Nobody expects you to survive your first bull ride. After my name and bull are called I make the lonely, spur-clanking walk to the bucking chute, all the while sensing eyes boring into my back, the faces in the bleachers twisted into something between a grimace and a smile. Around the ring, the other cowboys regard me with a pitying, dead-eyed stare. It is then that paranoia really takes grip.
I lower myself onto a black Mexican bull that is snorting and kicking against the chute’s plate steel with horny hooves, resulting in thunderous booms that echo around the room. Sitting on the back of a bull is to be adrift on a sea of grisly muscle that rips, eddies and curls against my flesh through loose, 1/4-inch cowhide. The stench of ammonia in the bull’s urine stabs into my lungs and the salt in the animal’s sweat seeps into my jeans, stinging a cut on the back of my leg. I imagine it’s like climbing into a packing crate with Godzilla.
Mexican Joe, as he is known, is a 3/4 ton of highly agitated, testosterone-addled, wild and brutally strong animal flesh. He could nonchalantly snap my spine or crush my skull in seconds. Around his hindquarters is a rope known as a flank strap that’s lashed tight to enrage him further and to make him buck – which I guess is part of the “fun” of bull riding. Terrified, I wait for the gate to open and the hideous goring and injury to ensue. And then it hits me that really I am sitting atop something with much bigger balls than me.
You get to Lyle Sankey’s rodeo school by passing through a lot of Gore (est. pop. 500). Carry on a few more miles down route 25 from Summerville and turn left to Charlie Lowry’s ranch, set in the russet and emerald green folds of north-western Georgia. This is just one stop for the traveling Sankey Rodeo School that for 225 days a year crosses the country from coast to coast, mountain to bayou, like a plains tornado, leaving men in its wake dazed and confused, broken-boned, unable to sit, sore and wondering what the hell happened when the rodeo school whistled through town. The Sankey School offers a chance to those who want to try rough stock rodeo riding: saddle bronc, bareback or — the most dangerous and glamorous of them all — bull riding, which is, according to rodeo websites devoted to its perilous allure, “the most dangerous sport in the world.”
And which is why everybody who knew anything about it told me not to do it. A complete novice, my prowess on the back of any animal is largely based on re-runs of Bonanza and a single vacation ride on a donkey along the English coast which only served to make me look like an ass.
I called Cody Lambert, a champion bull rider who has broken almost every bone in his body, ridden with broken legs and has won a truckful of gold belt buckles for his bull riding. When I told him what I was going to do the phone went silent for a long, pregnant moment. “Be really sure you want to ride one,” he said, in a grave matter-of-fact tone. “It doesn’t matter when you pick it up or how long you’ve been riding, it’s dangerous. It’s supposed to be dangerous - that’s part of it. People come to watch because of the wrecks. Even if you do everything right it’s going to hurt.” According to a rodeo truism it’s not if you get hurt, but when and how badly. But it was bull rider Emmy Arnett, who I had met a year earlier, who made me feel worse. Arnett was paralyzed from the waist down in a bull riding accident. Her email to me read: “I don’t suggest you actually ride one.”
But on a cold Friday morning I joined twenty-two other shivering bull riders clutching proof of medical insurance and waivers that forfeited all legal rights if killed or injured while riding bulls at the rodeo school (After weeks of phone calls to insurance companies most would insure me to go to Iraq but only one would insure me to ride a bull).
Lyle Sankey is a former rodeo champion with a pelt of iron-filing-like stubble, a blazing evangelical righteousness in his heart (“[I make] every ride more intense as I try to use it as an expression of my love for Jesus Christ”) and an air of dumbfounded irritation at those who fall short of his expectations. “You’re obsessing on this injury stuff way too much,” he had said, sighing in annoyance when I called to sign up. “It’s about as dangerous as mountain biking.” Which is of course not unlike saying that piloting an F-16 is as dangerous as kite flying.
The others who have joined me here come with very different motivations. Milk Carpenter, 27, a tight-limbed ironworker from Lucedale, Mississippi reasons that -- because he was put in a three-day coma after a bull ride -- there must be something wrong with his riding. “I’m here to fix that,” he says cracking a grin that reveals a black space where his front teeth used to be. And there are others like muscled-up 22 year old Frog from Mississippi, who wants to become a famous bull rider. “I got a wiggling tail bone,” he confides, wincing. “I can’t hardly walk. I broke it on a bull last week.” But his inspiration is clear. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. All those girls wanting your autograph when you tell ‘em you’re a bull rider. You say, ‘Yeah sure I covered it [meaning rode for 8 seconds, the ultimate goal of bull riding] even if you didn’t. I’m gonna win at the finals and buy me and my dad a ranch.’”
There is no definite date as to when bull riding started. The received wisdom is that drunk cowboys at the end of the long, boring cattle drives dared each other to ride bulls in their charge. The original extreme sport it was seen as the most needlessly dangerous thing at their disposal: a test of sheer nerve, athleticism and machismo.
Today it is a genuine phenomenon, offering fame and glory to the few brave souls who can last those magic eight seconds. In November 2003, at the nationally televised primetime PBR finals in Las Vegas - replete with anthemic rock and dry ice - bull rider Chris Shivers won the first million dollar prize in the sport’s history. Major corporate sponsors like Ford, Jack Daniels and Wrangler have sponsorship deals totaling $15 million. Riders like Tuff Hedeman and bull Bodacious (who once broke every single bone in his face) are household names, as are legends like Brent Thurman and Lane Frost, both killed in the arena. But with all the glitz and notoriety emerges a new type of bull rider - one with no ranch background: the couch cowboy, one who draws his inspiration not from his homesteading heritage but from wildly edited TV spectacles set to the music of Creed.
These are men like Bipp Barnett, 27, a father of two and a weaver in a textile mill from Rome, Georgia who wears a do-rag under his cowboy hat and showed up at Sankey’s school having never as much as sat atop a horse. “I watch this on TV all the time,” he declares, as we wait in line to be issued a bull rope, some copper bells, a gum shield and a flak jacket to protect out inner organs if we are stomped or gored. “I’m here to show my kids that their daddy was a hero one day.” He then adds that his appalled wife refuses to speak to him for the duration of the school.
“This ain’t a sissy sport,” howls instructor Jaybo McCelland, a lank Texan cowboy with a long, pacific drawl and a glinting, champion belt buckle the size of his home state. We are outside learning to ride on something called a Mighty Bucky, basically a barrel on a spring. Tyro cowboys cause Jaybo to roll his eyes to the heavens as they fail to hold their trailing arms forward to balance or to pull up as close as they can on their tethered hand to maintain a center of balance. When one mounts it the wrong way round, Jaybo bawls: “If you wanna play a sissy sport go play golf.” Even before the school is off to a proper start our heads hang low in shame. Sankey and his staff are unimpressed with the first rides, pretty much ignoring what appears to be a broken leg suffered by one of the more experienced riders. When I mumble something about riding to survive, Jaybo unfurls himself to his full height. “Self survival?” he says, his voice rising an octave. “If you wanna survive what are you doing at bull riding school?” Sankey himself is like a drill sergeant. “You have got to get control of your emotions!” he repeats over and over, before adding: “You’ve got to grow some fangs when you get behind those chutes!”
Things do not get less ominous: A rodeo clown, there to save us from death by trampling, fails to show up, and the rider who looks like he broke his leg is carted away never to be seen again. Yet nearly all of the other riders, chastened by Lyle’s rebuke, decide to go for it. The result: two broken arms and a cast of couch cowboys walking like they’ve just survived a wrestling match with Star Jones.
As the school progresses riders try to conquer increasingly “rank” (more dangerous) bulls to exhibit what cowboys call “try,” which means facing down the inevitable pain and fear while still continuing to ride. Apparently you only start to learn after 100 bull rides so cowboys just have to keep throwing their legs over more bulls, grinding their teeth in increasing pain. Bipp Barnett surges past me in the undesirable position of ‘hung up’ (meaning TK) on his bull and, unable to free his hand, is dragged under its flailing hooves. Behind me another rider yowls in pain, nursing a broken rib.
I decide to sit it out for a while and join Jason Wiser, 32, a stocky, and phlegmatic former marine who’s seen action in Somalia and has already taken a turn in the ring. “I’ve never had fear like what I had on top of a bull,” he says, quietly. “In the military you have your buddies and your equipment but up there it is so lonely. On the last ride the bull stepped on me and hit me in the face. That put the fear of god in me. I’m never doing this again.”
The next morning, Frog knocks on my door. The previous night he had stopped by asking if I wanted to go get drunk, despite his obvious agony. “I need to block the pain,” he’d said, referring to a pair of savage looking ‘wrecks’ that left him kicked, gored and running from vengeful bulls while battling tears of pain. Sometime in the night he’d decided to go to hospital, and this morning he stands before me with a pale blue cast on his arm. “I went to my doctor and found out that I had a broken arm, a bruised and strained wrist, a dislocated and strained shoulder, a broken tail bone, a bruised knee cap and I’ve been having pains from my shoulder up my neck causing severe headaches,” he says. “But I’m lucky -- I’m just pleased it was nothing serious.”
This is on my mind as I make my way back to Sankey’s, where I am immediately greeted by the sight of a bull rider sitting in a chair trying to remember his name. A fellow rider tells me he’d been knocked out cold for three minutes, but has now come to and is unable to remember who he’s with, where he’s staying, or indeed what exactly he’s doing here in this dusty hellhole. On the left side of his head, inches below the temple, is the perfect indentation of a bull’s horn, left there as if his skull had been made of putty. Later, when he returns from the hospital and a brain scan, he’ll tell us that he needs reconstructive facial surgery for a cracked jaw. But right now he can also tell us that his name is Lewis.
Lyle Sankey is tough and forthright to the end. “Everyone is afraid sometimes,” he says. “The winners just focus on what they know works and leave the outcome to the Lord. If you’ve done all you can to prepare then it’s stupid to worry about what you have no control over anyway. Get on or go home.”
“Okay, Jonathan,” Sankey says, as I straddle my bull in the chute. “Tie your bull rope and let’s go.” But already I’m screwing up. I was so busy dipping my gum shield in hot water out back that I missed the bull rope tying class. I’m fumbling with it when Sankey storms over. “C’mon, you’re making this harder than it is!” he spits. “It’s not rocket science!”
While my heart beats a hideous out of sync drumbeat in my rib cage, I am told to tightly lash my right hand to the bull, a trick known as ‘taking a wrap.’ To my right, through the bars of my hockey mask, I see TK# rodeo clowns there to distract the bull when I am bucked off. It’s disquieting to see the man who is expected to save you look as though he is about to whip out long skinny balloons and twist them into a sausage dog.
“Breathe!” says Jaybo, as I begin to turn puce. I look down between the bull’s inscrutable ears, and see leathery skin covering a skull 1 1/2 thick. My fate is entirely at the whim of an animal nobody has the physical strength or wherewithal to be able to stop if he decides to trample me into blood pudding.
“Are you ready?” Sankey asks. I give a reluctant, barely perceptible nod. The gate — and a Pandora’s box — is yanked open. “Keep looking at his neck!” someone yells. Mexican Joe lumbers forward and sticks his nose out and down like a household cat prowling round a pantry door. This isn’t so bad — And then it feels like both the bull and I have stepped on a landmine. There’s a violent upward force as if I have mistakenly elected to ride a ten-foot tall bull. The power is phenomenal and I am utterly out of control; imagine driving a NASCAR with a sheered off steering wheel and an accelerator welded to the floor. What’s weird is the utter silence of it all — all I hear is the clang of the bells around the bull’s neck. As I sail through the air, the bull’s head between its legs, I seem to be riding on some sort of magic carpet of black cowhide. It’s magnificent.
But that’s before I crash back down into his back and my testicles are driven to the back of my throat. And then we’re up and forward again. “Set your spurs cowboy!” I hear someone yell. At this point I’m supposed to dig my heels in, to set my spurs into the bull’s hide. But Mexican Joe feels pretty mad already and I’m loathe to do anything to make it worse. I do the opposite and hold my legs out. He seems to hear the person shouting too and suddenly bucks left. I feel my feet gracefully lifting off him and then — in a surreally long moment — I find myself hovering, almost levitating, over his back until gravity kicks in and I’m pitching, yawing and tumbling towards the ground, horns and hooves…
I land on my side, dazed, sucking for wind through the grit in my mouth. Mexican Joe is still bucking in a cyclonic whirl and spots me on the ground. He turns as I pick myself up and run, stumbling over my spurs and dive over the other side of the fence, collapsing in a breathless heap.
I lasted one and a half seconds. Maybe two.
Half a dozen other riders dropped out or failed to show for the end of the school. Most of those who stuck it out, though, feel the course was worthwhile. Milk Carpenter, his confidence back after the coma, declares, “I am ready to hit the road again.” He will start leading the itinerant life of a cowboy, traveling from rodeo to rodeo. The indefatigable Frog will have to wait, however. “This little accident in Georgia is just going to slow me down a bit,” he blusters. “But keep an eye out for me, I’ll be at the finals next year and I’ll be sure to send you free tickets.” It turns out that when he returned home his new disability cost him his job as a concrete truck driver and he now faces a mountain of hospital bills he can’t afford to pay.
As for me, I was disappointed that I didn’t cover a bull for eight seconds. And while I feel like I succeeded purely because I actually got on a bull — and am elated that I survived, with limbs intact — those feelings are debased with a slight sense of failure. As you read this it will still be gnawing at me: Eight seconds or an eternity can be much the same thing - just one more bull?