LEWISTOWN — It takes courage to sit on top of a stock animal.

From bulls to broncs, competitors put their guts on display every time the gate to the bucking chutes opens.

And often, the smallest cowboys and cowgirls are the ones with the most heart. That was certainly the case last week in Lewistown.

On the second night of the Central Montana Rodeo, the bravest of the brave, the strongest of the strong, lined up and awaited their turn to show their stuff aboard some of the toughest mutton in the biz.

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Some rides were short, others ended in tears.

But when 8-year-old Kegen Vanek heard his name called and climbed on top of his sheep on Thursday, time stood still.

“I was thinking that I wasn’t going to win,” said Vanek. “And I closed my eyes and then I opened them and realized that I was pretty close to winning and then I just holded on.”

Kegen Vanek holds on tight for an 89 point ride in the Pat Vanek Memorial Mutton Busting. (JUSTYN MARTINKO/MTN Sports)

Kegen held on tight, and waited for the judges to send in his scores.

The announcer yelled: “89 points!!”

The crowd went wild and Kegen pumped his fist in the air, high-fiving everyone in reach.

“I was, like, really happy,” said Kegen while admiring his shiny new belt buckle.

But that’s only half the story.

You see, this wasn’t an ordinary mutton busting event. It’s the annual Pat Vanek Memorial Mutton Busting Challenge, named in honor of a Lewistown father and rancher who died in a farming accident in 2010.

Kegen Vanek is Pat’s nephew.

“I won because I forgot about being scared,” said Kegen. “And I just closed my eyes and then I just won!”

Would his uncle be proud?

Kegen smiled: “Yeah, because I won the belt buckle!”

And it gets sweeter. The night before Kegen’s ride, his cousin Alexis, Pat’s youngest daughter, held on for an 88-point ride, good enough for first place and a belt buckle of her own.

“I was really happy when I won it (Wednesday) night,” Alexis said after handing Kegen his buckle. “It just surprised me that I won it!”

Both Vanek cousins are 8 years old, so next year they will be ineligible for mutton busting. But for now they’re happy to pose for photos and show off two shiny new belt buckles to their friends.

And they made one dad in heaven awfully proud.

The Vanek cousins pose with Kegen Vanek’s championship belt buckle. (MTN SPORTS PHOTO)