Friday, July 25, 2008

What's the Big Deal?

Over the past few weeks, a couple of friends who have been really good sports about being pelted with notices of new posts on this site nevertheless have made the egregious mistake of referring to my current obsession as “rodeo.” On those occasions, I have felt obliged to gently correct them by explaining that “THIS IS NOT A RODEO! THIS IS THE ONE AND ONLY PBR!”

Fortunately, they don’t take my blustering seriously, and in both cases I scrupulously pointed out that I was quoting the loud-mouthed announcement made before Built Ford Tough Series events, not just getting in a snit and blasting them out of their cubicles with capital letters for the hell of it. One of the folks in question, who has generously posted a link to this blog on her own, and has on a couple of occasions even linked to specific posts, good-naturedly suggested that I should write a post explaining why the distinction is such a big deal.

I guess on the face of it, nothing about bull riding is a big deal, since it is strictly entertainment and we all have much bigger gefiltes to fry, as my BFF Elisabeth is wont to say. There’s a whole lot going on in the country and in the world at large, and to most un-obsessed people, making a distinction between rodeo and bull riding looks like needless hair-splitting. Maybe it is. On the other hand, nobody who’s seen a rodeo would ever mistake a PBR event for the same thing. Distinctions do make a difference, and it’s important to call a spade a spade, and all that rot. Auto racing fans, for instance, willingly lose their minds if we ignoramuses mistake, say, formula one for Nascar or funny cars for drag racers, so I think I am justified in wanting to keep the record straight about which sport I follow. And that sport is the Professional Bull Riders (PBR).

So bear with me while I split some hairs here. First, let’s tackle the all-important question: “Why bull riding?” Rodeo is comprised of a bunch of events that tend to vary somewhat regionally, but generally include calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and sometimes goat-tying for the ladies (about which, more later), and the three “rough-stock” competitions—bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding—which typically take place at the end of the evening. Ty Murray, one of the founding fathers and current president of the Professional Bull Riders, is a seven-time world champion all-around cowboy, which means that he dominated all three rough-stock events seven times, and he has the buckles, and the injuries, to prove it. Murray won all of his titles in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) competitions. In 1992, he was one of 21 cowboys who ponyed up $1,000 each to start the Professional Bull Riders, and after he won his seventh all-around title in 1998, he shifted his attention to the PBR, winning the 1999 Finals and becoming reserve PBR Bud Light Cup World Champion each of the next three years. In 2002, he retired at the age of 32, while he could still walk. In his fourteen-year-career, he sustained horrific injuries and endured many surgeries, including having both knees and both shoulders rebuilt, but from the beginning of his career he understood that he wouldn’t compete forever, and thus he was prudent with his money. That’s something that can’t be said of a lot of other rodeo riders. I have a notion that for a bunch of the founders of the PBR, coming up with that $1,000 was difficult and represented a huge leap of faith.

I find it very interesting that despite his domination of all three categories of rough-stock competition, Murray chose to help start the PBR. I don’t know that Murray has ever expressed a preference for any of the three events, but I’m betting on practically no evidence that bull riding was the event that had won his heart. He might well have been one of those guys who, prior to the establishment of the PBR, hung around the bucking chutes waiting for the goat tying and the steer wrestling to be over, so the bull riding could commence. Certainly that was my dad’s attitude when he introduced me to bull riding. He used to buy box seats at the local rodeo each summer, and we always had to stay till the bitter end, because he loved to watch the clowns (now “bullfighters”) work the bulls at the end of the evening.

Now, it might be hard to call bull riding the glamour sport of rodeo, what with all the snot and dirt and shit that gets slung when the cowboy calls for the gate, and the outfits the guys wear can’t compete with the skin-tight spandex pants and spangled shirts that bedeck the barrel racers, but still, it’s definitely Elvis, and all the rest are just opening acts. In any rodeo event, the man- (or woman-) versus-beast element is at play, but it’s most obvious and most arresting in bull riding.

And bull riding is the event that plainly has no connection with what working cowboys do. In my book, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and goat tying are just plain made-up competitions that barely rate acknowledgment. I don’t know why any self-respecting cowboy or cowgirl would dirty his/her hands in them. I’d throw wild cow milking and wild horse races into that heap as well, but Barn Cat differs with me about those. I’d gladly reconsider if somebody can name one ranch where those things happen in the course of running the place. Calf roping, bareback bronc riding, and saddle bronc riding, on the other hand, certainly take place on ranches and farms to this day. But bull riding is clearly the brainchild of some demented (and quite possibly drunken) fool who suddenly took it into his head to try to ride one of those mean sons of bitches.

Furthermore, the sport is beautiful. The animals, like the cowboys, range from drop-dead gorgeous to butt-crack ugly, but when bull and rider combine for an exceptional ride, no other sport can equal it. The way those animals can jump, the heights they can achieve, the fact that they can throw their heels six and seven feet above their heads and sling their butts in one direction and their heads and forequarters in another, makes it absolutely astonishing to witness. If a rider can stick with that kind of action, it brings to mind Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky and his impossible leaps, or Niccolò Paganini or Robert Johnson, both of whom, it is said, sold their souls to the devil in exchange for musical talent. It’s that amazing, and that death-defying.

Which brings us to the real allure of the sport: It’s dangerous. As in potentially deadly. People have died, trying to ride bulls. It’s not for nothing that the cowboys say, “In bull riding, it’s not if you’re going to get hurt. It’s when, and how bad.” You have all the elements for disaster, right there in the chute—an animal weighing from 1,200 to 2,000 pounds, tall or short or rangy or compact, penned up in a tight spot, harboring a bad attitude and a determination to put you on the ground, and quite possibly to whack you in the head or to stomp the daylights out of you for good measure. The sport has all the appeal of a slow-moving train wreck, and it’s nearly impossible to look away, no matter how awful it gets.

So my answer to “Why bull riding?” is “Given the choice, why on earth would you sit through all the rest of those rodeo events?” Truly. I’ve been to a lot of rodeos and I can honestly say I can’t remember a single one of those steer wrestlers or calf ropers or barrel racers, nor can I even recall a bronc ride of either variety that really stuck with me. I am not disputing for one second the athletic ability of the competitors or their toughness or their “try,” but I feel the same way about watching, say, lacrosse or curling. I’m just not interested.

Furthermore, I can’t watch women competing in goat tying or barrel racing without getting mad. Those are ridiculous and demeaning competitions dreamed up only so the ladies would have something to do besides race horseback around the arena with the American flag during the opening ceremonies—in other words, be eye candy—or hang around the chutes and hand out beers and encouragement to the boys. I will grant you that those (for the most part) tiny little barrel racers on horses that they just barely seem able to control do suggest Evel Knievel gamely clinging to his Skycycle as he launched out over the Snake River, evoking yet again the train-wreck factor, but my indignation always wins out over my lurid fascination with impending doom. It wasn’t that long ago, gentlemen, that women in fringed buckskin split-skirts competed in rodeos, often against men—yes, even at events as prestigious as the Pendleton Roundup. If you doubt me, take a look at these links: and

I’m sure some of you guys are laughing your asses off right this second at the idea of women riding bulls. I have looked at the information on the PBR website about membership and I see nothing that specifically forbids women applying, though I do see a sexist allusion to riders having the opportunity “to win money riding against the toughest contenders—both man and beast—in the world.” My advice, boys, is, don’t look back. They might be gaining on you.

So, why the PBR? There are a few other options for followers of the sport, such as X-Treme Bulls, but I pay not the slightest attention to them anymore. A friend of mine couldn't even convince me to go down to Cody over the 4th of July to see one such competition. Out of desperation, I gave X-Treme Bulls and even some PRCA rodeos a shot during this long dry spell between televised PBR Events and as far as I’m concerned, that’s just cheating on my man. I’m reformed, folks. I will not stray from the straight and narrow again.

Yes, I’ve tried them all and I’m convinced the best bull riding takes place at PBR events. What those boys did with their $1,000 each, to their everlasting credit, was to create a competition that is ONLY bull riding, and lots of it, with the best bulls they could wrangle. At your average rodeo, you might see 15 attempted bull rides at the end of the evening, and the high scoring rider would win the pot. There are some variations in PBR BFTS events, depending on whether the competition runs more than one night, but there is always at least one long round, when up to 45 riders compete, and one short round, when the 10 to 15 cowboys with the best scores ride again. The bulls in the first round typically are good bulls, though they may not be great. But when the gate swings open for the short-go, the rank pen is in the house, and it’s Katy, bar the door. For both quantity and quality, no competition, none, has bulls that equal the ones that buck at the PBR. They are, hands down, the best in the sport.

Finally, I think, one piece of the puzzle rarely commented on is the element of coercion. While it’s undoubtedly true that the bulls were bred, and born, to buck, nobody asked them if they wanted to become bucking bulls. I suppose you can argue that bucking is better than being trucked to McDonalds, but still, it’s impossible to escape the fact that animals are being compelled to perform for our entertainment. Thus it’s really heartening that in the average competition, 60 percent or better of the bulls win the fight. It’s their chance to get even, to put the cowboys in the dirt, and most of them seem to relish the opportunity. Given the fact that the cowboys do choose to climb on top of the bulls, I can respect their bravery, but up to some level short of outright mayhem, I think they pretty much deserve whatever happens to them. In theory, they’re the ones who can reason, right?

So, Mr. Reindeer Dippin’, when you come whirling out of that chute, look to the stands and you’ll see me there. I’m your biggest fan.

1 comment:

Stockyard Queen said...

The divine Shannon is having a computer problem, so I am posting her comments, sent to me via e-mail:

I think you've done a good job distinguishing the differences between rodeo and bull riding. I've only been to one rodeo, so I happened to find most of the events fun, however, I can see how a few of them would get old after you've been to more than one.

"Now, it might be hard to call bull riding the glamour sport of rodeo"

I think it is, too. Part of it for me is the way the bull riders sit on the bulls. To my eye, it's much more appealing than that of bronc riding. Having started on the PBR, I found the bronc riding rather awkward and ugly looking.

As for women riders, I recalled two completely opposite remarks from Ty Murray that had me scratching my head and wondering if he would ever explain himself if called on it (and I'd love to be the one to do it!). One was before his show on CMT (and I'm paraphrasing a little bit): "Having a female bull rider at this level would be the same as having a female linebacker in the NFL--they just don't have the upper body strength." Later, on the show itself he brought Brian Canter out to show the guys, and I quote, "...that this isn't about brute strength...." Hrmm....... I hope a female bull rider comes along one day that has them eating their words.