BROOKS, Maine — Right before the rodeo chute opened, the little boy sitting atop a big sheep was given some last minute advice by the champion bull-riding cowboy who was acting as his mentor: hug, hold and dig in.
That’s what Gavin Jordan did during last February’s San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, and the advice worked. The tiny 4-year-old hugged his sheep as the crowd of thousands cheered him on while he held on and dug in. Seven seconds later, competitor No. 6 in the rodeo’s popular Mutton Bustin’ event dramatically tumbled to the ground before a rodeo clown swept him up to safety.
“It was fun,” Gavin, now 5, remembered Friday morning.
He wore his full cowboy regalia — big black hat, shiny silver belt buckle, plaid shirt and cowboy boots — as he eagerly showed off photographs from his seven seconds of fame, as well as the big participant’s trophy and the event video he received.
Last February, he was a Texan competing in his local rodeo, a 3-week-long event that features country music luminaries and world champion cowboys.
“There were 35,000 people there that night, watching him ride,” said his grandfather Stephen Gallant, a Maine native who lived in Texas for many years.
But Gavin and his family moved to Brooks in April, where they live with their dogs and cat in a home overlooking the Marsh River. Gallant wanted to go back home to Waldo County, along with his wife, Bonnie, daughter, Krista Jordan, and, of course, Gavin.
“I’m the one who brought these Texans to Maine,” Gallant said.
According to Jordan, normally only Texan children are selected from thousands of applicants to become mutton busters. But she just found out that Gavin will buck that trend. He has been chosen to come back and compete this February, when he will hug his sheep and hope to stay upright for a little bit longer.
“We’re going to send the Maine identity down to Texas. They’re going to say his name and say he’s from Brooks, Maine,” Jordan said. “I think that’s going to be a brilliant thing.”
Gavin’s very excited to have the chance to compete again, she said, which he had wanted to do immediately last time.
Not every child is brave enough to get on the back of that sheep, some of which do buck.
“Until he came out of that chute, I wasn’t sure he’d get on,” Gallant said. “I was proud. Not only did he get on it, he was smiling. He looked like a miniature rodeo cowboy.”
Because he rode well for a 4-year-old and pleased the crowd, the family began receiving email invitations from other rodeos to have him compete. But they moved to Maine soon after the San Antonio event and couldn’t get to any of the other rodeos over the summer, Jordan said.
However, they are looking forward to going back in February to San Antonio, where he will join other children who are between the ages of 4 and 7 who weigh less than 55 pounds.
Gavin won’t be practicing before that because he has no access to rodeo sheep in Maine.
But when he arrives at the AT&T Center, where the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs play basketball, he will again get swept up into the performer’s area, where a real cowboy will help him into his protective helmet and vest. He may even have the chance to get another signed photograph of a rodeo queen, which happened last February.
Then he’ll be sent to the chute, ready to ride his sheep for fame and glory.
The mutton busters are scored on how long they ride, how well they ride, how wild their sheep is, the entertainment value of the ride and how they engage the audience, Jordan said. The top rider receives a fancy, hand-tooled belt buckle.
The winner in Gavin’s heat last year apparently came from a rodeo family. That little boy wore fancy chaps, looked like he had practiced before and had the chance to peck the rodeo queen on the cheek as he accepted his prize.
Gavin’s mutton bustin’ experiences have made an impact. While he said that he wants to help sick animals when he grows up, he did say that riding horses in a rodeo would be pretty cool.
When his mom asked what he thought about becoming a cowboy, Gavin, a man of few words, smiled.
“Great,” he said.