I knew this was going to be a rip-roaring ride when I saw the herd of scrawny animal rights activists parked outside the arena waving signs in protest and begging spectators not to enter.
Not one vehicle turned around to take their advice. We were an audience hungry for action. Hungry to watch daring men and unbelievably strong bulls move together as one in waves, tilts, spins and spills of dirty masculinity.
Many of the contestants competing in this Professional Bull Riders (PBR) event held at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara have qualified for the 2011 PBR World Finals, which will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada, the last weekend in October. With non-stop action like this, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be there faster than you can scream YEEHAW!
Up to now, I’ve only seen professional bull riding on television and know virtually nothing about the sport. These determined, accommodating, and surprisingly sweet riders explained much: “We respect these animals. A bull bucks differently than a horse does. They’re unbelievably strong and agile, and they’ll spin around fast sometimes while they’re jumping in the air. Keep watchin’, you’ll see ’em do it! We must always be prepared for a sudden downward thrust that could throw us over the bull’s head. You’ll see ’em do that too!”
As time draws near for a ride, the competitor lowers himself onto the bull in the chute and a braided rope (called a bull rope) is securely wrapped and tied completely around the animal and over the gloved and taped hand of the cowboy.
The bull rope is what the rider grips throughout the ride. It’s wrapped around the chest of the bull directly behind the animal’s front legs. From the bottom of the rope, hangs a metal bell designed to give the rope some weight so that it will fall off the bull as soon as the rider is bucked off or dismounts the animal.
The flank strap is a strap that goes around the flank of a bull. Its purpose is to enhance the natural bucking motion of a bull and to encourage the animal to extend his hind legs when trying to get his rider on the ground. The flank strap never covers or goes around the bull’s genitals and no sharp or foreign objects are ever placed inside the flank strap to agitage the animal. “Pulling the flank strap too tight will restrict the bull’s motion making it uncomfortable for the bull to perform. The flank strap is designed for quick release and is removed immediatly after the bull exits the arena. “The idea behind the flank strap is to put it on tight enough so it will stay on, but loose enough so the bull thinks he can kick it off. That’s what makes the bulls kick.”
When he feels he is ready to go, the rider nods his head and the gates of hell open wide.
He rides bareback, with only the rope to hold onto, and uses his free arm and flexible body to counter the spins and sudden lunges of the massive bull.
Spurring is not required in this PBR event and the reason is immediately obvious to the spectator. It is damn impressive enough just to stay on the animal. However, spurring, if he can manage it, will get the cowboy extra points.
The performance of both rider and bull determine the score of the ride. A PBR judge was kind enough to share some pointers of scoring with me, “a qualified ride is 8 seconds. The clock starts when the bull’s shoulder or flank breaks the plane of the gate. It ends when the rider’s hand comes out of the rope, the rider touches the ground, or the rider’s free arm touches the bull (a “slap”). A successful ride will earn a score of 0-100 points. Scores of 90 points or above are considered quite outstanding.”
Four judges rate each rider and each bull on a scale from 1-25. Those points are added together and divided in half to reach a rider score and a bull score of between 0-50. Those numbers are then combined to reach a final ride score between 0-100.
“The bull always receives a score, even if the rider is bucked off. His score is based on his degree of difficulty. Judges look for drop in the front end, kick in the back, spin, and direction changes (as contrasted with spin, this means changes to movement forward or backward, or left to right). A rider only receives a score if he lasts the required 8 seconds.”
Judges look for control – the ability of the rider to successfully counter the moves of the bull. Spurring is not required, but tends to demonstrate control, and will add points to the rider’s score.
Talk dirty to me. Was mutton busting your gateway sport? “Not for me. I was five when I jumped on my first animal. I starting riding bulls from the gitgo. The kids nowadays start with sheep though. It’s less dangerous and the parents like that.”
There’s a lot of junk pounding out there. Do you wear a cup? “No, miss. Some of ’em wear a pair of spandex shorts (like the ones cyclists wear) under his jeans, but no cup. Wearing a cup during bull riding is just plain uncomfortable.” Hard to believe, but not one PBR athlete wears one!
“Professional bull riding is a rough and strenuous sport with roots deeply imbedded in American culture.” It’s America’s original extreme sport. So, tell me, what jeans do you wear? “Wranglers, of course.” Cowboy smiles and walks off into the bright rodeo spotlights.
Yes, my night was well spent at this adrenaline charged event. Would I go to another one? Hell yeah. I feel like buying a pair of wrangler jeans, an oversized belt buckle and having a boy’s name engraved on it. I’m also craving a slice of apple pie. I wonder how those pasty self-righteous activists spent their night.