By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer

BIG SKY – The chute bursts open and the animal bounds into the ring, its pounding hooves leaving a wake of dust. A brave rider grips its mount tightly, spurred on by the cheers of the delighted crowd.

This is mutton bustin’, an introduction to the limelight for aspiring bull riders, or kids just looking for a dusty good time. Instead of a 1,800-pound bucking bull, pint-sized riders test their mettle on 140-180 pound sheep, holding on as long as they can. While most kids manage to ride 3-4 seconds, occasionally tenacious busters will stay gripped to the wool after hitting the ground, getting dragged across the ring.

Kids 6 years old and under and weighing less than 60 pounds are eligible to enter. Competitors will be supplied with vests and helmets for protection. Mutton busters are encouraged to wear boots, long sleeves and jeans. This year’s Big Sky Professional Bull Riding event features two nights of mutton bustin’.

“Some of these kids know exactly what they’re doing,” said Gretchen Fellerhoff-White, who provides the sheep from her ranch in Gallatin Gateway. “Some of them are tough as nails.”

Fellerhoff-White has raised sheep for their wool for 27 years and been a stock contractor the past couple of years for Freestone Productions, which is producing the Big Sky PBR. She only brings ewes to the mutton bustin’ events, since they’re gentler than the rams.

“Sheep don’t kick,” she said. “They’re pretty safe animals…they might jump over [a kid] trying to get away.”

The trick to getting the sheep sprinting across the ring from the chute is a lead sheep named Ramona, and an 11-year-old Australian shepherd named Arrow who, Fellerhoff-White says, is the real professional. Arrow will keep the flock in order, while rodeo entertainer Flint Rasmussen will provide plenty of snarky commentary.

“The excitement of the young kids and the camaraderie and support they extend to each other has got to be a highlight for many who watch as well,” said Karen Lum, Director of Sales and Marketing at Moonlight Basin, which is sponsoring the mutton bustin’ for the third year in a row. “They are a symbol of the adventurous spirit of Montanans and rodeo competitors.”

Moonlight will present every participant with a t-shirt and the winning rider with a locally made belt buckle.

Mutton busters can sign up at the Outlaw Partners office or by calling Maria at (406) 995-2055. Slots are limited and are first come, first serve.