Back in the day when he made Westerns, Clint Eastwood could handle a six-gun and make men quake in their boots with his squinty-eyed stare.
But there’s one thing you never saw him do: Ride the back of a 175-pound sheep.
Leave that to 7-year-old girls.
They routinely leave their male counterparts in the dust during the daily mutton-busting competitions at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup.
“I’m in it to win it,” Rhaziaha Johnson said defiantly. Unfortunately, the 8-year-old Tacoma girl was just over the age limit and had to participate as an exhibition rider.
“It’s amazing, 75 percent of our winners are little girls,” said Tommy Giodone, owner of Wool Riders Only, which stages the 30-minute event four times a day, five on weekends. “It’s kind of a phenomenon.
“I think dads make sure their girls are tough and don’t cry, while moms tend to pamper their boys a bit.”
Giodone estimates more than 2,000 kids participate in mutton-busting during the fair’s 23-day run. Riders must be 4 to 7 years old, weigh under 60 pounds and are challenged to hang for at least 6 seconds.
Some fall off almost instantly, others have to be nearly pried off by staff.
“Kids want to go fast,” Giodone said. “We are raising extreme sports kids in this world today. And there’s nothing more extreme than climbing on a ewe, wrapping your legs around it and grabbing some wool.”
Giodone, whose business is headquartered in Colorado, says mutton-busting started as lightweight rodeo event for children. He quickly saw its commercial possibilities and began staging it at fairs around the country.
“It just blew up,” he said. “It’s great entertainment filler for rodeos and fairs.”
The sheep are cross-bred Columbia ewes and Suffolks. Giodone leases about 500 sheep from ranchers in Colorado. The sheep weigh an average 175 to 180 pounds.
“They’re very sturdy and tough,” Giodone said. “They’re fleshy, big-boned. They don’t even know a 60-pound kid is on their back. They just want to get to the back of the arena to be with their girlfriends.”
And if Giodone has learned one thing in this business, it’s never underestimate girl power.
“We’ve had girls show up in tutus or dressed like they’re going to Easter dinner,” he said, “and they climb on (a ewe) and ride the wool off one.”