I’ve experience fear. I’ve had a grizzly bear run straight at me in Alaska. I’ve triggered avalanches backcountry skiing. I’ve been lost in the wilderness for multiple days in driving sleet and soaked to the core. I’ve been rag-dolled alongside my snowmobile at 80 mph. But, the fear and adrenaline that overcame me when I nodded my head in the chute for the first time, my hand cinched tight onto the back of a pissed off 1500-pound bull, was a level of fear I had not yet experienced.
I don’t remember much of that first ride. My mind left me. The memories are snapshots, like the photos.
I am not a bull rider. But, with a baby on the way in 8 weeks allowing ample recovery time from broken bones and an insurance deductible guaranteed to be met, it was the perfect time to take on one of the most daunting items on my bucket list. So, I packed my stretchy Mountain Khaki jeans and headed off to Sankey Rodeo’s 3-day bull riding camp.
Upon arrival it was apparent that this camp was for real. The coaches are hard-nosed cowboys who are passionate about helping aspiring professional bull riders and find great joy watching us bucket-listers get worked over in the sport they love. Surprisingly, nearly everyone other than our clan of four was there because they legitimately wanted to dabble in the sport of bull riding. By the end of camp a few maintained the hope, but most had experienced just how difficult and dangerous bull riding is and hung up their practically new spurs.
Day One – Introduction to Bull Riding and The First Ride
A few lines stuck in my head from the coaches opening speech.
- “Cowboys, have you done anything lately like your life depends on it? Today you will.”
- “It is very likely that at least a few of you will get hurt this weekend”.
- “There is a reason they call bull riding the most dangerous 8 seconds in sports. You first timers are about to find out why”.
The day began and after hours of learning technique and practicing on mechanical bulls the option to get on a bull came.
I can’t say that I felt prepared at all to ride a bull on day one. But…when in Rome.
Soon I was standing on the chute about to step onto a bull. I stepped on the bull, hanging onto the chute rails with white knuckles. I slid down into a seated position and cinched the rope tight so my hand was locked to the bull. I was nervous as hell. I nodded my head. The chute gait shot open, the bull turned his head and I felt a surge of power as he shot out of the chute. Most of the first ride memories are snapshots. Apparently fear and adrenaline took over. I recall feeling the extreme power of the bull with each buck, sending my body flailing, and the grunts of the bull, pissed that a man is on his back. I recall snapshots…the bulls head being near my face, then feeling like I’d been jerked forward by a train…several times. Then I’m on the ground clawing to get on my feet to get the hell out of dodge.
When I got to the fence the coach was right there for comment. “How was that? Quite the rush, huh? Well, good job cowboy, you made 8 seconds on your first bull…but that’s because he jumps like a pogo stick. Your technique was terrible. You were in the back seat the entire time. Your next bull will send you flying to the moon if you do that again.” That was one hell of a pogo stick ride.
Day Two – The Real Bulls Arrive
Day two brought relentless snowfall all day and cold temperatures. But, cowboys don’t let weather damper the fun. Everyone that opted to participate in the first ride the day before was riding high on surviving. There were no significant injuries day one, just bumps and bruises.
The bar was raised when the new batch of bulls, some with NFR potential arrived. These bulls had a swagger and attitude about them the young bulls we were on the day before had not yet developed.
After a couple hours of drills and video review from day one it was time to jump onto a second bull for the weekend. I was assigned a big silver and black spotted bull. He was quite a bit bigger than my bull from the first day.
I stepped over the chute rail and onto the bull. I slid down until I was sitting on the bull. Yep, this bull was quite a bit bigger. My legs were squeezed tight between the bull and the chute. Yesterday I had a good 4 inches on each side. I wrapped the rope around my wrist and through my hand, leaned far forward and put my hand on the chute rail. I nodded my head and the chute gait flew open.
The surge of power from the bull out of the chute was huge. My next memory is spinning hard to the left, fighting to stay “in the well”. Then a blank spot in my memory. Then he’s spinning to the right and I’m sliding off. The 8-second whistle blew and I open my hand. He must have been spinning pretty fast because I shot out the back and into the air. I landed hard flat on my back, spun around, and ran like hell again. I turned around in time to see my bull sending one of the rodeo clowns in flight. Luckily that was enough revenge for this bull. After watching the bull fighter land he turned around and left the ring. Aside from being shook up the bull fighter was fine.
At the film session I was once again told that I shouldn’t let this ride get to my head. My form was bad and the bull was mostly just a spinner with only one big buck out of the chute before he went into his spins. “You did a great job of working that spin for being a beginner, but with that form you’ll never past competing in regional rodeos”. That was it for the day.
Day Three – Sprinkles, Rodeo, and Stretchy Denim
As I climbed on the 1800 pound bull it was hard to think that anything good could come from this experience. I had been assigned Sprinkles. Sprinkles had one cowboy touch his back yesterday. Sprinkles bucks big and sent the cowboy flying over the handle bars (aka horns) in the first buck. Then he dribbled the cowboy against the fence like a basketball. That wasn’t enough to sooth him so he turned on the bull fighter and sent him airborne. When the bull fighter tried to get up, Sprinkles hooked him and plowed him between two fence rails. The bull fighter was taking today off and decided he didn’t care for a career as a bull fighter after that experience. Sprinkles is a bull that “has a future” according to the coaches and whose value is thus much greater than any of us cowboys. We were just meat for him to practice on.
The arena was a giant mud puddle. The 5 or so inches of snow from the day before had largely melted. At least the landings should be a bit softer.
Sprinkles was in my head. I turned the fear into aggression and as I slid into position, hand cinched in tight, I told Sprinkles to bring it. And so he did.
The chute gait flew open. The surge out of the chute was like a being in a big car wreck. He rose from the front and sent me sliding to the back right away. That is not where you want to be on a high bucking bull. Before I could get back to my cinched hand Sprinkles bucked high and sent me flying. 2.3 seconds was the time at which my ass left his. I got up and ran like hell. I took a look back as I was sprinting to the fence and caught a glimpse of Sprinkles heading my way. I leapt onto the fence a little hot, got spun around and found myself with my back on the ground, my spur caught high in the side fence. I could still see the rodeo arena. Sprinkles turned to a bull fighter. The bull fighter didn’t try to play Sprinkles out. Instead he ran to the fence and went in flight over the fence just before Sprinkles reached him. Sprinkles stared him down for about 10 seconds. Then Sprinkles made several laps around the arena challenging anyone to come out and face him before finally laughing at us all for being pansies and heading out to the corral.
Coach came over. Rather than helping me unhook my boot he just looked down at me, shook his head, and laughed.
The Rodeo – Carnage and Ambulances
In the first two days there were injuries, most minor. The only significant were a compression fracture of a lumbar vertebrae and torn bicep tendon. No ambulance rides yet. Everyone was feeling the soreness that comes from riding three bulls and most cowboys bowed out of the rodeo. The rodeo saw only 8 of us sign up.
The rodeo was run as a normal rodeo would be. Bulls were randomly drawn prior to the start. I was assigned a smaller bull, maybe 1500 pounds, but one that had a bit of an attitude.
The bulls seemed especially pissed off during the rodeo and the carnage began early.
Following the second rider getting bucked off in a couple of seconds, a bull fighter got pinned against a fence by Big Red. The bull worked the bull fighter over. There were undoubtedly broken ribs and maybe more. The ambulance was called. As the bull fighter was being loaded into the ambulance, the chute gait opened with rider number three. The cowboy fell off quickly. The next sound was one of those sounds that doesn’t leave your mind for long time. The bull came down hard on the cowboy and landed square on the cowboy’s upper arm. The snapping sound of the his humerus echoed throughout the ranch. The bull fighters ran in to distract the bull, but not before he once again came down on the cowboy and another snap was heard as the bull stepped on his forearm. The cowboy ran to the fence and tried to lift himself over but couldn’t. His arm flopped. The bull was bearing down on him. A man in the crowd grabbed the cowboys vest and flipped him over the fence just before the bull sent him flying. The paramedics came and rushed him into the ambulance with the other cowboy. They rushed out of the ranch.
I was up.
It was pretty hard to get excited about jumping on a bull after watching those events back to back. But, there was no backing out now, I was getting seated on the bull. This bull was not excited about having a cowboy on him in the chute and he put up a fit. My legs took a beating as they were slammed against the chute for a solid two minutes.
I wrapped the rope around my wrist, through my hand, leaned forward and put my free hand on the rail above the bull’s nose. I nodded my head.
The bull shot out of the chute faster than any of the last three. He bucked and turned quickly and I found myself falling off to the left. I hung on hard and dug in with my spur trying to make something out of my last ride. It wasn’t going to work and it ended up a terrible mistake. I fell under the bull and the bull stepped on my calf. I spun onto my side from the pain and pressure. The bull turned on me and flipped my leg over so I was on my back. The bull then drove forward trying to get at me. I had to fight. I kicked and held my knees tight as he drove me half way across the rodeo ring through the slop before the bull fighters got him diverted. I limped to the fence. Camp was over.
I would like to thank the great gang at Mountain Khakis for providing great support for adventures such as this and incredible apparel that can take the bulls**t and allowed me to get out of dodge quickly.