By Maria Wyllie EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – On July 30 and 31, a handful of tykes with dreams of becoming the next bull-riding legend will get a feel for the sport during the Big Sky Professional Bull Riders’ nightly mutton bustin’ competitions. Each night between 10 and 12 aspiring cowboys and cowgirls will climb atop sheep to see how long they can hang on.

Returning as title sponsors this year are Big Sky Resort, Moonlight Basin, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and the Yellowstone Club.

“[We’re] proud to be a sponsor of the Big Sky PBR for our fourth year,” said Hans Williamson, vice president and general manager of the YC. “Our Members and the entire Yellowstone Club team look forward to the event as it is a huge summer highlight and every year seems to be bigger and better. We hope it will once again be named the PBR Event of the Year.”

Highline Partners joined the action this year as the official 2015 PBR mutton bustin’ sponsor.

“The PBR had become a signature event in Big Sky on both a local, regional and national level,” said Highline’s founding partner Rob McRae. “It draws great community support and presents a unique opportunity to expose our business to a diverse demographic.”

Mutton bustin’ offers kids ages 3-6 and weighing less than 60 pounds a softer introduction to rough stock sports like bronc and bull riding. Inside the arena chute gates, the young competitors – without ropes, spurs or saddles – are placed atop multi-colored Lincoln crossbred sheep weighing 150-200 pounds.

During the competition, photos of the participants are beamed on the big screen, as event announcer Brandon Bates states each child’s name, age and weight and his or her sheep’s name, which is picked by every rider.

As the chute gate opens, the sheep sprints out, and the rider must hang on for dear life. On average, most kids manage to stay on for 3-4 seconds. The rider who holds on the longest is deemed champion and interviewed front and center by Bates.

Competitors are supplied with vests and helmets for protection, and mutton busters are encouraged to wear boots, long sleeves and jeans.

The little sheep riders don’t have cash prizes hinging on their performance like the bull riders, but their emotions are arguably just as intense.

For some, fear strikes at the last minute, and mom or dad must remove their child from the sheep before the gate opens. Others are in tears because they fell off too soon, and they want another chance. But most have the time of their lives, determined to return the following year for another go at the title.

Five-year-old Frankie Seelye is one of those riders. On June 1, the day registration opened, Frankie signed up for a shot at rodeo glory. It will be the 48-pound competitor’s third year in the arena.

“She keeps coming back for more,” said her mother Shana.

Frankie, whose favorite part about the competition is interacting with the animals – whether she’s petting or riding them – has already named her sheep Madame Butterfly.

Frankie offered a few words of advice to first-time mutton busters: “It’s OK to fall off the sheep, and it’s OK if the sheep knocks you down,” she said.

Gretchen Fellerhoff-White, owner of Ewe Hoo Design, provides the sheep from her ranch in Gallatin Gateway and says it’s safe for both sheep and children.

“Kids on the farm have been doing this for centuries,” Fellerhoff-White said. “Sheep don’t buck – they’re not made to.”

Big Sky local Jerry Pape’s grandson Ryan Wenger rode in the mutton bustin’ competitions in 2013 and 2014, and his 4-year-old granddaughter Peyton Wenger is signed up to ride this summer.

As the owner of a Hot Heels steer – a big, plastic steer on wheels – Pape’s grandkids might have a leg up.

“I pull it around with a four-wheeler and that’s how they learn how to mutton bust,” Pape said. “I taught Ryan how to hold on. There’s a technique to it.”

Pape, 76, who owns Triple Creek Realty is a PBR Golden Buckle sponsor, as well as a sponsor of the Montana State University Rodeo Club, and he still participates in team-roping events. He says rodeo produces kids who know how to work and who grow up with a sense of responsibility for animals.

“This is cowboy country and it’s nice for the kids to understand what rodeo is all about,” Pape said, noting that when it comes down to it, he signs his grandchildren up because, first and foremost, they have fun.

The mutton bustin’ rosters are full for both nights, as both new and returning riders signed up quickly. And although there’s only one champion each night, all participants will receive award certificates and prizes presented by Highline Partners.

“[The PBR] is a great community event where kids are in the limelight, smiling and having fun,” said Todd Thesing, cofounder of Highline Partners.