RENO -- There's only one event at the Reno Rodeo that stirs up the crowd as much as bull riding does. Bareback? Nah. Saddle Bronc? No way. The answer: mutton bustin'.
Sandwiched between double muggin' and barrel racing in the nightly lineup, mutton bustin' is an event where future rodeo stars are bred and where cowboy and cowgirls are born.
"Mutton Bustin' started many, many years ago," said Reno rodeo announcer Bob Feist. "Now you've got some of the top bull riders and bronc riders in the world who came out of the mutton bustin' ranks."
The rules are simple: participants must weigh under 65 pounds and be between 5-7 years old. But is riding a sheep that simple? Not exactly. Sheep don't buck like bulls. But they can dart out of the chutes faster than most rodeo animals and usually leave kids in the dirt after only seconds.
"You just want to stay on as long as you can," said 7-year-old Nicholas Lani of Carson City, who rode one on Tuesday night. "You kind of just try and stay in the middle. I'm not really scared. But when I rode one for 25 seconds it almost ran me into the shudders. Then I got kind of scared."
Todd Lani, Nicholas' 6-year-old younger brother, offered some more advice for future mutton busters.
"Keep you heels dug in, your elbows in and your hands together," said Todd Lani, just minutes before riding his sheep for 2.9 seconds in front of more than 8,000 people.
Nicholas had just a slightly shorter ride, staying on for about 2.7 seconds before hitting the ground. Last year at the Reno Rodeo, Todd stayed on for five seconds, a personal record.
"Those two were the only ones who didn't cry last year," said mother Susan Lani, who watched her boys ride this week with her husband, Stephen. "There were a lot of blood and tears last year," Stephen Lani said.
"Not by us," Todd quickly corrected his dad. "No crying. A little bid of mud, though."
There were over 300 applicants who signed up their children to compete at the Reno Rodeo. Only 80 are accepted and each pay a $25 registration fee. The Lanis had to sign up in March in order to be accepted. They had to do the same thing last year. Some wear a protective vest and all of them wear a helmet. However, mutton bustin' isn't a true competition. Official scores aren't kept. But if a mutton buster stays on for several seconds, you can bet the crowd cheers as loud as they would for a bull rider who just received a score of 92.
Bull rider Blu Bryant, who finished in third place in the first go-round with an 89 on Thursday, didn't start his rodeo career on a sheep. But that doesn't mean he hasn't seen it happen.
"Nah, I never did any mutton bustin'," said Bryant of Robinson, Texas. "I started with steer wrestling. I know some guys who did but I don't know if that's why they're bull riders. It's a little different."
Well, maybe not that different. Most of the time the goal is stay on for eight seconds, just like in bull riding.
"I'm just going to hold on with my legs, try and stay on for eight seconds," said 7-year-old Jordan Yadon of Carson City before his ride on Thursday. "I'm a little nervous and a little scared about falling off."
Just like bull riders.
Yadon rode a sheep for five seconds two years ago at the Reno Rodeo. On Thursday, Yadon, who attends Fremont Elementary School, stayed on for just over two seconds before falling onto the dirt. Now he has to retire from mutton bustin' because he'll be older the cut-off age of 7 next summer.
Next step, find Yadon a bull. OK, maybe a steer.