Mutton Busting and Americana at the Houston Rodeo

The Houston Rodeo is the biggest rodeo of its kind in the world. But it's at its best, and biggest, in its smallest event, when it's about kids clinging to sheep.

Mar 18 2015, 11:50am

Illustration by Erin Wilson

A blonde woman so luminous she could've been CGI stood upright on the spine of a big, dapple-grey horse cantering circles around the arena's dirt floor. Everyone around me stood transfixed. The concourse vendors had stopped vending, the lines had stopped moving. People who'd been seeking their seats were frozen uneasily mid-row as if gripped by indecision or revelation. The woman balanced atop the moving horse further defied physics by holding aloft an American flag large enough to grace a car dealership; it streamed above and behind her as the horse's quick hooves kicked up dust.

Finally, a second, unhorsed and rather more elfin blonde woman finished her rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." The tip of the horse-stander's flagpole began pumping out patriotic pyro, a sizzling skeet of red, white, and blue sparks. I was at (per its promotional material) "the world's largest livestock show and richest regular-season rodeo," and the games were about to begin.

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There was a lot to see and do at the Houston Rodeo. It was so large it used three of Houston's cavernous and titularly confusing NRG Park structures: The NRG Arena, the NRG Center, and the NRG Stadium. A vast midway of carnival rides and games lay like a lake in the spaces between and around the buildings. It was crowded, but uniformly and unstintingly polite. No one shoved ahead in lines, and the staff didn't scold the attendees. If the workers weren't genuinely happy to be there, they sure as hell did a good job pretending.

Rodeo Gate For Sale, Never... Worn? Photo by Jules Bentley

My partner's housemate described the Houston Rodeo to us as "Houston's Mardi Gras," and it certainly was a city-wide celebration. Every hotel room was booked, and every business in town was offering a special rodeo sale or at least rodeo-related signage: "Cowboys Love Our Rasberry Brochette," one strip-mall eatery asserted optimistically. Nevertheless, there were a number of crucial differences. The most striking, and likely key to the event's ubiquitous civility, was that people at the rodeo weren't visibly inebriated. The $8.25 that rodeo vendors were asking for a bottle of Bud Lite was doubtless a factor, but that's why you bring your own. I only pieced it together slowly: the absence of raised voices, the absence of raised containers, the low incidence of people stumbling into me—it was like the moment when you feel the masked killer's breath on the back of your neck. I realized, with a shiver, that I was surrounded by Protestants.

In fairness to my powers of observation, there was a misleading dearth of Jesus-y knicknacks, even in the cruise-ship-scale stuff-for-sale hall. The Houston Rodeo was massively and inexplicably tasteful. No anti-Obama ephemera, no t-shirts of baby Stewie cussing sassily, no Molon Labe bumper stickers, and a downright Bostonian scarcity of confederate flags. I'll further defy you to find any other U.S. gathering even a quarter this large so comprehensively devoid of Islamophobic iconography. The rodeo had many visibly Muslim attendees, including women in hijabs, and despite the paternalistic concern their presence evoked in me, nobody seemed to be hassling them or even scowling at them. It was inexplicable. I was at a giant public event in 2015 America; where was the idiocracy?

Despite the bewildering prevalence of propriety, there were a few naughty touches that made me smile. "Ride the Bull, Sissy Boy!" exhorted a banner above one round, open-sided tent. Inside, a piebald mechanical bull sat at the center of a cervical-looking, red-plush padded kiddy pool. Though I forwent this tailored invitation, I encourage any future sexual partners to shout "Ride the Bull, Sissy Boy!" at me during coitus.

Inside the hangar-like NRG Center, we watched the livestock sales. They took place in a little astroturfed corral, with aisles of other gewgaws for sale stretching all around. It was like a cattle auction inside a Costco. The stands were full, but the atmosphere was laid back; neither the bidding nor the auctioneer's patter were as frenetic as at other livestock auctions I've attended. The auctioneer's tone was admiring and wonkish—a mix of automotive journalist, sporting event color analyst, and beauty pageant commentator. "You see that tremendous length of spine, here, just tremendous.... She's got a lot of bounce to her, really lively... This gal's got some real femininity, that special something you can't breed for." The critters being auctioned were milk cows, entailing frequent discussion of the udder, a word that becomes funny when uttered repeatedly. "Gonna have a real nice udder to her," the auctioneer said. "We'll see here an udder with those two extra teats on her backside—a beautiful udder, for any female. Her udder is fantastic."

Art by Erin Wilson

Back on the midway, a high percentage of players were winning prizes; rare was the child rodeo attendee unburdened by a child-sized stuffed-animal prize. The ride tickets were, rather than tickets, credits on a bar-coded card which the fairground workers then scanned. I asked a ride attendant how long this card system had been in use and received the quintessentially carny answer, "We just now started, a while back."

There was a lot of food, a lot of it expensive and in the idiom of festival and fair food's contemporary vernacular: whimsical, oversized, ostentatiously caloric. After spending 11 dollars on a forearm-sized sausage, my food budget was exhausted, so I satisfied myself with window shopping. The few unfamiliar items seemed to be randomly generated output from the stoned food combo generator—e.g. "Tequila Pickle Poppers"—but a few innovations outperformed the field. "Deep Fried Red Velvet Cookie Dough On A Stick" attained an almost aristocratic shamelessness; it sounded like Raymond Chandler describing Jessica Rabbit..

The rodeo itself, the event at the center of all this hoopla, was full of physical beauty. In the team calf-roping event, two mounted cowboys roped the head and rear legs of a running calf. First the head was lassoed, pulling the fleeing calf into a turn, its hooves still churning dirt, and then its rear legs would go out behind it, cinched expertly together from horseback. The calf would totter for a moment, balanced on its front hooves, or suspended entirely between the ropes, front legs scrabbling in air like Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff. Its neck would stretch, its rear legs pull into horizontal line with its back; it would totter, then fall. This balletic sequence was no less gripping the fourth or dozenth time—a pell-mell run, a sliding, constrained turn, then sudden horizontal fixity, a moment of quivering, stretched buoyance and THUMP, onto its side in the dust.

The bronco and bull-riding competitions, while thrilling, had a whiff of reenactment about them. Though imbued with the power of ritual, this specific form of struggle between man and animal was so familiar, and the riders so skilled, that it didn't feel fresh. The bulls almost all threw their riders; the broncos rarely did.

Far more compelling, to me, was "mutton busting," held in a small tent out by the NRG Stadium. In mutton busting, a first-grader ties to stay atop a big, fluffy sheep for six seconds as it runs across a muddy paddock. Whether or not the kids fall off, they are given a generous, meaningless score and an enthusiastic cheer from the stands.

If the bronc riding was at times like watching a sped-up time-lapse of judo masters knotted together, each leveraging and waiting for the other to make a mistake, mutton busting was as goofy and unpredictable as the Toughman Contests, the now-defunct and far funner UFC predecessor in which untrained brawlers—fat backwoods castaways and sinewy ex-cons—went toe-to-toe and threw haymakers until one combatant fell over. Mutton busting was adorably amateur, with no hint of a chess match. It was also intergender, refreshing at a rodeo in which adult female competitors were limited to barrel racing.

The bulls the grownups rode were named iconically or ominously: Kill Switch, Hustle & Flow, Chainsaw Massacre. The sheeps' names were cuter, a winsomely pastel shade of menace: Candy Crusher, Sheepwater Horizon—Really? Yes, really—and my favorite, Toddler Tosser.

Kid on the lamb, you definitely get it because it's an amazing joke. Image via Imgur User NaviOfClanBewb

When one bull rider reacted to an aborted ride by angrily flinging his cowboy hat, it was a rare breach of the Charles Bronson stoicism most competitors maintained throughout. Obviously the production truck was titillated, because they replayed the hat-toss as garnish in video recap packages throughout the night, along with one champion bareback rider's victorious "raise the roof" gesture. The rest of the adult riders remained virtuosically focused. As each waited for the gate to open and their ride to commence, the close-up cameras showed their pre-ride grimaces: chin sunk back into neck, teeth gritted in anticipation of the jarring bumps to come, eyes devoid of fear, betraying only a soldier's total subsumation of self to the task at hand.

The mutton busters, on the other hand, showed all kinds of nerves, which made the few calm ones stand out. After the overwhelming build-up and brief blur of the ride, many mutton busters succumbed to tears, but most of those who cried still managed a courageous post-ride wave to the audience, which reliably redoubled the applause. In the lead-up, the kids fluttered their hands and bobbed their heads, made Peanuts-sized by their safety helmets, while the MCs introduced them to the crowd. "Jayden is from Fort Smith, Arkansas. He wants to be a professional artist, and likes cotton candy." My partner and I kept hoping for more Louisiana kids to cheer for, but there was only one competitor from our state in the heat we attended. She aspired to be an oil rig worker when she grew up.

Oil company branding was everywhere at the rodeo. The only other brand remotely as present was Ford. Ford had banks of touchscreen terminals where you could sign up for their raffles, as well as multiple grandiose metallic blue Stargate pavilions full of gleaming gas-guzzlers parked for public perusal. These high-tech tabernacles were haunted by good-looking, clean-cut sales staff who, like everyone else working at the rodeo, were extremely polite.

The oil companies weren't on the ground the way Ford was; if they had pavilions or sales reps around, I couldn't find them. Shell and ConocoPhillips instead quietly, comprehensively slathered their logos and names all over everything, prepending or trailing the names of exhibits and events. Rodeo competitors with BP sponsorship wore that company's green-and-yellow blazon on their breast like a sheriff's star.

The mutton busters' outfits were cheerfully bright pinks, purples, and blues contrasting sharply with the variously taupe and earth-toned sheep. Besides the drama of the ride, mutton busting seemed to encapsulate so much of childhood: a carefully infantilized version of an inscrutable adult tradition. The keen anxiety and excitement the kids felt over something that was, at some level, a joke for the benefit of the grownups—the agonizingly intense anticipation of an experience that ends before you're fully aware it's begun—the mocking spotlight that moves on even as you steel yourself to step into it.

Some of the adult rodeo riders had, by their early twenties, already won a million dollars in prize money. For the children, there was no money, only their pride and the desire to conquer the woolly symbols of wildness placed before them. Their tiny fingers dug into the sheep's rough ringlets, the MCs told another joke, and then the miniature rodeo gate clanged open and the ride was upon them, ready or not. The result, no matter how they'd prepared, was largely a thing of chance: the colliding confluence of a thousand unfair factors no one else cared about, with no consequence commensurate to its high emotional stakes. Whether a mutton buster fell in the mud the first moment or clung heroically to the charging sheep's sides for the whole paddock's length, it was immediately and irrevocably over. When it was, you could only do what you were supposed to: stand up, wave to the audience, and make your way back to the stands. Your ride was done.

The sheep, so silly and cuddly to a grownup, loomed like fluffy, autonomous economy hatchbacks in relation to the pint-sized grade-schoolers. Free of video screens, free of sponsorships, free of prizes or rankings or TV deals, the mutton busting was a small thing within the gargantuan and impeccably professional rodeo mega-event. It was personal, full-hearted.

Few hero archetypes have endured as long as the cowboy, but I've never wanted to be one, whatever a cowboy even is anymore. Watching the little mutton busters—their pale but resolute pre-ride faces, their unrepressed fear, their exhilaration and their tears, each rider entirely submerged in the moment-to-moment swirl of the raw experience—I longed, suddenly and startlingly, to be a child again.