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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Mutton Bustin' is for small fry


COLUMBUS - The young boy squeezed his eyes shut, clutched the animal's chest, and shivered.

Then his mount bolted through the open gate with Austin Hunker seemingly glued to its back. Slightly less than 5 seconds later, Austin lay in the mud, and the sheep he had been riding was racing away.

The 6-year-old had just tried Mutton Bustin' at the Ohio State Fair, and he was eager for a redo.

"I just closed my eyes and I felt it runnin' and buckin'," Austin, of Bellevue, Ohio, said after the ride.

Tommy Giodone, owner of the event, is putting it on for the first time in the Midwest. Three or four times a day, he signs up youngsters to ride the sheep in an outdoor corral just north of 17th Avenue on the fairgrounds. The cost is $10 a ride.

Like cowboys competing on bucking broncos, each child tries to hold on as long as possible before being bucked off into the mud. The child who stays on longest wins a big, shiny belt buckle.

Mr. Giodone, a rodeo rider, started the event 19 years ago at the Colorado State Fair in his hometown of Pueblo. He got the idea from rodeos, which had youngsters riding sheep as filler between events.

Four years ago, Mutton Bustin' hit the road to fairs in western states, where it isn't unusual to have 1,500 kids ride during a fair.

Each rider wears a hockey helmet and a small version of a bull rider's vest, designed to protect the upper body of the rider.

Only large, female sheep are used, and Mr. Giodone travels with about 50.

Most who ride are city kids, and some have never seen a live sheep before, he said. Once they've ridden, many return until they are too old - riders can't be over the age of 6. Riders also can't weigh more than 60 pounds.

Shawn Buckley of Craig, Colo., stands in the chute with sheep and rider to help each child hold on until the gate opens.

"I tell them to get hold of it like it's your brother's hair," Mr. Buckley quipped.

Mr. Giodone said he occasionally gets criticism from animal-rights activists who think that putting a child on the back of a sheep is animal cruelty.

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