Like many 5-year-olds, Luke Chessher spends a good chunk of his time playing games on his tablet. But unlike most of his peers, Luke is preparing for his San Antonio rodeo debut.

On Feb. 11, Luke will strap on a helmet and a padded vest at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Volunteers will help him bear-hug a sheep, make sure he’s holding on tight, and then let the sheep run free. Competitors will then be scored in several categories, including time and distance.

This rodeo event is known as Mutton Bustin’ and is open to children ages 4 to 7 who weigh 55 pounds or less. Luke, who will turn 6 on Feb. 16, is competing for the glory.

“I really want to win the trophy,” he said.

His mom Tanya Chessher, 36, said Luke was first introduced to the idea of mutton busting two years ago when his older sister Brantley Chessher participated in the main arena’s mutton busting event.

“They both get to have that really cool experience,” she said.

Brantley, 7, will ride as part of the San Antonio Rodeo’s new event, Bustin’ in the Barn, on the rodeo fairgrounds. The same age and weight restrictions apply, as do the judging parameters – competitors will be scored based on the personality they bring, how difficult the sheep was to ride, and how far and long they were able to hang on. Brantley recalled doing the chicken dance after she hopped off the sheep two years ago.

“I said ‘yee-haw,'” she said with a grin.

Any qualified mutton busters can sign up for Bustin’ in the Barn, rodeo spokeswoman Lauren Sides said in a November interview.

“They’ll actually have an opportunity, if they win in their bracket, to compete inside the AT&T Center as well,” Sides said.

Mutton busting is one of the rodeo’s most popular events, Sides said. The winner of the official event wins a big belt buckle, but the other contestants also get trophies. In the past, the rodeo has had to limit entries, but now kids who don’t make it to the AT&T Center can still ride on the fairgrounds. More than 1,400 kids can participate in Bustin’ in the Barn, according to the rodeo website. It’s one of the rodeo’s new attractions this year.

“We have like 2,000 kids who enter the lottery system that we have on our website for inside the AT&T Center, and that’s definitely a family favorite event that we have during the rodeo competition,” Sides said. 

A mutton bustin' contestant holds on as the livestock takes off. Photo by Scott Ball.
A child holds onto a sheep as he participates in the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo’s Mutton Bustin’ competition at the AT&T Center in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Contestants who sign up to mutton bust on the fairgrounds must pay a $35 entry fee.

Not everybody gets to practice on a real sheep, Sides said. She’s heard of kids riding dogs or even their parents to try out the event. But even though Luke has more consistent access to sheep, he only has ridden a few times, his mom said.

“We work cows and sheep and all kinds of livestock with my in-laws,” Tanya said. “When we’re working the sheep, he’s able to get on, hold on, and take off.”

Luke has had his share of tumbles during practice. His grandparents keep sheep at their ranch in Atascosa – about a 45-minute drive from Luke’s home in Floresville – where he’s been able to test his mutton busting skills.

“The sheep are really fast,” Luke said. “And they run away from people. When the sheep runs, it bumps and I can fall off. The fur is soft and it’s hard to hold on.”

Luke has also mutton busted at the Kansas City Rodeo before, Tanya said. She and her husband Troy volunteer at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo each year, and their two children have grown up around it.

One day, when they’re bigger and older, Brantley and Luke aspire to enter other rodeo events. Brantley wants to show pigs, and Luke said he wants to ride bulls.

Brantley and Luke Chessher Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Oh, that scares Mama,” Tanya said.

Luke will compete during the Mutton Bustin’ event on Feb. 11 at the AT&T Center. Brantley will ride on Feb. 8 on the rodeo fairgrounds. The rodeo opens on Thursday, Feb. 6, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 23. Find out more information about tickets and rodeo events here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.