[ASNS Video, production by Isaac Cox]
The tough cowboys and bull riders from the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, also known as the Tucson Rodeo, are nursing their aches and bruises now that the rodeo is over.
For the bull riders, trying to spend eight seconds atop a snarling 1,700-pound bucking bull that can leap five feet high and spin 180 degrees left or right in less than a second – well, usually the rider gets dumped into the dirt well before the eight seconds required to even qualify for a score.
So the bull always wins, right?
Or maybe. It depends. By and large, cowboys, including the bull riders and others who know bulls, say these animals are tough hombres, bred for the ring. On the other hand, to get a bull to buck hard, a rope is cinched around its lower abdomen. The bull can’t say “ouch,” but it sure can protest with some mighty bucking.
“A rope is not cinched around the bull’s testicles,” said Joan Liess, a spokesperson for the Tucson rodeo. “The bull bucks to toss the rider and ceases to buck when the rider is no longer on his back.”
The Humane Society of the United States says it opposes cinching and “other rodeo equipment that causes animals to react violently.” In a statement on its website, the national organization says that in general it “opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized” because of pain and potential injury to animals.
On the other hand, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona declined to comment for this article because of the support the Tucson Rodeo gets each year.
There’s no denying the popularity of rodeo, and especially of the rodeo event that generates the most money nationally: bull riding. More than 2.5 million fans attend live bull riding events each year in the United States, according to the Professional Bull Riders association, an international professional bull riding organization.
In fact, the bull riding association seems to want to set itself aside from the everyday rodeo events of bronco riding, barrel racing and cattle roping. On its website, it says: “This is not a rodeo. We don’t rope calves and we don’t chase barrels. This is bull riding, and the first rule is just to stay alive.”
For a bull in the rodeo world, blood runs thicker than mud. Who your father was and what kind of reputation he built up during his bucking days matters, because for a bull, you have to have the genes to make the top grade as a hard bucker.
The most popular bulls are recognized by bull riders and fans alike for their athletic abilities to buck, spin, jump and twist in a brain-rattling flash. These beasts will explode out of the metal chute that binds man and beast together. When the chute springs open, that raging bull has a single goal: Throw the rider as quickly as possible to the unforgiving dirt.
Rodeo bulls tip the scale at between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds, and even large-animal veterinarians marvel at how these animals move so quickly and jump so high. But as much as supporters claim that the bulls are conditioned and trained to do what they so furiously do in the arena, breeders insist it’s all about the genetics.
“That’s just how they are,” said Justin Rumford, a veteran rodeo clown. Rumford has an animal-sciences degree from Northwestern University and has raised horses and bulls throughout his life. “It’s just the same as asking why does an alligator bite? Bulls are naturally mean. They are full of testosterone and if you walk through that pen, they are going to be like ‘wait a minute.’”
Each bull has characteristics and behaviors that it naturally learns as it’s raised, Rumford said. Much of it is genetics, but when a bull turns two, the owners will begin to “buck” the bulls by placing a dummy on the animal’s back. The dummy is strapped on with a remote trip-rope so the bull can buck it off after four seconds. This is called “turning it out.” This continues for a year, and then the young bulls are placed in “junior” “high school” and “college rodeos” to compete until they get to be four or five and ready for the big leagues, Rumford said.
A bull will often get its name from his father. Bulls like Cowtown Classic, who create a reputation for themselves, will often have offspring that adopt part of their name, such as Classic Brindle. Cowtown Classic won a 100 percent buck-off rating against 13 attempts to ride it in 2003, making him a nasty bull to draw and as such, a popular draw among the toughest bull riders, for whom “nasty” and “rank” are great compliments to the animal.
Most of these bucking bulls seen in rodeos will go for around $25,000 to $50,000, Rumford said. Once a bull is retired – usually when it is 10, sometimes 12 years old – it’s then used to breed more bucking bulls. There is a cheaper route, though. People can purchase a straw of semen from a good bucking bull for around $6,000 to $10,000, but there is no guarantee that the cow that gets it will produce a good bucking bull.
A bull rider won’t know what bull he will get when he enters the rodeo, but when he draws his bull, he’ll study it, Rumford said. Websites like Probullstats.com act as a fountain of knowledge for bull riders alike, letting them know the buck-off percentage, the average score they receive from judges and even the buck-off percentage of left handed vs. right handed riders. The characteristics of the bull are important to a lot of bull riders and knowing that a bull will tend to spin right rather than left can mean all the difference.
There are two ways that a bull can create such a reputation for itself, according to Gary Williams, general manager for the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo, and former bull rider. “What builds a bull’s reputation is being consistently marked by the judges at the top end of the spectrum and at the same time bucking guys off that have a reputation as good bull riders.”
Much of the bull riding event is about the bull rather than just the bull rider. Two judges score the event and each judge will assign 25 points to the rider and 25 points to the bull. The rider and bull can get a max of 50 points for a total score of 100. A rider may stay on a bull for the entire time, but if it’s not bucking hard the judges will give a low score. But not all bull riders are exactly aiming to get on the biggest and meanest bull. After all, if you can’t last 8 seconds, you won’t bring home the bacon.
“This may sound surprising but bull riding is about 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” Williams said. “It’s about how you prepare yourself mentally to ride that bull…when the gate opens [the bull] may be inclined to go to the left and you start preparing for that and you cheat him a bit, then he’s going to go to the right and leave you in the dust.”
During the rodeo, Williams suggests it’s best to not over think what’s going to happen when the gate opens. Being trapped in a small chute with a 1,600 to 2,000-pound bull, waiting for the gate to wrench open, is one terrifying thought enough.
“Any bull rider that tells you he’s not nervous is lying to you,” said professional bull rider Sage Steele Kimzey, who competed in the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros 2014. “There’s always the jitters, the pregame jitters, before you get on. The more bulls you get on the better it gets, though, so it’s not ever too bad.”
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, an American rodeo organization that oversees rodeos such as the Tucson Rodeo, has placed many rules and regulations to make sure that the bulls are kept safe and free from any harm. One of the regulations is to keep a veterinarian on-premises at all times during the rodeo. The PRCA also requires that all bulls be well-documented. Those watching closely during rodeo will notice a circular tag on the bull’s ear, which is a device that carries health and other information that officials can swipe to review.
“There are people that say ‘Oh, you hurt the bulls to buck.’ Well that couldn’t be more far from true because if you have ever performed any sport, if you’re a football or basketball player and you’re getting hurt, are you going to be able to dunk it or doubling back?” Rumford suggested.
Every morning the rodeo staff gets up before the crack of dawn to saddle up on high horses and exercise the bulls and stock around the barren rodeo arena. They run the stock five times one way and five times the other to get their blood pumping and their muscles loose and stretched. The stock contractors don’t want their stock or bulls pulling a muscle when they compete, so they take every measure to ensure the safety of their animals.
Bucking bulls are also kept on a strict high-protein grain diet to help keep them healthy and strong. On long trips across the country, stock contractors will even import hay from the bull’s own region.
“You can make changes from one type of feed to another for an animal, but you should do it gradually,” said Edward Taylor, attending veterinarian for La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. “It’s just easier to bring their own region’s hay with them because they do perform, they are athletes and they are on a higher scale of nutrition so they get energy foods in addition to this hay.”
As attending veterinarian, Taylor has his Chevy Suburban filled with medical supplies and equipment ready for any and every injury. His supply includes antibiotics, drugs to numb, anti-inflammatories, steroids, sedatives, syringes and needles, medications that are refrigerated, bandage material and even an X-ray and portable ultrasound machine for examining tendons, ligaments and muscles under the skin.
“For 28 years I’ve drawn up these medications and syringes, had them ready and never used them,” Taylor said. “That’s a testament to the safety and welfare of the rodeo.”
According to Taylor, bulls have very thick skin and hard muscles underneath, making it hard for serious damage to occur. The bulls are more prone to hurt one another by playing around on the ranch than they would in the rodeo.
Bulls do not like people infringing on their zone. There are even some bulls that don’t like other bulls and will fight them. The stock contractors often have to distance these bulls from each other so they don’t break their horns or hurt each other. One way to know a bull is ready to charge is if its head is lowered and staring at its target, Taylor said – and you can never turn your back on a bull.
“Bulls are just dangerous critters,” Taylor said. “You gotta be careful. They can bite, they can kick …. They can get at you in a lot of different ways, and it’s fast.”