“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.

Bull Riders-1
Berry knows his bulls well and assigns them to his students based on their size and temperament. Regardless of their “introductory level,” it’s still a difficult ride.

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?”

Berry’s practice barrels. The lift and dip of the barrels helps improve their balance.
Berry’s practice barrels. The lift and dip of the barrels helps improve their balance.
Dave Berry’s class, practicing correct arm posture.
Dave Berry’s class, practicing correct arm posture.

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.

L: Whether or not they will go on to ride bulls, mutton busting familiarizes kids with animals and the concept of animal mastery. The boy’s lifted right arm not only mimics the bull riders’, it helps with balance. R: A boy rosins up his bull rope before a ride. The sticky rosin basically glues his gloved hand to the rope, which is tied around the bull’s torso. Sometimes the hand is stuck so tight the rider gets caught up and dragged around the arena before he can escape.
L: Whether or not they will go on to ride bulls, mutton busting familiarizes kids with animals and the concept of animal mastery. The boy’s lifted right arm not only mimics the bull riders’, it helps with balance.
R: A boy rosins up his bull rope before a ride. The sticky rosin basically glues his gloved hand to the rope, which is tied around the bull’s torso. Sometimes the hand is stuck so tight the rider gets caught up and dragged around the arena before he can escape.
Bull Riders-7
A father teaches the proper arm posture of a bull rider. Those who go on to ride bulls professionally are often surrounded by rodeo culture from a young age.

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.

Young cowboys watch as a fellow student rides his first bull.
Young cowboys watch as a fellow student rides his first bull.
Thad Newell’s entrance during the BRI Finals in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “I’m living what I dreamed of my entire life. Getting to go different places and see different places.”
Thad Newell’s entrance during the BRI Finals in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “I’m living what I dreamed of my entire life. Getting to go different places and see different places.”

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.”

Bull Riders-10
Newell in the chutes, seconds before the gate opens. “Your subconscious mind plays an enormous role and can have all sorts of effects on your riding,” Newell says. “So I quit thinking when I crawl on the bull, and it just becomes a repetition thing. You want to do the same thing every time, put your hand in the same spot, pull your chaps up and pull your hat down and warm your rope up the same way every time. It needs to be where you’re not thinking about it, where everything is just a reaction. Thinking screws you up. This mind game is the hardest part.”

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.

Newell’s X-ray following an elbow injury.
Newell’s X-ray following an elbow injury.

“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.”

In a sport where one’s life is always on the line, where so much can change in a second, bull riders are often religious men. Kneeling to pray, before and after the ride, both as groups and alone, is common.
In a sport where one’s life is always on the line, where so much can change in a second, bull riders are often religious men. Kneeling to pray, before and after the ride, both as groups and alone, is common.
Newell slicing up rosin for his riding glove and rope before a ride.
Newell slicing up rosin for his riding glove and rope before a ride.
Bull Riders-14
On the small- town rodeo circuit, many of the riders have known one another for years. Although some of the bull riders quietly ready themselves for the competition, and the uncertainty that accompanies it, others relieve the tension by clowning around.
On the small-town rodeo circuit, many of the riders have known one another for years. Although some of the bull riders quietly ready themselves for the competition, and the uncertainty that accompanies it, others relieve the tension by clowning around.
Three bull riders with broken hands, wrapping up before the rodeo in McAlester, Oklahoma.
Three bull riders with broken hands, wrapping up before the rodeo in McAlester, Oklahoma.
Newell, moments after being thrown off a bull. “Afterwards you could break a leg and walk out cause your adrenaline is flowing so hard. You’re so pumped you could fight an alligator. It’s crazy. It’s only afterwards, when you’re hanging your rope up and taking your clothes off that you feel the pain.”
Newell, moments after being thrown off a bull. “Afterwards you could break a leg and walk out cause your adrenaline is flowing so hard. You’re so pumped you could fight an alligator. It’s crazy. It’s only afterwards, when you’re hanging your rope up and taking your clothes off that you feel the pain.”
The most dangerous part of the bull is not his horns, but his hooves, which come stamping down with more than 2,000 pounds of pressure. Bull riders must scramble away the moment they touch the ground, or risk being crushed.
The most dangerous part of the bull is not his horns, but his hooves, which come stamping down with more than 2,000 pounds of pressure. Bull riders must scramble away the moment they touch the ground, or risk being crushed.
 L: After crawling to safety, a bull rider collapses behind the chutes. R: Once he regains consciousness, he endures his pain quietly.
L: After crawling to safety, a bull rider collapses behind the chutes.
R: Once he regains consciousness, he endures his pain quietly.
A medic inspects a bull rider’s wounded hand after a ride. Having worn no helmet, his dented hat speaks of the violence of the fall.
A medic inspects a bull rider’s wounded hand after a ride. Having worn no helmet, his dented hat speaks of the violence of the fall.
Bull rider Clay Gifford in Muskogee, Oklahoma, moments after nearly 2,000 pounds of bull stomped on his face, crushing his teeth and jaw.
Bull rider Clay Gifford in Muskogee, Oklahoma, moments after nearly 2,000 pounds of bull stomped on his face, crushing his teeth and jaw.
Retired bull rider Chuck Simonson, having a beer before the rodeo in Perkins, Oklahoma. His final ride left him paralyzed.
Retired bull rider Chuck Simonson, having a beer before the rodeo in Perkins, Oklahoma. His final ride left him paralyzed.
A wife, with son in tow, comes to watch her husband ride.
A wife, with son in tow, comes to watch her husband ride.
L: In bull riding, showmanship and persona is part of the game. Each rider has his own unique outfit, but perhaps the most important ornament is the hat. In a rodeo with more than 100 cowboys, often no two hats are exactly alike. R: Newell signing autographs before the rodeo. “Back in the day, bull riders got a bad rap for being wild and crazy, with all the partying and drugs. But now that there’s so much money in the sport, they’re all about getting in shape and doing stuff right. Not so many guys are snorting lines behind the bucking shoots nowadays. There are your few, of course, but now probably half the guys here got families. Things have changed a bunch.”
L: In bull riding, showmanship and persona is part of the game. Each rider has his own unique outfit, but perhaps the most important ornament is the hat. In a rodeo with more than a hundred cowboys, often no two hats are exactly alike.
R: Newell signing autographs before the rodeo. “Back in the day, bull riders got a bad rap for being wild and crazy, with all the partying and drugs. But now that there’s so much money in the sport, they’re all about getting in shape and doing stuff right. Not so many guys are snorting lines behind the bucking shoots nowadays. There are your few, of course, but now probably half the guys here got families. Things have changed a bunch.”
Pyrotechnics are common at bull riding events. Riders must walk through smoke and fire when they are introduced, and during major events, such as finals competitions, pillars of flame explode up from the bucking chutes every time a rider makes the whistle.
Pyrotechnics are common at bull riding events. Riders must walk through smoke and fire when they are introduced, and during major events, such as finals competitions, pillars of flame explode up from the bucking chutes every time a rider makes the whistle.
Gloving up for the ride.
Gloving up for the ride.
Once called “rodeo clowns,” the men who rush in to protect riders after they’ve fallen now prefer to be called bull fighters. These men are skilled athletes in their own right, charged with rushing in and confusing the bull while the rider makes his escape. This dangerous dance results in countless injuries.
Once called “rodeo clowns,” the men who rush in to protect riders after they’ve fallen now prefer to be called bull fighters. These men are skilled athletes in their own right, charged with rushing in and confusing the bull while the rider makes his escape. This dangerous dance results in countless injuries.
Bull Riders-30
Nowadays, competitors wear protective vests, but many still refuse to wear helmets, preferring their hats instead. “For the older guys,” says David Berry. “The helmets and vests feel strange. It’s like putting on a tight pair of jeans. It doesn’t feel right.”
Bull riding is a lonely sport. There are no teams. There are no real opponents. There are only solitary men and solitary bulls. The riders often arrive alone and leave alone, and when they march off to ride their bulls, they march alone, dragging their ropes and cowbells behind them.
Bull riding is a lonely sport. There are no teams. There are no real opponents. There are only solitary men and solitary bulls. The riders often arrive alone and leave alone, and when they march off to ride their bulls, they march alone, dragging their ropes and cowbells behind them.

David Joshua Jennings

David Joshua Jennings is a photographer, based in India and the American West. His photography explores globalization, alienation, desire and cultural dissolution.