Eight seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes to complete a qualified bull ride. Eight blood-rushing, heart-pounding seconds in which anything could go awry.
This is where training, talent and tenacity collide. Both the rider and bull have been prepared for those eight seconds, when perseverance pays off and hard work is put to the test. Reach that magic mark, and the rider has done something very few have achieved. The bull? Well, he’s done his job, too.
“When that whistle goes off, it’s just a rush,” said 22-year-old Cole Bass, a bull rider and fighter from Jonesburg, Mo. “It’s like everything you’ve worked for is clicking and coming together.”
It takes a certain kind of person to climb on a 2,000-pound bucking bull, strap one hand by a rope to the animal’s back and try to stay on top for those eight seconds. Though “crazy” may come to mind, it’s not the word that truly describes these cowboys. Tough. Determined. Daring. Fearless. That’s more like it.
“Bull riding is just like any other extreme sport,” said Isaiah Dunn of Warrensburg, Mo., a former rider and current owner of Amped Up Productions Pro Bull Riding Tour. “It’s something that most people wouldn’t do, and there’s something about knowing that you can.”
Bass began riding at 9 years old worked his way up through the age divisions. Through his career, he’s earned the titles of reserve state champion, state champion and National Federation of Professional Bull Riders Rookie of the Year, and he’s taken home 22 buckles and one saddle.
His laundry list of awards is only surpassed by his laundry list of injuries, something he has in common with most of his fellow bull riders. In fact, Bass has retired due to the injuries he’s sustained. He tore a ligament in his riding hand that required multiple surgeries. He has two foot-long scars along each side of his right arm from compartment syndrome, which is dangerously excessive pressure inside his muscles. He’s broken both ankles, his jaw, his ribs and his nose.
He’s now taken up bullfighting, which allows him to continue to be around the sport. Turns out, he’s good at it.
“Having ridden bulls prior to fighting them, I know a lot of things to look out for,” Bass said. “I’ve been in the situations. I know what’s going to happen. I know where I need to be and the timing part of it. It all comes naturally.”
Occasionally, Bass still rides. At the Sept. 2 Riding for Our Veterans event hosted by Amped Up Productions in Lathrop, Mo., Bass filled in for a rider who didn’t show. It was one of a handful of times he’s ridden since his last surgery two years ago. He took home a buckle that night.
“I love the sport,” Bass said. “And I want to be around it the rest of my life, whether I’m riding or fighting.”
Trey Holston, an 18-year-old rider from Fort Scott, Kan., echoed that sentiment.
“It’s not the safest job you can have, but like any other extreme sport, it’s fun, and the danger is part of that,” Holston said. “You’re not going to avoid injury, but there is technique to staying as safe as possible, and you’ve got to just keep getting back on.”
Indeed, a rider’s technique plays a major part in his ability to complete a qualified ride, and that technique must become second nature. While mastering the skills can be achieved in different ways, the primary principle is to move with the bull, Holston explained. When the bull rears back, the rider needs to lean forward. When the bull kicks, the rider should sit down and lean his chest back. If the bull is moving toward the left, a rider puts his weight on the left leg, and vice versa.
During it all, the rider tries to keep his mind clear and rely on instinct.
“If you’re thinking about the way you’re supposed to be riding while the bull is bucking, you’re already behind,” Holston said. “It takes too long to think when you’re dealing with something that happens in a matter of seconds. You have to practice so much that it’s just a reaction to make the correct moves to stay on. It’s such a reaction-based sport that it’s best to just let things happen.”
Most riders tell a version of this. Isaac Toliver, now 21, started riding bulls when he was 12 and works with Dunn on his ranch.
“Every ride is different, but bull riding is one of the sports where you really want to stay out of your head,” Toliver said. “You just want to let your body react.”
It takes a tremendous amount of training to get to the point of instinctive reaction. Staying on a bucking bull amounts to balance and strength. Riders focus on their core and leg muscles to maintain that balance. They may also practice with a barrel, which is often mechanical to simulate the bull’s moves. Bass said he believes the best method is riding a horse bareback.
“Riding a horse feels pretty similar to riding a bull, and you can practice your motions,” he said. “It’s the best thing for you.”
While it takes a special type of person to ride a bucking bull, it takes a special kind of animal to be a bucking bull. Raising a top-performing rodeo bull takes both nature and nurture, according to Ernest Brauch, who handles the bucking bulls for Lucas Cattle Company in Wheatland, Mo. Lucas sponsors Amped Up events, and Brauch enters the ranch’s bulls as a stock contractor.
“An elite-level bucking bull is kind of like an elite-level race horse,” Brauch said. “In my opinion, it’s almost just a freak of genetics. That’s what everyone tries to do in raising bucking bulls. They’re trying to find that special one.”
Brauch began raising bucking bulls in 2013 and is currently caring for nine bulls, 10 heifers and seven calves, four of which are bulls. He also oversees the commercial herd on Lucas Ranch, which is owned by Lucas Oil Products founder Forrest Lucas and his wife, Charlotte. Soon, Brauch will begin to see if those bull calves are bound for future rodeos.
“Not every bull calf turns out to be a bucking bull,” Brauch said, “because not every calf will buck. It’s just instinct.”
When a bull is about 1 year old, Brauch will place a soft cotton rope around the calf’s flank. This flank strap lightly brushes against the animal’s lower abdomen, letting him know there’s something there. The calf will either buck against the rope, or he won’t. Brauch repeats this process on a couple of different occasions to determine each calf’s potential.
Bucking bulls are raised similarly to their commercial cattle counterparts, which means nutrition is just as important. While the calves are growing in their first year, Brauch feeds them 1 percent of their body weight daily, and they all receive MFA Shield Technology in their ration.
“I want to put some muscle mass on them for a little while before we start to lean them up for bucking,” Brauch explained.
Once Brauch determines the calves’ potential, he uses a dummy to simulate a rider on the bull’s back. Around 3 years old, the bulls will begin competing with a live rider. At that point, the bull will know his job. When that rodeo chute opens, the bull is judged and receives a score, just like his rider.
“They’re athletes,” Brauch said. “They know when they get into the arena, they’re part of the performance.”
The truly elite bulls are difficult to come by, he said. No amount of training can account for raw talent. And like racehorses, elite level bucking bulls can make the owner a significant amount of money, both in winnings and worth. Most bucking bulls can sell anywhere from $3,000-$10,000, but Brauch said he’s seen one go for $250,000.
“At that point, it’s whatever a buyer is willing to pay,” he said. “And you never know when a bull is going to reach his prime. It could be when they’re 6 years old. It could be when they’re 3.”
For participants, bull riding is more than just talent and training, he added. It’s tradition.
“It’s our history,” said Brauch. “Cattle made this country, in my opinion. If it weren’t for people setting up homesteads and raising cattle in the 1800s, we wouldn’t be here. Cattle put us on the map, and rodeos started as contests to test ranchers’ skills. It was something to do to have fun.”
In the spirit of this tradition, many riders have their sights set on a professional rodeo career, while some, such as Colton Michael of Kearney, Mo., would rather follow Brauch’s path.
“Everyone wants to do what you love for a living,” Michael said, “but you can’t ride forever. A lot of bull riders, when they retire, start raising bucking bulls. It only comes natural. That’s what I’d like to do, eventually. But right now, I’m just going to concentrate on making it to finals.”