, by comparison, make up 97 percent of the landmass, yet are home to only 19.3 percent of the population.

Most of the mutton busters aren’t the “Western lifestyle children” you might think of, Giodone explains.

“Honestly, probably 95 percent of the kids we get are urban children, they're the 'cul de sac kids,'” Giodone says.

Mutton bustin' is supposed to provide an entry point into county fair rodeo culture that doesn’t exist in the suburban sprawl. For some, these shows are among the first times they’ve ever seen a farm animal, he says.

One moment crystallized that for Giodone, who grew up around livestock. He was putting on a show in Houston, Texas, a place where, of all places, rodeo culture isn’t as foreign as it might have been elsewhere. At the back of every show, he pins posters with basic information about sheep.

A woman standing beside the posters was telling her kid that sheep are covered in cotton, not wool.

“I said ma'am, I gotta be honest with you – cotton is a plant," Giodone says. "I mean this is how just disjointed we are as a culture.”

You don’t have to take his word for it. Most kids who get to feel the wool for themselves as they grasp onto it for dear life learn the lesson for themselves.

With the coronavirus, all Giodone’s scheduled shows are canceled. Now, he’s dusting himself off for 2021.

This is NOT SPORTS, a series where Inverse explores unique competitive cultures that you'll never see at the Olympics (probably). They're not sports, but they are weird, wonderful, and almost-athletic.

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