EVERY SPORT has its premier division, the discipline with the most risk, esteem, and glory. Such is the case with bull riding, as young men attempt to hold themselves onto massive beasts with the aim of scoring points, staying on, and winning the title.
Bull riding also lays claim to the highest injury rate of any rodeo sport, a trail of broken limbs, twisted wrists, shattered knees. It’s the event that courts the most controversy, a “bulls-eye” for animal rights activists to aim their criticism. All this is on my mind as I climb nervously onto the bull, my legs straddling its sides.
In the rider’s room at the Stampede Rodeo, you can smell the testosterone; it hangs in the air like musk. Many of these guys have bandaged elbows or leg braces, walking with a limp from the on-site physiotherapy treatment room. Most are in their early twenties, some younger, some a bit more grizzled.
Outside, tens of thousands of people are waiting to cheer their efforts to conquer the spirit of a raging bull, at least for eight seconds. They talk to me about the challenge ahead, but make one thing very clear: they regard the bulls as athletes of the highest order, in a battle where it is they who risk life and limb.
The bulls are not harmed? Aren’t their nuts pulled by the very rope holding the rider on, causing the bucking and kicking? No, they assure me, this is a physical impossibility. Rather, a soft flank strap is tied just in front of the hind legs of the bull, a nuisance to encourage bucking, as if someone were gripping you under the armpits. It’s not pleasant, but than neither is trying to hang on, or, for that matter, being shipped to an abattoir.
Rodeo bulls are bred with the meanest, hot-tempered genes farmers can find. They receive excellent diets, first class medical attention, and are trained to compete for very short periods of time. A bull might only compete for a couple hours total in its entire career, before it is retired, or used as a stud to breed new generations. Trained, conditioned, respected.
Another rodeo criticism concerns cattle prods used to shock the bulls out of the pen. Prods are not used on the Professional Bull riders circuit. Bull riders have no interest in harming the animals. Nobody involved in the rodeo does, a fact that is often overlooked by animal rights activists. If a bull is hurt, injured, or the flank rope is too tight, it simply won’t buck, spin and kick.
Bulls are big, tough beasts, their skin seven times thicker than humans, with physical attributes and temperaments suited to the sport. Consider the fact that over 40% of all livestock-related deaths in Canada are from bull attacks, that only 1 in 20 victims of a bull attack survive. Riders get injured. Bulls return to the farm to feast.
Right then, how does it work? Riders and bulls are paired randomly before the competition. The rider mounts the bull in the pen, straps in his strong hand, and signals he is ready. The fury is unleashed, during which time the rider must keep his one arm clear, and the other from not being yanked out of its socket.
After 8 seconds, the rider lets go of the rope, loosens the tension on the flank rope, ejects from the saddle, and quickly exit the arena. Bullfighters calm the bull down and steer him to safety. Points are awarded for control and rhythm, style and sync with the bull during the 8 seconds. The rider with the most points, won over a series of rounds, wins glory. Nodding to the crowd, it is a glory I am ready to receive.
So what if I’m not at the rodeo, but on the sun-drenched outdoor patio at the Ranchmans Bar? So what if the bull in question is mechanical? Without extensive training and padded equipment, I’d have to be insane to get on a real cow, never mind a bull. Following the advice of bull rider Tyler Thompson and former world champion Dan Mortenson, I pull the rope tight, squeeze my chest out, and push my knees tight.
Remembering to move with, and not against it. The pen opens (a button is pushed), the bull blazes into the arena (the machine begins to buck and spin) my nuts get mangled (my nuts get mangled) and within seconds I land hard on the rodeo dirt (fall on an inflatable air mattress). The crowd cheers (laughs) the bull returns to the chute (turns off) and I wearily limp to the bar, hanging my head in shame. The manly musk that surrounds this cowboy smells suspiciously like lavender.
Some things, as ever, are best left to the professionals.
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