Mutton bustin’ ‘good time’ at Clay County Fair

*This story was featured in the Hastings Tribune on July 8, 2016. 

CLAY CENTER — Behind the backdrop of a rich Nebraska sky, a crowd gathered around a dirt-floored arena on Thursday evening to take in one of the main attractions of the Clay County Fair: mutton bustin’.

The event, which features children riding on the back of sheep for four to five seconds at a time, gives kids an opportunity to experience something different.

“It’s just something new, something to try,” said Kayla Onderson, mother of Zarriana Witherspoon, 5, who was one of the riders. “I wanted her to try something new, even if it wasn’t something she was familiar with.”

 Thursday’s competition at the Clay County Fairgrounds in Clay Center featured 27 riders, varying in ages and weight classes with a chance to compete at the Nebraska State Fair on the line.Kids, dressed in traditional short-sleeve or cut-off plaid shirts, jeans and cowboy or cowgirl boots, simply had to walk up and register to ride the sheep.

“Anyone who wants to mutton bust, come on up and we’ll get a number for you,” shouted Lorraine McClain, manager of McClain’s Mutton Busters, prior to the event.

After registering for the event, riders are assigned a number and are instructed to line up single file to wait their turn to ride.

Once their number is called, kids are helped onto the back of the sheep and then instructed to “grab a hold and don’t let go.”

While riding a sheep can feel like a daunting task for the kids, it also can cause a feeling of uneasiness for the parents.

“I was a little nervous (watching), because I did that as a kid and I got stepped on,” Onderson said. “(Zarriana) hasn’t been brave enough the past couple years to do it, so I suggested it again and she wanted to do it.”

Mutton bustin’ has a 20-plus year history at the fair and, according to McClain, has even been a springboard to the rodeo circuit for a few former riders.

“A lot of the kids are hung on to (by the rodeo clowns); the next year they ride alone,” McClain said. “We have a lot of riders now who are bull riders. They got started when they were 3 years old and they keep it going.”

Regardless of the result of the ride, the event gives kids a chance to learn more about animals and have fun while doing it.

“It gives them a lot of confidence and it gives kids the chance to know animals,” McClain said. “A lot of them just have a big, good time.”