GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Some kids walked into the arena with confidence. Others were a little more hesitant to hoist themselves up onto sheep that were bigger than they were.
More than 45 kids — ages 4 to 10 — did their best to stay on the back of a sheep during the Midwest Mutton Bustin' Finals Friday afternoon at the Nebraska State Fair.
“Hold on tight,” Lorraine McCain told each rider. She and her family have run McCain's Mutton Busters out of Republican City for 21 years.
There were a few tears as a boy slid off into the dirt or a girl bounced a little as she fell off, but most were short lived. Some tears may have been more in disappointment of the short ride than any injury.
The contestants had qualified by placing at their local fairs, rodeos and festivals, then tried to repeat their performance in front of a crowd in the Five Points Bank Arena.
McCain said about 4,000 kids ride the McCain sheep each summer as they travel around a four-state area putting on the shows. Kids ages 2 to 13 have competed at the summer shows. McCain said the age doesn't matter as long as the child weighs less than 60 pounds.
The winners are invited to the Midwest Mutton Bustin' Finals.
This is the first year the finals have been held at the Nebraska State Fair. Previously, they were held in conjunction with the Women's Pro Rodeo Association World Finals in Lincoln.
All the contestants have their own ways of staying on the sheep.
“I like to lock my feet around the sheep, if I can,” said Anna Feder, 9, of Ogallala, who won second place at her local fair while her sister won first.
“I give the sheep a hug. I can hold on longer that way,” said Grace Feder, 10.
But while Grace Feder held on to her sheep all the way down the arena and as it started back, her sister just couldn't hold on as long.
“I forgot to keep my head off the sheep,” she said, explaining that if you rest your head on the sheep as you ride, it will bounce so hard it will begin to hurt. “It started to hurt and I just let go.”
When 7-year-old Jayden Lueders of Cedar Creek qualified at the Cass County Fair, he held on so tight “the sheep went down with him,” his mother, Trisha Lueders, said. He got fourth place out of 116 contestants at the county fair.
“He's a wrestler and he just pretends he is wrestling the sheep,” she said with a laugh as Jayden looked on with a shy smile.
Cole Meyer, 7, of Sabetha, Kan., who took home the first place buckle on Friday, wouldn't let go until the sheep he was riding tripped and fell.
McCain said each rider is timed on how long he or she stays on and scored as to how well he or she rides. “If they stay on but are riding on the side, they don't score as well,” she said.
Sometimes the rides last several seconds as the sheep runs around the arena, and sometimes the ride is over almost before it begins.
“You never know what is going to happen,” McCain said. “Sometimes it depends on the mood of the sheep and the mood of the kid.”
She said they raise their sheep only for mutton bustin', so if they come across a sheep that won't move or gets mean, they don't use it.
McCain noted that there are times the rider will get in the arena and freeze up, deciding not to ride.
Two clowns are in the arena at all times to keep the kids safe, help them on the sheep, give a few pointers about holding on, and then pick them up when they fall off.
“If (the riders) are really scared, the clowns can hold on to them,” McCain said. That happened once Friday. As a scared rider decided to give it one more shot, a clown held her on the sheep and ran alongside.