Dusk is just settling in as a group of children outfitted in protective gear walks in a single file line toward the corral that cages the beast they are about to ride.
Parents and fans of rodeo sports crowd close to the fence that surrounds the field where the event is about to take place.
One by one the children mount their beast – a nervous sheep -- and one by one the children get bucked off in an event known as mutton busting.
Are the parents worried?
“I am absolutely excited to see her ride,” said Jamie Vickroy of daughter Lydia. “She is going to have fun.”
And what about Lydia, who spent the day practicing on her sisters’ backs and wound up taking second.
“I just held on tight,” said Lydia, who took home a shiny metal buckle.
Mutton busting is for children under the age of 8 and under 50 pounds. They see how far they can ride a sheep bareback down the rodeo stadium.
Dressed in protective vests and helmets, the children only have the power of their grip to keep them secured to a rearing sheep that is trying its hardest to buck them off.
Mutton busting is a big crowd pleaser at the rodeo, with many gathering early in the stands to watch as about 20 children took their turn clinging desperately to the sheep.
“For here, it is a really big thing …since Flagstaff hasn’t had the rodeo for a long time – it’s new for those ranchers from the outskirts,” said Aubrey Toler, organizer of the mutton busting. “Parents I think have more fun with it -- they get competitive and they want their kids to follow in their footsteps.”
For many of the kids it is also their first way to get involved in the rodeo circuit. Metal buckles are awarded to the top finishers, similar to the way they are handed out for other events.
“There’s not a lot of events that involve little kids -- you don’t want a horse bucking with your toddler," Toler said. "So it’s like the way in and actually gives them a chance to win the buckles and know what it feels like to compete.”
The scoring is judged by the announcer of the event, who is on the field with the kids and takes into account such things as distance the children ride before falling off.
Mutton busting is also a tradition for some families, some of whom have being going to rodeos in Flagstaff since the 1980s
“It totally is (a family tradition),” said Bill Edging, a parent of one of the riders. “This is the first time he has said yes and we were totally up for it. His brother, who used to mutton bust, rides a lot, so he is kind of following in his brother’s footsteps.”