A boy in a cowboy hat looks across a rodeo arena into the sunset.
Chip Kalback

Raising Bull Riders

This story was published in Mountain Gazette 199 (spring 2023). Here is a short excerpt:

For 16 days in January each year, the National Western Stock Show comes to Denver, Colorado, during which more than 20 professional rodeos take place. There, the world’s best compete in bareback and saddle-bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping, and women’s barrel racing. But this year I was less interested in these world-class contests than in a kindersport called mutton busting (literary: bustin’). It’s the T-ball of rodeo, the first step for young children who desire to one day be bull riders or horseback performers. Kids as young as 3 and as old as 7 bestride sheep, grab handfuls of wool, and try to hold on as the ungulates sprint around dirt-floored arenas.

A tall and chatty photographer named Chip was assigned to help me document this phenomenon. The two of us were not the obvious journalists for the task. Chip is a vegetarian and comes from a family of animal-rights defenders. Rodeo is controversial among his set, and mutton bustin’ is especially so. The ASPCA has accused mutton bustin’ organizers and participants of promoting inhumane care of animals, and a fruitless petition by activists to ban mutton bustin’ at National Western received more than 100,000 signatures in 2017. Chip was a little uncomfortable with our forthcoming rodeo immersion, though he endeavored to have an open mind.

I’m not much of a rodeo guy either. I grew up in Vermont, where I gained some familiarity with agriculture but never witnessed a competitive rodeo. While I was fortunate as a kid to try many different sports, bull riding was never suggested. I was curious what it would have been like, for me and my parents, if it was something I had ever wished to do.

National Western is one of the biggest rodeos in the country. Likewise, it’s one of the biggest stages a young mutton buster can perform on, with some contests taking place as brief interludes during pro events in the Denver Coliseum and others as dedicated one-hour nonstop child-versus-sheep entertainment in the Stadium Arena next door. I was expecting some dazzling exhibitions, as the Stock Show website had informed me that Frontier Airlines Mutton Bustin’ is “one of the National Western’s most popular events.”

The most important consideration for any large event is, of course, parking. I could not find a spot. Media folks were instructed to park in lot K, but Chip arrived moments before me and took the last space. I was directed to try lot G, or maybe it was J, but I was a bit flustered by this whole ordeal and I pulled into lot I. The most frustrating part of finding parking at an agriculture event is navigating all the dual-rear-wheel trucks. Given that I had never been to one of these things (nor anything like it), I had not experienced the irritation of searching for a spot in a lot filled with duallies. The reason for my vexation was this: When you see two duallies backed into their spots side by side, it appears from the front that there is an open space between them. It’s an illusion. In fact, the four wheels at the rear of one of those trucks jut out so far as to nearly touch the heavy-duties beside it. After driving in circles (I lost count of how many), a space finally opened in K, the media lot, where it seemed most everyone came in a crossover.

I tracked down Chip, who had been wandering for a while, and we proceeded to wander together in search of the media lounge. Nobody we asked knew its whereabouts, and we got a few suspicious up-and-down glances. Nevertheless, we found it up some stairs and hidden in a nook from which I feared I would not be able to retrace my steps.

We walked through the doors to a room that smelled of newly fabricated low-cost furniture, and it occurred to us that the media lounge was a veritable showroom for American Furniture Warehouse. Tags with prices were prominent on the laminated furniture, faux plants, and kitsch decor for newspeople’s use and amusement. SUCCULENTS IN SQR GREY VASE, $14.99. CNT HT BRSTL [counter height barstool], COMPARE AT: $189/ALWAYS THE LOWEST PRICE ANYWHERE/$98. (Get the matching table for $288.) TALL CACTUS, $28, attracted Chip’s attention.

Chip and I introduced ourselves to the director of PR, Karen Woods, while one of her colleagues fished our purple credential tags and matching purple lanyards out of a filing cabinet. Woods frowned when Chip said we were there for mutton bustin’. She wanted to know if we planned to mic up any of the kids during their rides. Apparently there have been some PR issues with the audio of trampled children yelling things like “I think I broke my arm!”

Woods was delighted to hear that we weren’t recording a podcast. She started rattling off statistics and history about National Western, and I could hardly keep up, but the one number that shocked me was that mutton bustin’ was in such high demand that National Western received more than 1,000 entries in a lottery for only 200 available spots. Keep in mind that the only busters eligible to enter at National Western are children ages 5 to 7 and weighing less than 55 pounds.


Contact me for access to the full story.