It looks like the “city boy” who married the “farm girl” strikes again.

    Last year, in Central Park to take pictures at WoJo’s Rodeo’s first visit here, I scanned the program, came across the event known as “Mutton Busting,” and a look of bewilderment swept across my face. My wife, knowing that when we started dating almost 30 years ago I covered an FFA competition for a TV news station without knowing what a cow’s “udder” was, saw the mystified haze that had come over me and explained without me even having to “utter” a word. “Kids ride sheep,” she said.

    Sure enough, an hour or so later, parents began lining up their tiny cowboys and cowgirls near a chute full of sheep.       

     But then some of the children – small enough to be able straddle the back of a sheep and clasp their hands around its neck – started bawling before they were even placed on the back of a sheep. It was clear a couple of these kids weren’t going to bust any mutton that day.

    But lots of other children did. Most lasted little more than a few steps before tumbling off and landing in the dirt. But a couple of kids, even after their sheep reached maximum velocity, were still holding on for dear life, until they, too, tumbled into the dirt.

    As I took in the scene, it was clear mutton-busting was a rodeo highlight, right up there with bull-riding and saddle-bronc. Everyone seemed to think it was adorable, and they cheered and encouraged every miniature rodeo wannabe.

    WoJo’s returned to Central Park a second time a couple weeks ago. This time, when it was time for mutton-busting, I positioned myself in a vantage point that had the sheep and the kids riding them running right in front of me.

    What I couldn’t help but notice this time as opposed to last year was the sheep. They appeared to have major angst coursing through their veins as they were removed from the chute and held in place while parents and other rodeo handlers tried to position a kid on their backs. Sheep kicked and jumped and strained to get away, and then once a child was centered on their backs, the handlers let go and off they bolted. Again, as was the case last year, most rides were over quickly. But a few kids were still holding on and rocking and rolling as the sheep raced by in front of me, and from this point of view I saw kids not just fall off and land in the dirt, I saw them face-plant in the dirt. I saw them bang their heads and get stepped on by a running sheep. I saw their little bodies twist and turn and bend – in ways I wouldn’t want to twist and turn and bend – when they went from moving fast to stopped cold on the ground. Had it been me, I might have rolled around in agony at least long enough for the public address announcer to beckon the paramedics nearby.

    But not one child cried. They may have shed a tear or two, but they didn’t cry out loud to the point that anyone looking on would notice. They winced. They wiped dirt from their faces. They limped. But as they slowly made their way to their proud moms and dads coming out to hug them, nary a shoulder-heaving sob was observed.

    Was it some kind of rodeo thing, I wondered? A cowboy code? No matter how young or old you are or tiny or huge or feather-light or heavy, no matter how much it hurts at the rodeo, you don’t make it obvious that it hurts, at least to the point that your tear-ducts prevail in the battle of wills against your toughness.

    This year, I shot a Facebook Live video of the mutton-busting. Afterward, as I saw the likes and the shares and the views and the comments accumulating, I scrolled through all of it, thinking some liberal or child advocate, or some city slicker rodeo know-nothing like me would chime in with a judgmental admonition like “THAT’S CHILD ABUSE!!!” But no one did. Everyone’s comments and emojis were congratulatory and in the spirit of fun and excitement.

    Clearly, at the rodeo, I was out of my element. I brought my apparent lack of perspective to the attention of my “farm girl” wife, who once again trotted out her “city boy/city slicker” labels for her husband. Over the next couple of days, she also proceeded to glean great joy out of sharing my mutton-busting safety concerns with her ag and animal science faculty pals at the U of M Crookston.

    “It’s what we did!” she told me as she rattled off things farm kids did/do with farm animals on the farm. It sounds like in her youth, most fun was had trying to tip animals over.

    Then she turned the tables. “What did YOU do?”

    Ahhh…memory lane. We played kickball, baseball and football in our yards and in parks, and hockey in the street. We made riverbank forts behind the dike. We played with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, and built log cabin palaces with Lincoln Logs, and towers with Legos. When we got older, we smoked behind the garage, prank-called the teachers we deemed most gullible, and played ding-dong-ditch. We rode our bikes constantly, too. And when we wiped out, if it really hurt, we cried.

    Bunch of city boys...