“The smarter you are, the tougher this is going to be,” David Berry, founder of the Monster Bull riding school in Locust Grove, Oklahoma, tells a class of aspiring young riders in his horse barn.
Mostly teenagers, they are a mix of country and city kids who eagerly paid the $300 tuition for a weekend of instruction and a few rounds on Berry’s introductory-level bulls. Seated on hay bales, they watch slow-motion replays of rides from the Professional Bull Riders circuit (PBR).
“See how he throws his arm back as the head comes down?” says Everett Bohon, Berry’s teaching assistant. He pauses the video and, using his iPhone, draws two parallel lines on the screen, delineating the bodies of bull and bull rider.
“Look at his body here,” says Bohon. “Totally aligned with the bull’s – the key to a successful ride.”
After another half hour of video instruction, the boys hop on a series of practice barrels to hone their posture and arm positioning, then head off to the arena to ride their first bulls.
As they go, a different group of local boys mounts the vacated barrels and begin pounding. They are veteran riders, come to take advantage of the school gathering to practice on Berry’s more mature bulls. One has a broken hand from a recent rodeo, which he says he’s allowing “to heal itself.”
When I ask how much he pays for health insurance, they all laugh.
“Health insurance?” he says. “What the hell is that?”
Decades ago, such bull riding schools were unheard of. If you wanted to ride a bull you simply befriended someone who owned some and hopped on, learning through trial and error. But the sport has undergone significant changes over the past 25 years, particularly since the PBR was founded in 1992. Previously, bull riding was attached to the pro rodeo circuit and just one of many sports (calf-roping, steer wrestling, etc…) featured in various tours and local events. The PBR changed that, allowing bull riding to stand alone. Annual attendance for PBR events has grown from 310,000 in 1995 to over three million in 2015, and top riders can earn well over a million dollars a year just in prize money. In the past, bull riders couldn’t dream of winning enough cash to retire into luxury after a short riding career. But now that is possible, and this new money is attracting riders not only from beyond rural areas of the U.S., but from all over the world, particularly Brazil, whose riders have begun to displace Americans as world champions.
“Back in my day, if you won $10,000, you were doing pretty well,” says David Berry. “Now guys are winning thirty to forty thousand a night. Used to be, it would take you the whole year to win that kind of money, and then at the end of the year you still didn’t have shit because you done spent it up rodeoing. Nobody thought about investing or retiring or anything like that. You were just happy you didn’t have to get a real job.”
For some, these big prizes have made bull riding not only a ticket out of the economically depressed countryside, but a viable career path. But to make it to the top of the PBR, you have to start somewhere. Many bull riders in the U.S. get their start early in childhood, often riding sheep (“mutton busting”) and developing their skills on mechanical bulls before moving on to juvenile bulls.
The first step is mastering the fundamentals, either through a school like David Berry’s or through trial and error. From there, aspiring riders move on to local rodeos and competitions. In Oklahoma, they are run by organizations such as as Bull Riders Inc. (BRI), which draws in riders from throughout the Southern Plains and beyond, both amateur and professional, who want to make their mark and earn the points necessary to gain entry into the minor leagues of the PBR.
Like many bull riders from the Oklahoma countryside, Thad Newell, 31, got his start mutton busting as a boy. Graduating from sheep to steers, from steers to some of the highest ranked bulls in the nation, Newell has been riding since age ten. He’s now considered an older veteran among his fellow riders, and his history of injuries reads like a horrible car accident. During his career, he has broken countless bones, had his shoulder ripped from the socket, and his leg nearly snapped off.
“One time I got my arm hung up and the bull stepped on my knee an’ more or less twisted it off,” says Newell. “The doctor didn’t expect for me to ride again after that. Took ten months once they put cadaver ligaments in there before I could get on a bull again.”
Despite all this wear to his body, Newell says his biggest regret is not stomaching a blow to the face that could have gained him one more second atop a bull in a PBR championship round. He was losing balance, falling over the front side of his bull, towards the horns. His hand was stuck in the rope and his face was unprotected; it would have been ugly if he didn’t bail.
“I was on this bull for seven seconds,” Newell explains. “But to stay on another second I’d of had to take that shot to the face. I chickened out. I couldn’t do it. I should have just took it. That would of put me in the finals and made a huge difference in my career. It would of been a hard blow — there would of been some stitches and broken teeth — but you got to grit down sometimes.”
Despite the adrenaline fix and the promise of prize money and fame, one inescapable fact remains: you risk your life every time you ride. Retired bull riders can often be seen in the crowd at these rodeos, sometimes in wheelchairs, their bodies so damaged they are scarcely able to walk. This is not to mention the fatalities, which number one to two annually on the professional rodeo circuit.
“If you’re in,” says David Berry. “You got to be all in, because it could all be over in a second. That’s probably the spookiest thing about riding bulls. When you tell them to open the gate, you got to be willing to die, and that’s crazy.”
Bull riders say it isn’t whether you’ll be hurt, but when. So why? Why do they keep risking their lives, and the wellbeing of themselves and their families?
“For one, the money’s good,” Newell says. “But mostly it’s a passion thing, conquering something that ain’t supposed to be conquered. It’s gets in your blood. You can’t quit. You might call it an addiction.”