Liam Ramirez was 2 when he decided to tackle mutton busting.
“It’s not very hard. You just have to hang on and don’t let go,” the 7-year-old said of riding sheep. “You’ve just got to wrap your arms around their neck, or you can grab its fur and hang on, but you have to squeeze your legs real tight. It’s complicated.”
There have been a few times when hanging on was not so simple.
“I’ve gotten hung up. One time I ran into a camera lady on my sheep because she wasn’t paying attention. I’ve got stepped on in the chin by a sheep and it knocked my helmet off. I have a few scars on my face from getting stepped on in the face.”
Scars mark the mishaps, but he’s got the plaques and belt buckles to mark his accomplishments.
Five years into riding sheep, he is ready to take on something a bit bigger and more challenging.
A few weeks ago, he said he made the decision to ride bulls, like his stepdad Randall Whittley used to do.
Whittley said he was 18 or 19 and talking to his cousin who had ridden bulls a couple of times. It sounded like fun, so the next weekend he decided to try. He ended up riding for five years.
So what do you do when you’re 7 years old and you want to ride bulls and an average bucking bull weighs about 1,500 pounds?
You ride miniature steers.
“They are short, but they are thick and they have the mass like a bull,” said Liam’s mother, Malerie Ramirez, of the 500 to 1,000-pound animals with less volatile temperaments that serve as an introduction for youth to bull riding.
In preparation, Liam said, he has been riding the black barrel.
His spurs jingled as he walked across the floor, and the soon-to-be bull rider moved to the window and pointed to a black barrel strung up on rope between two trees outside.
Someone works the ropes to make the barrel buck, which helps him improve his skills and develop his balance and timing.
“I put my rope on and I just hang on,” Liam said. “You have to have the sticky rope stuff and you put it on your glove and you take your glove and you move it up and down the rope to warm it up, and then you put your hand in and wrap the rope around a few times.”
He sat back down and propped his left foot on his right knee and ran his forefinger over the spur attached to his boot.
“Horse spurs that normal people wear, they spin, but bull spurs, they don’t spin all the way around. They wiggle. They just don’t go all the way around. Whenever you go like this, and kick the bulls in the stomach, it will help you hang on better.”
As he was talking, Liam’s siblings, Manny, Elizabeth and Neveah, gathered around and began sharing their own stories of mutton busting, calf riding, goat tying and trick riding on ponies, cooking, dancing and playing ball, but none are ready to tackle bull riding like Liam.
In his spare time, Liam has been watching steer riding events online and working to raise money to go to a three-day bull riding event that includes a school.
“I’ve been working to get $300,” he said.
His parents would have paid for Liam to go to the classes and enter the rodeo, but he wanted to help raise the money. He decided anyone who buys one of his autographed pictures for $5 he will do a job for them. Among the jobs he has done or is set to do, he said he has worked at Grizzly Nutrition one day, cleaned out a car, helped someone building a house and he will be feeding and watering dogs while some people.
He is encouraging people to hang on to those autographed pictures of him mutton busting. Some day, he may be famous in the bull riding arena and those pictures will help show how he got there.
Saturday, Liam took a break from fundraising jobs to go calf riding at a rodeo in Carthage, Missouri, as part of the Junior Professional Bull Riders (PBR), giving him a chance to ride a few times before he actually goes to his first miniature bull riding competition.
“I was going to ride a bull there, but the bulls are too big,” Liam said, an edge of disappoint in his voice.
“They don’t have the minis,” Whittley explained.
Liam has one more weekend rodeo for practice before he heads to the bull riding classes July 2 and the Lane Frost Legends in the Making International Miniature Bullriders Association Major Event in Lane, Oklahoma, July 3 and 4.
“I’m going to go to a high school and I’m going to learn how to stay on there better and stuff, and then the next day I go to the Lane Frost Arena and I ride,” he said. “And I get to meet a famous bull rider.” In the actual steer riding competition, he gets a chance to ride two bulls.
“If he does well, he keeps riding,” his mother said.
“The better you get the better you go,” Liam said.
The winner in his Pee Wee Mini Bulls division, for ages 6 to 8, has a chance to win the pot of entry fees.
“I’m a little nervous,” he said. “This is why I have a vest.”
Pointing to a patch on the front of his vest, he said, “I have the American flag with me and I will always know that I am safe.”
Asked what he is most nervous about, Liam gave a nervous laugh and said, “Dying.”
Asked what he is most excited about, he said, “Winning.”
“You want to see me ride?” he said.
Given the nod, he put on his protective vest with its protective American flag and his cowboy hat, gathered up his bell, rope and glove in his carryall and headed outside toward the barrel.
He wrapped the rope around the barrel, situated himself atop, wrapped the rope tightly around his gloved right hand and then cued his stepfather to let the bucking begin.
In true bull riding posture, using his left hand in the air to help balance himself, Liam rode out the bucking for 12 seconds. The smile on his face seemed to broaden with each passing second, as though he could envision the barrel being an actual bull and making the ride.
“I’m excited,” he said.