By Mike Maltais
Somewhere near the mid-point of the rough stock events at the two annual Methow Valley rodeos, an air of anticipation begins to settle over the assembled spectators.
It’s mutton busting time in the Methow.
From his booth, the rodeo announcer calls for “all you mutton busters to gather behind the chutes” for what has become a highlight of the local show.
Wikipedia defines mutton busting as “an event held at rodeos similar to bull riding or bronc riding in which children ride or race sheep.”
That’s the sanitized version.
The sport reportedly originated in the 1980s at the National Western Stock Show when a former rodeo queen with a touch of the dark side wondered what you’d get if you put a bunch of youngsters and sheep together and shook them up a bit.
Back in the Methow arena, the participant’s panic is reflected in eyes as big as saucers and cries of protest.
And that’s just the mutton.
The busters, some barely out of pull-ups, are hoisted onto the backs of the bleating beasts by well-meaning parents or relatives offering non-stop words of encouragement and reassurance.
It’s a fast-paced event with riders exiting chutes in rapid succession before they can change their minds.
In the midst of this mayhem stands a mini-me clown, all of 4-feet, 1-inch and 64 pounds, who brings order to the chaos and some assurance to the busters. He’s Lucien Paz of Winthrop, son of Katie and Arcenio Paz and a first grader at Methow Valley Elementary School who, at 7 years of age, is already a veteran mutton buster and mutton fighter.
Bull fighter clown Scott (Scottie-Too-Hottie) Wagner recalled the moment a couple of years back when 5-year-old Paz approached him in the arena during a break in the bull riding event.
“I want to be just like you!” Paz told Wagner.
“Well,” Wagner replied, “You show up here next year with a costume and we’ll see what we can do.”
The following year, Paz was back garbed in the requisite outfit. “Remember me?” he asked Wagner.
“I had sort of forgotten about it,” Wagner confessed. “But he was there just like he said he would be so I figured I’d better keep my word.”
“You gotta go after it if you want it,” Paz said recently.
“He’s an entertainer,” mom Katie said of her son. “He likes to make people feel good.”
Wagner introduced Paz to the rodeo clown shtick and the two have partnered up at the Methow rodeos ever since.
“We have even appeared at the Darrington rodeo,” Wagner added.
Wagner hails from Snohomish and first worked as a rodeo clown in his 20s while in Texas. He has been performing locally for the past four years.
The costume Paz wears was designed by his mom, and suggests a cross between Walmart shopper and outdoor survivor; its design tasteful, yet eclectic. It’s a little known fact that sheep, by nature fastidious creatures, are driven to distraction by mismatched outfits.
And there’s plenty of distraction.
The sheep, mostly merinos and black-faced Suffolks, “are pretty wild,” Paz said.
The words and gestures of encouragement and support Paz offers the occasional rider who’s taken a nasty tumble come from one who has seen the world from the back of a wild woolie.
As in any sport, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat draws mixed reactions from the busters. A few, spitting dirt and damnations, march back toward the chutes to discuss the dubious merits of the exercise with a parent.
Others animatedly celebrate. One or two will lie inert in the dirt until some sympathetic adult comes along to scoop them up.
Whatever the case, Paz is there to help.
“He’s very compassionate,” said grandmother Sue Northcott. “He sort of an ambassador. He always thinks of everybody else.”
When not in the arena, Paz participates in hockey, baseball, soccer and wrestling. He plays the catcher and shortstop positions for the local San Francisco Giants of the Methow Valley Youth Baseball Little League.
The oldest of three brothers, Paz serves as an example for Remington, 6, and Greydon, 5.
As a student at Little Star Montessori, he participated in a fundraiser the school held for kids in Africa.
“Lucien raised about $100 on his own,” mother Katie said.
“He’s not afraid to interact with people and is one of the nicest, most respectful youngsters I’ve been around,” said granddad Bart Northcott.
Asked about his favorite part of the rodeo last year, Paz was quick to reply.
“It was when we took a big slingshot and shot water balloons into the crowd,” Paz said. “One of the people even caught one.”
“But the slingshot broke,” Paz added.