LAS VEGAS ― I don't own a cowboy hat or boots.
I do love bull riding, however.
Actually, it's a love that borders on fanaticism. Friends and family don't understand it; everything they think they know about bull riding contradicts everything they think they know about me. Honestly, I didn't get it myself until, after much thought, the reason dawned on me: It's the bulls.
Let me explain.
I'm a writer and in 2011 I spent two evenings in Las Vegas researching a story about veterinarians who treat bucking bulls. It was my first rodeo, and I watched with an outsider's fascination as bronc riders, bull doggers and ropers raced the clock before an audience of thousands at the Thomas & Mack Center. Like any concert headliner, the bulls came out last, and it's no exaggeration that I was instantly hooked.
My initial enjoyment, I confess, was the morbid fascination that comes with watching a sane man trying to ride a dangerous animal for eight seconds. More than a decade earlier I'd read a magazine article about a bucking bull so dangerous his reputation for injuring riders had transcended the rodeo community. This bull with distinctive yellow markings would throw his rump into the air, propelling the rider forward, and then jerk his head backwards into the oncoming cowboy's face with obvious results. Years later, I still remembered the story and even the bull's name: Bodacious.
You didn't have to try to convince me that bull riding is the most dangerous sport in the world.
As part of my research, I traveled to Stephenville, Texas, the following April for the ABBI's 3rd Annual Farm Bureau Spring Fling. There, I talked with veterinarians, riders, stock contractors, judges and insiders who educated me more about the stand-alone sport of bull riding and instructed me on the qualities that separate a rank bull from the herd.
I realized I'd been head-poundingly ignorant about these animals. To me, bucking bulls were brutish oafs with not a lot going on between their ears. When a bull exploded from the chute, I only saw a crazed animal with an instinctual desire to dump a nuisance rider by executing a convulsive combination of spins and acrobatics. Wrong. Turns out, professional bucking bulls are smart, and rank bulls are scary smart. Like Bodacious, these animals are a different breed. Not only are they powerful, they learn which moves work best for putting a rider in the dirt.
I began seeing bucking bulls as professional athletes. Tipping the scales at more than a thousand pounds, these massive beasts jump, spin, roll, kick and get airborne so quickly, it's a wonder any cowboy makes it to the buzzer.
My education didn't stop there. From interviews, I learned bulls have personalities and not all of them were as bloody-thirsty as I'd first thought. Boadcious, I was told by those who'd seen him compete, wasn't a mean bull - he had simply figured out a sure-fire way for throwing riders.
During the 2012 PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals and ABBI Finals in Las Vegas, I spent time in the bull pens marveling at Bushwacker and Asteroid, two of the greatest bucking bulls going. Both are amazing athletes, but they could not be more unlike in temperament. As I stood outside Bushwacker's pen, he behaved the way I thought a bull should act: snorting, ducking his head and clearly annoyed by my presence. Then there was Asteroid. When his face wasn't buried in his feed bowl, he was pressed up against his pen getting his head scratched like a dog.
Initially, I was conflicted about enjoying bull riding. After all, I'm an animal lover who believes strongly that animals should be treated humanely and with respect. Yet the more time I spent observing from the arena and behind the chutes and talking with those who know the sport - including a noted professor of animal welfare ethics - my preconceived ideas were dispelled.
During an interview with Dr. Gary Warner, the world's top bucking bull veterinarian, he explained to me just how well the bulls are treated: "The people that own these animals, I think they take better care of them than maybe their own family members. They pay close attention to that animal's well-being."
My first story about bucking bulls was published almost a year ago. I still attend as many bull riding events as I can, and when I can't, I'm watching the PBR on TV. My enthusiasm is infectious. My wife understands the sport and knows many of the riders and bulls. She and her family have even accompanied to me a few competitions. Our 3- and 4-year-old nephews play a game they invented called "Bull Rider," which involves them taking turns jumping from a chute made of sofa cushions and spinning around for several seconds. My 1-year-old son is learning, too. He laughs and bounces when he sees the bulls on TV. Soon, I'll take him to his first bull riding event, and I hope he enjoys the sport as much as his father does.
I'm always surprised at the number of bull riding fans. They packed the Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago this January for two days of the PBR Built Ford Tough Series. On the final day, they roared when Billy Robinson rode Smackdown for 92.5 points and the win. I've met many of the riders and have my favorites. I certainly don't want to see any of them involved in a crash that could seriously injure them.
But as much as I like these crazy cowboys, I'm still a bigger fan of the bulls.
You can read the full length version of this story in the March issue of ABBI's The American Bucking Bull Magazine.
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