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Mutton busters bring heat to Big Sky Events Arena

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PBR stars elevate second annual Community Day

By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR

Community Day is produced by Outlaw Partners. Outlaw Partners publishes Explore Big Sky.

BIG SKY – Donning red, white and blue uniforms, professional athletes from the PBR are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on July 19 in the Big Sky Events Arena. The Big Sky PBR is a couple days away, and these top-tier cowboys aren’t here to ride. Today, they’re taking a backseat to some of the community’s toughest riders in training: mutton busters.

Part of the second annual Community Day, a Big Sky’s Biggest Week event leading up to the three-day Big Sky PBR, 33 intrepid kids aged 3-6 took their shot riding sheep in the mutton bustin’ event and were treated to tips and tricks from the Oklahoma Freedom riders, one of eight founding teams on the brand-new elite PBR Team Series.

Inside the freshly groomed arena, Oklahoma Freedom riders took turns hoisting the mutton busters on top of sheep, giving them a pat on the back and sometimes words of wisdom before the gates opened, spurring anywhere from two to 15 seconds of chaos as the young riders clutched the squirrely stock’s fur with all their might for a chance at local glory.

Big Sky’s Austin Hughes, 5, straddles a black sheep in the chute while he waits for the gate to open. His face is painted from Community Day festivities, and his eyes are wide with wonder as PBR rider Deklan Garland gives him the best tip he can muster before Austin’s ride: “Hold on tight!”

The gate opens and the sheep darts for its flock in the center of the arena. Taking Garland’s advice, Austin clutches the sheep for a few seconds but eventually topples into the dirt. His valor earned him a score of 73, not quite enough for first place but enough for a blue ribbon, which he totes around proudly for the rest of the afternoon.

“I didn’t really want to ride the black sheep because it’s super fast,” Austin said. But he did it anyway, he acknowledges, showing off his ribbon. Austin brought a fan club with him today including his parents and older sister.

“I love how many community members got to be involved [in mutton bustin’],” said Shelby Hughes, Austin’s mom. “Rodeo weekend’s pretty hectic for us, so getting to settle down with our families and watch together was pretty fun.”

In addition to mutton bustin’, Community Day was complete with a petting zoo, dunk tank, roping practice and horse rides, among other family games. Before hitting the arena themselves, kids also had the opportunity to meet and talk with the Oklahoma Freedom riders and take home an autographed event poster.

The team has been in Big Sky all week training at Lone Mountain Ranch, said Oklahoma Freedom head coach, stock contractor and former professional bull rider Cord McCoy. Some of the 12 team members are familiar with the Big Sky PBR, like Montana native Matt Triplett, who won the event in 2017. For others, like 19-year-old Caden Bunch, it’s their first time to Big Sky and they’re excited to ride this weekend.

“Every rider looks forward to this summer event,” Triplett said.

New this year, the PBR Team Series pits the eight teams against each other in five-on-five bull-riding games across an 11-event season beginning at the Cheyenne Frontier Days on July 25-26 shortly after the Big Sky PBR, where the riders will compete individually.

“They’re really revolutionizing the sport,” said Oklahoma Freedom rider Briggs Madsen, 22. Madsen, who’s currently ranked No. 113 in the world, said the team format allows the riders to be on salary so they’re paid to show up. Before, he said, they’d pay their own entries fees, essentially gambling on themselves to win the event and score the payout. “It’s just given bull riders more of an opportunity to make more money and to make a better professional career out of this for ourselves,” he said.

Big Sky PBR fans will see the Oklahoma Freedom riders at this weekend’s competition, with more mutton bustin’ in the mix as well.

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