Bulls have long held a thrilling fascination for mankind.
It’s believed that bulls were once part of the ancient Olympic Games, programs that included wrestlers carrying live bulls around the stadium on their shoulders. Bull leaping was a specialty of the ancient Minoans of Crete.
In the 16th century, what would become rodeo as we know it today was putting down roots on Mexican haciendas, where equestrian events called charreadas were hosted, and an integral part of those charreadas was bull riding (jaripeo). Jaripeo was once part of bull fighting and unbelievably, riders would actually ride the bull to death during that event! Eventually that changed to the animal being ridden only until it stopped bucking.
During the 1850’s, the old charreada-style competitions were still very much alive and had expanded to areas of the US southwest. And to change things up a little, steer riding became a fad in the wild west shows of that era. Not only were steers much easier to ride, they were less difficult to handle while transporting them between venues.
It was in 1936 that rodeo cowboys organized themselves and established a standardized set of rules. The result was the Cowboy’s Turtle Association and it not only raised the profile of rodeo itself, but also bull riding. Nineteen forty-five saw that name change to Rodeo Cowboy’s Association, and in 1975 it became the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association). Then in 1992 bull riders created their own exclusive organization and governing rules: Professional Bull Riders (PBR), although bull riding is still one of the PRCA’s sanctioned events.
Called the most dangerous eight seconds in sport and often with big bucks up for grabs, bull riding continues to soar in popularity. Forbes.com calls professional bull riding the “fastest growing sport in America,” but in fact it’s now a worldwide phenomenon (rules and histories vary). Canada and Mexico are at the top of that international list, but there’s also bull riding competition in Belize, The Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Japan and France, among the twenty-six other countries.
In the romantic suspense novel Sidelined, rodeo cowboy Tate McQuaid is a world champion bull rider, tough, sexy and daring. Always keen to best the rankest bulls on the circuit, nothing gets his adrenalin pumping like dynamite on four hooves, where the odds can shift in a heartbeat:
“After what seemed like far too long the loud buzzer sounded, indicating the completion of the mandatory eight-second ride and Tate was about to make his signature flying dismount when his right spur caught high in the flat braided bull rope tied around the bull’s belly. Thrown off balance, Tate was slammed into the arena dirt, now in the dangerous situation of being hung up as the bullfighters fought to cut him loose from the animal. And then in a sickening twist, Tate was slung forward, his head colliding with force against one of Gunpowder’s huge horns. At last he was cut free of the rope, but lay where he’d fallen, not moving.”
It’s not just the riders (both cowboys and cowgirls) who are in the spotlight, the bulls themselves are also rodeo stars. These bovine athletes are chosen for their strength, health, overall agility and age, and they are judged for their performance, power, speed, back leg kicks and front end drops; the harder the ride the higher the score. Even if the rider doesn’t make the full eight seconds, the bull will still be scored on his performance and that will affect his ability to make it to the finals. Consistently high scores just might earn him the title of bucking bull of the year.
Another integral part of the sport is bullfighters. In some rodeos or in other countries, protection and humour are combined in the rodeo clown, including the barrel man. No matter the title though, they are agile athletes in their own right and routinely put themselves in harm’s way in the arena to come to the aid of the rider should help be needed. This work is now considered an art form and audiences enjoy the opportunity to see them showcase their skills. Nothing short of astonishing, their acrobatics are a definite throwback to the ancient Minoans. At the heart of it all though, the bullfighter’s job is to keep the bull from harming the rider; to distract the animal at the end of the ride so the rider can make a safe exit. Riders owe their life and wellbeing to these skilled rodeo protection athletes.
Aside from the safety of the rider, including protective glove, vest, helmet and mask, there is also the welfare of the rodeo animals, in this case, bulls. Some question the purpose of the flank strap. Americancowboy.com explains that the strap tied around the bull’s flank during the ride “… is a soft cotton rope at least 5/8” in diameter and is used without extra padding like sheepskin or neoprene. Contrary to popular belief, the flank strap is not tied around the bull’s testicles. This rope is to encourage the bull to use his hind legs more in a bucking motion, as this is the true test of a rider’s skill in maintaining the ride. If it is applied improperly a rider may request to ride again, as the bull will not buck well if the flank strap is too tight….”
Spurs are also controversial, although there are strict regulations today for both the type of spur used and how they’re used. It should be pointed out that spurs are used in several equestrian disciplines, not just rodeo.
The treatment of rodeo bulls was what reporter Parla Jankins tackled Sidelined’s Tate McQuaid about during a print media interview. More specifically, what makes bulls want to buck:
“Rodeo bulls are bred to buck, they’re doing it on instinct,” Tate explained.
Parla laughed derisively. “On instinct.”
“Yes, on instinct, survival by tossing off predators if you go back far enough. We’re talking Texas Longhorns and Brahman cattle, but nowadays it’s their breeding. Rodeo bulls are bred to be aggressive and they have a lot of training on them before they ever see professional competition.
“The American Bucking Bull is an actual breed and is the result of an elite breeding program. Rodeo bulls have only one ride a night and that’s it. Then it’s back to their water and feed. Those bulls are treated well because they’re worth a lot of money and there’s always a vet on hand or on call in case of a problem. Even their transportation is topnotch. Our bulls are treated like kings.”
“Like kings,” she said, again heavy on the sarcasm, as though still hoping to trip him up.
“Yes, like kings. They’re only allowed to travel so many hours a day in air-ride suspension trailers on thick bedding and they’re given plenty of rest. Their hay is the very highest quality; they get nutritional supplements and vitamins if necessary and some even have chiropractic and acupuncture care….”
“And when bulls retire from competition?”
“They get busy siring more bucking babies.”
“So the bulls have a pretty good life is what you’re telling me?”
“A pretty good life for a bull.”
“A pretty good life for a bull,” she repeated. “How do you suppose they feel about having sharp spurs jabbed into them by cowboys using them to further their own gain? I suppose you’ll say that’s humane too.”
He sighed. “We do wear spurs because it helps riders get a grip on the animal, but the spur rowels are required to be dull and they don’t scratch the animal.”
“I fail to see how it couldn’t cut them if you’re doing it hard enough to get a grip.”
“It does not cut them because a bull’s skin is super thick compared to a human’s. We don’t beat the bull up, it’s the other way around….”
Rodeo, both past and present, is a huge subject, and this is only a very brief snapshot. With massive respect to all rodeo athletes, professional bull riding is in a class all by itself, according to shockmansion.com:
“The Toughest Sport on Dirt: Bull riders are the rodeo’s rock stars. Modern day gladiators, challenging 2,000 pound beasts until one of them wins!”