All the signs point to fall. The Twins have completely fallen out of the playoff race, students are about to start complaining about teachers, teachers are about to start complaining about students, and sheep riding is all but finished.
Now before you start thinking about Montana jokes, let me clarify that is not what I am writing about. I’m writing about the sport of sheep riding.
Summer meant boredom on the farm unless we came up with something to do, and that something turned frequently to sheep riding.
I competed heavily in the amateur circuit, mostly at my own private arena, known to the rest of my family as the “corral.” I also drafted my little brother Casey into the proud ranks of the ASRA (the Amateur Sheep Riding Association), where I wasn’t just the president, but also a member. Casey was vice-president, and was the first and only member to break his leg during the brief run of the ASRA. The club consisted of all two of us, and an occasional friend from town who usually only rode once and then demanded his dues back.
Our sheep ridings were always held on days when our parents weren’t around. Once the folks would leave the yard, we would lure the sheep into the corral with a bucket of feed and then proceed to rope our stock for the first go-round.
We had two different events: bareback and saddle. Bareback was more convenient because we didn’t have to mess around with pulling our cinches tight on the sheep, which can be pretty tricky. Our “saddle” consisted of a pad that mom had sewn stirrups and a cinch on for riding horses in the winter. One of us would hold the rope, while the other put the saddle down on the sheep and tried to jerk the cinch tight.
The next step was probably the trickiest: You had to persuade the other competitor to crawl onto the sheep. I repeatedly had to tell of fame and glory to get my little brother on top of the woolly. When that didn’t work, I threatened bodily harm, which always worked.
When the rider was in place, the rope was loosened and the ride would begin. Unlike most rodeo events, in sheep riding you don’t use spurs for fear of them becoming permanently affixed to the wool, dragging you along after you fell off (our equivalent of being “hung up”).
Only once did I compete professionally, and it was at the tender age of eight. At the big rodeos they called my event “mutton bust’n,” but nothing could be further from the truth. They should have called it “kid bust’n.” I don’t ever recall seeing one of the sheep’s mothers running out there to pick up her bawling kid. Nevertheless, parents thought this was great fun, and mine paid my entry fee. I drew a bad one, whose name alone still propels fear through me to this day.
“Son,” my dad said with a sound of panic in his voice. “You drew Wilma. Now watch her coming out of the chute. They say she spins hard to the left and after she gets the rider off, she comes back to eat him. The last kid that tried her had to be rescued by his mom.”
This kind of speech was not one that adds to a young man’s confidence, but regardless, I got on that sheep. Actually, somebody put me on the sheep. The rest is history.
“Are you ready kid?” the chute boss asked.
“Whatever you say kid,” and he jerked the gate. I think something was lost in the translation.
I tried to remember what dad had said about the sheep. Something about it going hard to the left, or was it to the right? It didn’t really matter. I found out later that sheep don’t spin. As a matter of fact, most sheep have taken a geometry class in their high school days and know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Wilma was an honor student. She took off for the opposite end of the arena at a sprint.
I had heard all of the stories about famous eight second rides and how the old timers stayed on even after the whistle sounded, but I considered myself an innovator, so I tested out my theory of a two-second ride. I bailed off the sheep, some would dare to say fell off, breaking the fall with my head, which is probably why I am how I am today.
As I tried to get my directions straight, Wilma turned in the arena, pawed dirt, and came back for me. Some in the crowd claimed my second ride was longer than my first, but the judges deducted points for style. Something about holding on to the sheep’s ears and my legs wrapped around her belly seemed to take away some of the elegance and grace of my ride.
Just a short week later I was back in school, the Twins were two and a half games behind the White Sox, and summer was but a memory, at least what little I could remember with the concussion and all.