By: Jake Smith
The crowd is screaming, the music is blaring, but to you it is just noise, the background track to your focus as you try to get your mind right. You are sitting in the bucking chute on a bull you’ve never ridden before as the assistants and other riders begin helping you get adjusted. Luck seems to be on your side tonight as the bull is behaving well, rather than fidgeting and slamming your legs into the sides of the chute. You start tugging on your bull rope, trying to warm up the caked on rosin to make sure it is tacky enough to stick to your glove. The rope gets pulled tight as you make sure your riding hand is centered on the bull’s back and you get handed the end to begin your wrap. By now you’re starting to sweat, your hand has been taped into your riding glove for some time and as you begin to wrap the end of your bull rope around your hand, the adrenaline starts to fill your veins. You make your final adjustments, slide up as far as you can on your riding hand, press your hat down on your head one last time and nod your head. It is at this very moment, as that chute door opens, that a simple eight seconds, a finite, fractional amount of time will begin to feel like an eternity. Although it may seem dramatic and intense, it is these 8 seconds that bull riders live for. These eight seconds are the difference between winning and losing, getting paid or going home empty handed. However, to be successful, the rider must endure what is widely considered by both fans, and organizations like the International Federation of Sports Medicine, to be the longest and most dangerous eight seconds in all of organized sports.
Founded in 1992, the PBR is the official governing body of professional bull riding. Within the PBR there are three levels: the Touring Pro Division (TPD), the BlueDef Tour (BDT), and the Build Ford Tough Series (BFTS). Although all three are considered the professional echelon of the sport, the BlueDef Tour and the BFTS are the only major televised and attended events with the BFTS being by far the main stage. Although fielding over 1,000 riders in total competition, the BFTS and BDT each respectively only rank the top 35 riders in the world. Of these 35 riders, while a vast majority are American, PBR has started to become popular in a number of different countries that may surprise you. Brazil oddly enough has managed to field some of the best riders in the world as of late, to include Silvano Alves, Fabiano Vierira, and Joao Ricardo Vierira. Additionally, recently, Australia has started to field some impressive young riders including Lachlan Richardson and Ben Jones. However, the sport is still widely dominated by American riders, to include the current top rider in the world, and my favorite rider, J.B. Mauney
The idea behind bull riding is simple. To receive a qualified ride, you must stay on your bull with at least a portion of your bull rope in your hand for a total of 8 seconds. Additionally, you must refrain from touching any part of the bull or yourself with your free arm. A failure to do so will stop the clock and will in turn result in a “no score.” In many people’s minds, this doesn’t seem like that monumental of a challenge, as it is only 8 seconds. However, the variable is a 1,500+ pound bucking bull that wants nothing more than to get you off its back as quick as possible. This makes staying on a bull extremely difficult, and then consequently dismounting and escaping even more difficult. Although the act of actually riding normally results in little more than strained to torn tendons and muscles in the arms, shoulders etc. there can be serious injuries that occur to the face and head when riding if perhaps the bull bucks to hard and the rider head and face meet that of the bull’s and the bull’s horns. It is during the dismount and escape that we see the majority of the injuries occur.
As is common with almost every sport in the world, whether it is a contact sport or not, there are certain risks associated with playing or competing in that sport. In this way, Professional Bull Riding (PBR) is no different. Riders understand the risks associated with deciding to compete week in and week out, and know that it is all part of the job. Unlike other major contact sports however, like basketball or soccer, where injuries seem to happen often but are not inherently a constant issue of concern for the players, bull riding personifies the idea that is “not whether you end up getting hurt, but when and how bad you end up getting hurt.” In a study published in 2007, the International Sports Medicine Journal found that for every hour spent riding a bull, a rider will sustain at least 1.4 injuries associated with riding. Additionally, the study found that, “bull riders are approximately 10 or more times more likely to sustain injury than are participants in team contact sports, such as ice hockey and football, and about 36% more likely to sustain injury when compared to amateur boxing.”
The injury possibilities are extensive. If a rider is lucky it could be just the bruising or straining of muscles and bones, as this is normal for a semi-rough dismount. However, if luck (and skill, as a good dismount is practiced extensively) are not on the rider’s side, the injuries can be much more serious. These can range from being kicked or fallen on, to be being trampled and gored by a 1,500lb animal that with every figment of its being, wants to cause the rider as much physical harm as possible in that moment. It is within the trampling and goring incidents that the majority of the more horrific and even occasionally deadly injuries occur. If this is truly the case, then it becomes very difficult to argue with that statement that bull-riding may be the most dangerous sport in the world. However, this then presents the question, how and why, if the sport really is as dangerous as the numbers suggest, do the athletes continue to put themselves at risk every weekend to ride? The top riders in the world have to make this decision nearly every weekend, and few top riders understand and have lived this decision quick like current world No. 1 rider, J.B. Mauney.
Mauney, who has been riding bulls professionally since he was 18 years old, grew up in a rodeo family. It was this atmosphere growing up that really shaped his view on the risk associated with his sport. In an interview with Las Vegas Weekly, Mauney talks about,
“It’s a lot to do with your mind. If I can’t put the pain out of my head for 8 seconds to ride my bull then I don’t need to be ridin’ bulls at all. But I was raised that way. My parents, they weren’t hard on me, but they were tough. If I was gonna do it, I had to be tough about it. You don’t lay in the arena. It don’t matter how bad you’re hurt, if you can get up you better get up and walk out of that arena. Then you lay down out back and you can cry or whatever you want to do. It was always, if you lay out there, both your legs better be broken and you better be tryin’ to crawl away.”
This idea of riding through the pain, and having the mental and physical fortitude to get up and make your way out of the arena after a wreck (affectionate name for a bad dismount/escape) is a necessary skill for professional bull riders to possess. Within the sport and throughout rodeo sports in general, it has affectionately been given the term, “cowboy up.”
While this is essentially a slang term, it has its roots in the idea of hegemonic masculinity, or the socially constructed idea of what being a man or being masculine is involved. One of the facets of hegemonic masculinity is the idea of “frontiersmanship.” This facet fits perfect with bull riding, as, described in a Trujillo article it states, “The cowboy stands very tall as an archetypal image reproduced and exploited in literature….the cowboy is a white male with working class values.” The whole idea concerning being a cowboy and being masculine are interconnected. A rider must be able to exhibit this level of masculinity and “cowboying up” in order to be successful. If a rider can’t compete he doesn’t get paid or even have the chance to get paid, simple as that. This ability to “cowboy up” becomes a necessity as the nature of injuries are sometimes extremely horrific. A prime example of this can be seen in the death of famous professional bull rider Lane Frost, a death that would spark major change for the sport of bull riding.
On July 30, 1989, at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Lane Frost drew the bull “Takin’ Care of Business” for his final ride. After notching a qualified ride on his bull, Frost was flung off of and landed in the dirt. While mostly unscathed by his landing, the bull turned suddenly and struck Frost in the mid-section by with its horns. Although not punctured by the horns, the force of the blow would break nearly all of the ribs on Frost’s left side. Not realizing the extent of his injury, Frost attempted to get up and hobble out of the arena. Halfway out of the arena, he collapsed from the pain. What he was unaware of at the time was that upon collapsing, a couple of his broken ribs had actually punctured his heart. Although rushed to the nearest hospital, due to major internally bleeding, Frost was pronounced dead upon arrival at the medical center. His death was and continues to be one of the most horrific and saddening events the sport has ever seen. Furthermore, his death would influence his fellow rider, and travelling partner, Cody Lambert to create a revolutionary padded vest that is now a requirement to be worn by all PBR riders. Although injuries resulting in death are not common in the sport, they do happen and riders like Frost and his more recent counterparts know that every time they nod their head, it could be their last ride.
The question that then still remains is, why do PBR riders continue to ride? What makes them continuously risk serious injury and death every weekend? The overwhelming reaction seems to be two-pronged in that it reflects the two main focuses of most professional athletes; the love of the sport and lifestyle, and the ever present necessity to earn a living from their profession. Ironically, it is this two-pronged approach to their sport that allows them to be successful. T
he love and drive they feel for their sport fuels them to compete even when their body is beat up and injured, which in turn allows them to earn the money and sponsorship deals to be successful and support themselves and their families. In an interview with Esquire, American rider, Shane Proctor was aske
d why he rides despite injuries etc.
“Still, I love riding bulls. To me there’s nothing better. It’s worth all the pain and hurt you go through. And it’s how I make a living. If I don’t ride bulls, I don’t get paid.”
Once again we see that although he does love the sport, Proctor realizes that realistically, whether he loves it all the time or not, that it’s how he makes a living. However, there is some concern for the riders on their future selves. L.J. Jenkins, a veteran rider in his 12th season told CNN Money,
“My goal, have enough money to retire by age 30. I would probably keep going, but I don’t want to be a guy that’s broke up and can’t get out of bed at 50.”
Although not often voiced by many riders, this is a legitimate concern as it seems, as least in my observation that the majority of riders don’t tend to ride much past the age of 30. In his Las Vegas Weekly interview, I think Mauney sums up it up the best,
“They can hurt you, but that’s just all part of it. You learn that when you first start ridin’, that gettin’ hurt’s gonna happen; there’s no way around it. … There is one fear I do have. Losing. I hate it. People see me get mad in the arena. I’ve thrown stuff before and got pissed off, kicked the chutes, hit the chutes. A lot of people say, “You shouldn’t do that.” … I always tell ’em to take $40,000 of their money and put it on the roulette wheel on black or red and lose it and tell me they’re not gonna be mad. … There’s good money in it, but it’s not guaranteed. That’s why you see guys that ride bulls that ride hurt all the time, and they ride with broken legs and they come back off of injuries early. We don’t have contracts. We don’t have anybody payin’ us just to sit at home on the injured list.”
Historically and culturally, bull riding has never been a sport for just anyone. It is not a sport for the faint of heart, weak-willed or the frail-bodied. It is the most dangerous sport in the world, and the longest 8 seconds of your life. But the riders wouldn’t change either of these facts for the world. There is a sense of pride in doing something that many either can’t or wouldn’t have the balls to do. Once again, I tend to gravitate back to my favorite rider, J.B. Mauney,
“I always say it gets in your blood. There’s no stoppin’ it. Once I started it was what I gonna do the rest of my life….A lot of people ask me, “What are you gonna do when you can’t get out of bed in the morning?” And I say, “I guess I’ll lay there and think about all the good times I had.”