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Every year since the dawn of time, the small town where I grew up holds a Labour Day Weekend County Fair, and every year the fair’s Family Rodeo draws a surprising number of contestants from the area and beyond.
It is important to remember that this particular tale takes place before certain children’s safety codes were in place, and long before those codes were in force at small county fairs.
The premise of the rodeo was to enroll different members of the family in as many farm-related tasks as possible to collect points on a ranking system. Events ranged from the practical to the bizarre, but were invariably activities that sound better when you drop the “g” – hay-bale rollin’, wheelbarrow racin’, chicken catchin’, and – the most daunting event of all – sheep ridin’.
As I sat in the comfort of our family kitchen checking the sheep-riding consent box on the Family Rodeo Events Form, the prospect seemed unintimidating. An event six weeks away seemed as far off as Christmas.
When I arrived at the rodeo corral on the Labour Day weekend, however, I quickly saw that I had got myself in deep, deep over my head.
To spare the structural integrity of the sheep’s spines, the maximum weight of riders was 60 pounds. This limited the participating demographic to small, underdeveloped children with little or no prior sheep-riding experience. Whimpering and anxiety-ridden, the children were corralled in a small enclosure while the sheep awaited their own unfortunate fate in a bucking chute. A lice-infested helmet would be placed on the child’s head to create an illusion of safety, and the child would be placed on a sheep.
When the door of the chute was released, the crowd would collectively hold its breath as the sheep tore across the ring toward its comrades waiting on the opposite side. During the first few strides, the child’s white-knuckle grasp on the sheep’s wool would be loosened, and for several terrifying seconds child and sheep would be locked in a battle of wills with the cruel Hand of Fate itself. Then, inevitably, the child would be swiftly and dramatically ejected from the sheep’s back. Remaining airborne for several seconds, he would fly across the corral, limbs flailing helplessly, before crashing down on the manure-encrusted earth.
At this point, his hands covered in manure and his knees scraped and bleeding, the child would begin to bawl uncontrollably until a county fair official came and escorted him out of the corral to rejoin his disappointed family members on the sidelines.
“You tried, son,” they would tell him, “but I think you just cost us the Family Rodeo.”
I would like to say I was superior to these other weak children, that I was a tough and resilient sheep-riding natural, but that would be a lie. I lasted no more than six seconds before I, too, was abruptly reacquainted with the earth in a pool of my own blood, sweat and tears.
My older sister, on the other hand, had the stars aligned for her in a dramatically different way. She had a shockingly high metabolism and, at 59 pounds, towered in both age and height over the other contestants – a three-dimensional Gigantor destined for great things in the corral.
One year, as the children were flung across the paddock one by one, Celine hung back, meticulously observing the tendencies of the sheep, quietly calculating her plan to sweep the show.
When she finally mounted her sheep – the last contestant – she did it with steely confidence. And when the door of the bucking chute swung open, she quite literally rode that sheep across the corral and back again, around the perimeter of the yard, the crowd going wild, the commentator in awe. She was poised on the back of that galloping sheep like a seasoned veteran from the Midwest.
Celine continued this way for several minutes until, the undisputed winner to a painfully obvious degree, she gracefully dismounted and strode to the sidelines to fetch the Blue Ribbon. She had changed the event, and the masses loved her for it. One man pressed a $20 bill into her hand, which, when you are under 60 pounds, has the power to purchase everything your heart has ever desired and then some.
But amid the cheers and hoots and raining cash, one voice was not heard that afternoon. I didn’t care that Celine, as part of my family, had just scored us the points we desperately needed to claw our way to a rodeo ranking. I was feeling a blind and jealous rage, and in that moment I understood that the glory in small victories may come and go, but sibling rivalry is forever.
I haven’t attended the Labour Day Weekend Family Rodeo for more than a decade, but I know for a fact that if they still had sheep riding, and if they didn’t impose silly and unnecessary weight restrictions, I would school every kid who’s ever been duped into taking one for the family team, including my big sister. Until then, she holds the esteemed record for the county fair’s sheep-riding event, and the pride of our little town. And she still has that damn Blue Ribbon tucked away for safekeeping.
Miranda Batterink lives in Hamilton.