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for people who care about the West

The Rise of the Minotaur

Bull riding explodes from its Western roots into a modern spectacle

 

It's amazing how long eight seconds can last. Long enough for a bull to lift its dense body six feet off the ground a dozen times; long enough for it to whip its flanks left, then right, then left, all the while making roundhouse kicks and fades. Spit slings through the air, some from the bull, some from the rider. Rider and bull become one, a man-headed minotaur leaping five feet off the ground right before it breaks apart. Part of your brain recognizes this merging of man and beast. The rest of it, however, perceives only an electrified blur, and you wonder how the judges see anything at all.

The arena in Billings, Mont., blazes with white lights. Crowd-roar rains down as the man floats in the air, no part of his body touching the bull except for his face, which slams into the beast's reared-back forehead. A crack visibly arcs from the rider's spine to his boots. He sails off and lands on his ass in dirt clods, and instantly scrambles to his hands and knees and pitches into a sprint. He doesn't even glance back as the 1,800-pound animal bears down on him.

Three bullfighters intercept, flummoxing the animal, drawing its bead from the rider who flies up the racks. The bullfighters -- that is what they are called here, not rodeo clowns -- look like rugby players. They wear shorts, shin guards, athletic shoes. Three is the ideal number in this swift tag-team. They dance on their toes, driving the bull in mad circles. One gets the seat of his pants caught on a horn (its point filed to the regulation size of a 50-cent piece) as another slaps the bull on its rump, whirling it around. Everything happens in-close, like a prizefighting brawl. The movements are so fast, so expertly timed, they are over by the time they register.

It ends suddenly. There is a standoff, the bull facing one of the bullfighters, a man with a crooked face, his bones broken and grown back together in a lopsided, but curiously handsome way. The bull is big and rank. The man is relatively small but stubborn, glaring impatiently. He points at an open gate and says, "Go."

The bull snorts in reply and turns into the pens. The gate slams behind him.

This is not the rodeo. This is the Professional Bull Riding circuit, and the stars of PBR are bull riders, a far more diverse crowd than your classic rodeo cowboys. Some are born cattlemen, while others have never even been on a horse. There are soft-spoken rookies, men with chronic limps, cocky Marlboro types, kids taking breaks to play on Gameboys, and top-scoring Brazilians with their own riding style, who generally keep to themselves, speaking Portuguese with hardly a word of English. What began as a traditional Western sport has gone global in every possible way -- ranching culture on steroids.

Zack Brown is 29 years old. He sits alone on a metal folding chair working his bull rope, preparing for his ride. This is the rider I have chosen to follow, not because I think he will win the championship, but because he is the easiest one to talk to, unassuming and unrehearsed, an intriguing combination of laid-back and shrewd.

"After enough riding, it becomes muscle memory," Brown says in a relaxed, subtle drawl. "You click on your subconscious instead of consciously trying to do this or that." He snaps his fingers: "Then everything starts going your way."

A compact 5-foot-8, Brown has an assured calmness about him. Maybe it's because he grew up in Southern California and Hawaii as a skateboarder and then a surfer, and only later took to bull riding. Or maybe it's because he got his guts stomped out in 2006 here in Billings. A 2,000-pound bull landed square on his abdomen with its hooves, rupturing his innards and filling him with blood and stomach fluids. He was in intensive care for weeks, a powerful dose of humility for anyone.

Even though Brown had a fast-paced career before that -- he was PBR's rookie of the year -- he quit the sport. He was too jittery, he says, lost his motivation. But after a year or so off the circuit, he began to miss the competition and sense of urgency -- he talks about it like an addiction. After a while he started doing small bull-riding events on the side. Now, after a rapid rise through the ranks, he is back in the top circle.

"I like the rush," Brown says. "It makes me feel more alive. I get bored pretty easy."

In 1992, bull riding officially separated from the national rodeo circuits to create its own show. Cody Lambert, one of the founding members of Professional Bull Riders Inc., explains, "We felt like we carried the rodeo, and were paid exactly the same as every other event. Our careers were shorter and obviously more dangerous. We said, 'If we could just stick together, we could elevate this sport.' "

They turned PBR into a spectacle. Rodeo tends to be more a showcase for Western livestock culture than a pure athletic event. PBR, however, is a one-sport phenomenon. There are no hog-tied calves, no horses racing around barrels. Everything is pared down to this: a metal gate banging open as bull and man explode into the arena.

More than a thousand riders now compete at about 300 events every year, coast to coast in the U.S. and in four other countries. Top riders come out of Canada, Australia, Brazil, and, of course, the U.S. The seven-day World Finals in Las Vegas tends to pull a live audience of 90,000, while a PBR season will see a television audience of 100 million.

Headquartered in Pueblo, Colo., PBR began with a World Finals purse of $275,000. In 2007, top rider Justin McBride walked away with a total of $5.1 million. The original shareholders who formed PBR -- bull riders every one -- did so with initial investments of around $1,000 each. Last year, they sold the organization to a multinational company, and those initial antes were upped to around $4 million each. This is one way for down-home Western rednecks to strike it rich.

PBR's style mirrors that of NASCAR, producing larger-than-life events, beginning each with pyrotechnic extravaganzas and bone-quaking rock music. The announcer booms about God and country and American forces serving overseas. At some championships, Special Forces soldiers rappel into the arena. The target of this star-spangled extravaganza is Middle America, from white-collar self-proclaimed rednecks to the exurban masses to the trailer-park crowd. The livestock aspect of the sport draws scattered but ample rural demographics. Spire Capital Inc., the company that bought PBR, is well poised to access these markets, pulling people out of the woodwork and dosing them with sponsors that range from Copenhagen to Ford trucks to a trailer-hitch manufacturer.

What PBR sells is a magnificent display of maleness. Riders enter the arena through a hoop of fire and tip their hats to a frenzied audience. The champions rise above the rest on hydraulic lifts, standing proudly with feet spread apart, fists planted on their hips. They look like gladiators. Even the bulls get their moment, trotting into the arena for introduction, heads tossing and snorting in a bath of artificial smoke, testicles big as yams swaying to and fro. Within minutes the arena is cleared and the first ride bursts into a dome of camera flashes.

Marketing aside, this is what ultimately draws a crowd. For a handful of seconds all pretense is stripped away, leaving just jeans, hide, and a rope.

Backstage, press agents, investors, rider-buddies and photographers mill about. PBR girls stand around like backup singers in half-shirts, leather chaps and pierced navels. The green room is a whirlwind of Cokes and chicken wings -- the veneer laid over the eight-second free-fall. Down a fluorescent-lit hallway, the roar of the crowd dims, and riders come in and out of open doorways, fists wrapped in tape, bull ropes over their shoulders. The air smells of chew-spit and leather. If testosterone has a scent, this must be it.

The doors lead into big prep rooms full of riders bullshitting and rubbing rosin on their ropes, preparing for the ring. Veterans chide rookies, sometime slinging insults at them, while senior riders -- in their 30s -- generally keep to themselves, set off from the others by a moat of respect.

As I approach one group of riders, pen out and notebook open, the talk quickly turns to sex. A high-scoring Australian named Brendon Clark speaks loudly of "skanky bitches." Bull-riding groupies used to be dubbed "buckle bunnies," in keeping with the Western theme. Now, a shade of hip-hop culture has apparently filtered in, providing another layer for the marketing campaign.

When I walk away, and they no longer think I am listening, Clark and his tribe stop the bawdy talk and go back to bulls, comparing notes about them -- which ones go left out of the chute, which go right, and which go every which way.

Considering that top bulls throw their riders 90 percent of the time, and that one out of every 12 rounds results in an injured rider, the bravado is understandable. Unlike other major sports, these players are paid only if they win. If all you do is get thrown, you end up broke -- sometimes literally.

Brown is not one of the swaggering types, nor is he painfully deferential like some of the younger rookies. He seems almost dismissively comfortable.

"When I first got on (a bull), I was just trying it out because I was bored," he says. "My mom's always been sort of a horse nut, had horses since I was born, so I was used to being on the back of an animal. Most of the time I was too lazy to throw a saddle on it, so I got a pretty good feel for an animal underneath me."

I tell him that I am drawn to this sport because of the animals. In a world increasingly cut off from non-human life, it seems significant that a popular event entangling men with beasts survives. The sport seems almost bestial to me, shocking to more civilized sensibilities.

Pretty much every rider I've said this to has responded either with a blank stare or a tired refrain about how you just gotta hold on for eight seconds. Brown, at least, entertains my thought for long enough to say that the animal doesn't actually make that much difference.

"For me, the ride isn't always on an animal," he says. "Surfing, spear-fishing, rock climbing. I had a job working at a glider field and I'd get to go fly at the end of the day. I've always been kind of an adrenaline junkie, I guess."

"But there's a bull involved this time," I say. "A live animal."

"It's not about the bull," he says. "It's about riding it."

"So, could you just as easily be a NASCAR racer?"

Brown ponders for a second, then nods, "Yeah."

Still, this PBR show feels like a fundamentally primal event. It is not NASCAR. It's not football. There are no extraneous balls or hoops; no pucks, no nets, no teams. It is nothing but man and bull, and that puts it in its own category altogether.

Half the score in a ride comes from the bull's performance, the other half from the rider. Bulls are judged on speed, force, breaks in rhythm, height of jump and kick, and intensity of spin. The rider is judged on his ability to hang on without flopping around like a ragdoll.

The bull is bareback, with a rope tied around its chest right behind its front legs. The rope is weighted, so that as soon as the rider is off, it slips loose. The rider holds the rope with one hand, and for eight seconds that hand must not lose its grip. The rider's free hand cannot touch the bull at all. Another, smaller rope is tied just in front of the bull's hips. It is not, as the sport's detractors claim, cinched around the testicles. This flank strap is supposed to be loose enough so that a man can slide his hand underneath it. It is there simply so the bull can feel it, because its presence encourages a better kick. (If it's too tight, though, the bull just fidgets.) But the best bulls need no prompting to kick -- just the weight of a man and the gate thrown open.

When you talk to bull handlers, they make the riders seem almost extraneous. Bulls have personal records, and some spectators follow individual bulls as much as riders.

Charges of cruelty are often leveled against bull riding, and for those who find the employment of animals sadistic, there is no getting around it: This is an abrasive and unapologetic sport. There are certainly cases of animal abuse further down the ranks, but at the pro level, no one can afford to hurt a bull. Simply put, they are much too valuable. Between every event, bulls receive a mandatory two-week break; sometimes they're even flown in 747s to cut down on their road time. A good performer is worth upwards of a million dollars. A package of semen from such a bull has gone for $35,000.

At a Sacramento event in January 2009, a young rider was bucked off in 2.9 seconds and reacted by hurling his face-mask at the bull. The 2,000-pound animal seemed hardly to notice, but the rider was roundly denounced from every corner of the profession. He was fined $7,500, forced to make a televised apology, and sent to an anger management class. You don't mess with the bulls.

PBR co-founder Cody Lambert responded to the rider's tantrum by saying, "It's just the thought that he'd be mad at that bull for just doing his job -- that's disgusting to me."

Lambert is a man who understands bulls. He is often seen on horseback in the arena, swinging a lariat to drive or drag out the more stubborn ones. He is the guy who decides which animals get to enter into competition.

"I don't care if they're big, small, mean, nice -- that's just personality," he explains. "They're just like the riders. Some of them are wild, some of them are real friendly, some of them are shy. That doesn't really carry over to their riding. When they are in the arena, they're working."

Like most people on the circuit, Lambert has his heroes. His favorite is Red Wolf, a legendary bull recently retired to pasture and sire after a remarkable seven years on the job. (Most bulls last two or three before retirement.) "He was a great champion," Lambert says. "He never had an off day or a lesser rider. He went up against champions his whole career. Even at the very end, 13 years old, he was a bull they rode and they were going to score 90 on him."

Lambert explains that when Red Wolf bucked off someone in two seconds or less, he simply turned around and trotted out of the arena. But if a rider held on for longer than that, the bull knew it and was furious. He would throw the rider and go after him, and then after the bullfighters, and then he would do laps around the arena hooking everyone else up into the stands.

"Getting on a bull like Red Wolf, you know he's going to do his half of the job, and if you do your part and don't make any mistakes -- and maybe get a little bit lucky -- you're going to win," he says.

There was nothing in Lambert's voice to suggest dominance. He spoke with unexpected reverence, telling me it's simple: A bull has to have ambition to get this far.

Every morning for four days at sunrise, I go to the bull pens where the animals are being prepared for the day. In gray light, a soft Montana snow falls on their backs. They flare nostrils big as coffee mugs, heads shoving each other aside. Shoulders push through open gates, hooves clobbering cold ground. Handlers shoo them along with shouts, yips, hands in the air.

Billy Cochrane, a soft-mannered man with a front tooth missing, is in charge of livestock on the ground. He says that some handlers make too much noise, move too fast. Walking through the pens in this light snow, he says he's learned to go slow, not say much. The bulls listen.

"Yeah, you'll get run at sometimes," Cochrane warns. "But you'll know when."

The missing tooth is from when he got a horn in his mouth.

In the pens this morning, the bulls don't move quickly; they mill around as if waiting for work.

"That lil' gray sucker right there, he's kind of mean," Cochrane gestures at one that looks to be about 1,300 pounds. "But he's got room enough. As long as he's got space and you don't crowd him up, he's good."

With pedestrian calmness, Cochrane enters the pen with the same gray bull. No rope, no cattle prod, he culls it out for the day's ride. There isn't much fuss. Another bull in the pen lowers its cinderblock head toward Cochrane, and he just speaks low and stern, "Don't pull that crap."

The bull listens. Cochrane swats the air with one hand and the gray bull does as it is told, jogging toward a chute.

"They all have a different personality," Cochrane says. "You gotta pen them with fellas they like. If not, they'll fight and beat the hell out of each other. The black bull over there, there's a reason he's by himself."

I am struck by Cochrane's relationship with these bulls. He doesn't talk down, doesn't even croon the way some people do over their pets. He speaks as if they are partners, all in this together, him and the bulls.

In a maze of pipe-rail gates and chutes, I step out of the way as Cochrane pulls the day's picks. Bulls pass by me so close I can feel their hot breath, nothing between us but air. They move with the heaviness of boxcars.

In the shuffle, a gate swings open and I am backed into a pen. Cochrane closes the gate to keep animals separated, and I turn around to realize I have been closed in with a bull. I want to ask Cochrane if this is OK, but I keep quiet for fear of embarrassing myself.

Five feet away, the bull looks hulkish, as if he's been dosed with steroids (theoretically possible, considering recent reports of widespread doping among industry bulls). The intimidating muscular knot of his shoulder comes up to my neck; his back is big enough to carry several people at once. I remain very still, trying to act casual, hoping the bull won't notice me. Cochrane had told me bulls pick up on fear, and some of them enjoy taking advantage of it.

Bull behavior changes under different circumstances. Even waiting in a bucking chute as a rider is lowered on, professional bulls like these often stand patiently. Not until the gate flies open do they unleash, as if saving energy for one quick burst. Some even pause for a chilling half-second, giving the rider something to think about before popping back to life.

The bull inhales me with a huff. The dark prickled skin of his nose is wet and shiny. I am expecting a challenge from him, some response, and then I realize the bull does not give a damn about me.

He turns away, giving me his side, a clearly dismissive gesture. It's as if he's saying, "I don't get paid to kill you."

Once the other bulls have passed by, Cochrane opens the gate behind me and I gingerly slip back out.

All Saturday morning and afternoon it goes on, bulls torquing in the air, riders snapping back and forth with terrible speed. Brown is coming up fast with a score of 89.5 on a bull named Tuscarora, leaving him in the top few by the end of the day.

In the evening, the bulls return to their pens, stomping out of the metal trailers with an air of lumbering superiority. Riders do the same, only they go back to a high-rise hotel for a dance party. There, lasers strobe through an acrid, smoke-machine haze full of cowboy hats and petite feminine shoulders. Young women parade in and out; tight jeans and halter tops, pretty mouths, hands clasping and unclasping. Some dance, and some remain wrapped around beer bottles.

I've never been especially good at parties, and the music is so loud it makes my ears hurt. Working my way out takes a while, and involves navigating past an overbearing publicity agent in a black leather jacket who is shouting the names of his clients at me. He has some Brazilian riders on his roster and he wants to make sure they get mentioned in the article I am writing, for who is it? New York Times, Newsweek, what magazine?

"High Country News," I say and slip out from under him and catch the elevator.

I am staying in a room on the same floor as the bull riders. The hallway is brilliantly lit and mostly quiet but for the muffled giggles and drunken laughter coming through closed doors.

Around midnight, the sex begins.

My bed feels like a plank as I lie on it, listening to intermittent copulation from various locations. This sport cannot be considered properly without the sex. It is one of the raw elements of bull riding, as if PBR were a straight shot to the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a direct connection to vulgar desires.

At 3:00 a.m., I lay awake wondering how they manage to keep up with so little sleep. Maybe they have been cycling from room to room, pausing for rest in between. Maybe I'm the only one who feels like I've been tumbling around in a washing machine all night.

At 6 in the morning, it starts up again.

I come slowly awake facedown on a pillow, reminding myself why I asked for this room. I'd wanted to get as close to this sport as possible, to spend as much time with the bull riders as I could. I sure as hell was not going to actually get on a bull. But this morning I feel as if I've been in the arena all night.

I roll out of bed groggy and swipe a hotel writing pad off the nightstand. With pen in hand and my forehead against the wall, I listen through to the other side and start writing. It sounds like fish slapping on pavement. 

My daily sunrise meeting with bull handlers is going to be hell.

The finish line comes on Sunday afternoon. Zack Brown has been coming out on top of every ride, his points pushing him to the final round. The top two Brazilians have made it this far, along with a gutsy rider named Mike Lee from Decatur, Texas. For Brown, a win here would be a thunderous victory, since it was in this same arena that the bull stomped him back in 2006.

In the earlier rounds, the bulls are randomly drawn. But in these final rounds, riders are allowed to choose their animals. Lee makes the bold move of picking a bull named White Magic, who has never been successfully ridden and has an average buck-off time of 3.2 seconds. Nobody behind the chutes is surprised at his decision. Lee is known for his snappy, jolting judgments, and this time it works for him. Lee manages to hang on through the kick-storm for the full eight seconds. He dismounts and runs, but before he reaches safety, the mass of White Magic comes down on him, and drives him to the ground just as a bullfighter gets his body between the two. The bull grinds its head into them as another bullfighter slaps the bull's head, whirling it around. Somehow, everyone gets out without injury, and Lee comes off with a satisfying 88.75 points.

Brown is last to go. He picks Soulja Boy, a bull successfully ridden four out of nine times with a 5.48-second average buck-off. A smaller bull at 1,200 pounds and freshly bought for the circuit, Soulja Boy is one Cody Lambert told me to keep an eye on. He said the bull is a born champion.

Wearing a protective black Kevlar vest, Brown knuckles down inside the chute. He gets himself in position, sitting on his hand, and calls for the gate. Soulja Boy launches. The chocolate-colored bull looks like he's bound tight in rubber bands, his kicks and recoils spring-loaded.

It's as if the bull knows it's the final round. He gives more vertical flex than usual, switching abruptly out of his routine until Brown's leg-lock comes loose and he's suddenly floating in mid-air.

Brown's only contact with the bull is his fist, still anchored to the rope. The bull yanks him back down and gives him a full-body slam, then hurls him up, then snaps him back down. As I watch, I will him to let go, to forfeit the round to save himself. This is why I am watching safely through a pipe-rail gate, and Brown is out there getting pummeled.

It is not a pretty ride, not one of those where the rider gracefully matches the intractable rhythm of the bull. Brown is nothing but fist and body. But he hangs on for the full eight seconds.

The buzzer sounds. Brown lets go and flies right over Soulja Boy's head so that for an instant they are face-to-face in mid-air. He hits the ground running the other way. The bull is still going full-tilt, probably aware that he's been bested, finishing out with a fury. The bullfighters take over.

Twisted around half-backwards, Brown checks the bull over his shoulder, then looks for his score. He is surprised to see one of the judges stopped his clock at 7.5 seconds, saying Brown touched the bull with his free hand and is disqualified. The crowd gasps and boos, not a sound often heard on the PBR circuit.

Brown reaches the chutes and slams his hand on the challenge button. Few riders ever hit the button. Here are the rules: You have 30 seconds to challenge after being disqualified, and if you turn out wrong you get a $500 fine.

Thousands of agitated murmurs fill the dome, a tension that reaches through the throngs at floor-level around the chutes. Even the lightly clad women in chaps look concerned, peering up at the huge video monitors hanging throughout the arena, showing again and again the image of Brown flying over the horns.

After two minutes, a voice wakes the arena, announcing the judge has reversed his decision: The ride is legal at 89.25 points. Added to his day's number, this means the championship in Billings goes to Brown, giving him a season's total of more than half a million dollars. His PBR comeback is sealed.

The roar eventually dies down. Autograph-seekers fill the halls, and then trickle out. Long-haired roadies in T-shirts move in, coiling up heavy lengths of electrical cord. TV crews pack up their production trucks and depart for the next gig. Riders start the cycle all over, leaving for home or wherever before being sucked into yet another spectacle the following weekend. Empty except for folding chairs and rolls of sports tape, the prep room still smells of chew and rope.

Bull hooves clatter into truck-trailers, last to leave.

The next morning, I am sitting with Brown at a Cracker Barrel just off the interstate. Pulled up to a cornucopia of hash browns and gravy, he wears a faded leather jacket, his expression unflappable. He looks like any guy, not particularly like a champion. The only way you might know is from the other breakfasters who stop by to congratulate him.

Brown is telling me about his hiatus from bull riding after the injury. He got into spear-fishing, swimming in the ocean with a line, buoy and a barbed weapon. Spearing and taking down a big fish, he says, can be a hair-raising experience. "You gotta swim down to it with a knife and stab it in the brain."

I jump on that comment, trying to get him to admit he is in bull riding for the animals, in order to have a raw experience with them. Brown sees where I'm going, but says the bulls might just as well be surfboards. You ride them, that's all.

Stymied, I blurt, "You could take this sport to the next level, enter the arena wearing nothing but a loincloth and jump the bull, try and ride it for eight seconds. That'd be something, eh?"

Brown slowly comes up from his plate and eyes me. I see that I am mistaken. It would not be something.

Still, from my perspective, the PBR circuit looks a lot like a bull-money-sex cult. It scratches a savage, animalistic itch we seem to have, and it is rapidly edging into the mainstream market. While still too visceral and callous a sport for many, it is also organic and utterly primal. There are no mechanical parts, no rumbling engines.

Rumor has it that the first bull-riding match happened in 1869 in Deer Trail, Colo., when ranch hands from two local outfits tried to outride each other. The competition must have been a terrifying and disorderly spectacle.

But long before that, Minoans on the island of Crete vaulted over the backs of sharp-horned bulls. You can see them still, in frescoes and pottery dating from around 1800 B.C. The strength and even approachability of bulls have long drawn us close to them, tempting us to put as little distance as possible between ourselves and this formidable beast.

Eventually, when we have all become good and civilized, bull riding will become a thing of the past. We will look back on it as a brutish and bygone sport, and we will look back with longing.

Craig Childs is the author of several books on nature, science and wilderness. He has never ridden a bull, nor does he ever intend to.