By Peter Bronski
A hot, dry wind whips across the arid Arkansas River valley, blowing sand and dust between my teeth. I tip my head forward into the harsh sun, shading my eyes beneath the brim of my cowboy hat. Peering out from under its crushable, brown felt, I survey the others idling about outside the corral.
I’ve come to Dean Drake’s Rodeo Company in Penrose, Colorado. It’s a broad swath of sparsely populated ranchland that sits west of Pueblo between Fort Carson Military Reservation and the prison town of Canon City. To the north are the snow-capped peaks and forested foothills of the Pikes Peak massif. To the south, the Arkansas River tumbles through the depths of the Royal Gorge.
Drake’s ranch is hosting the latest installment of the Sankey Rodeo School’s Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding Clinic, three intensive days during which I’ll learn to ride a bull, and hopefully not die trying. Seriously.
The school formed thirty years ago, the brainchild of Lyle Sankey, a former bull riding champion and one of only four cowboys in rodeo history to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in all three rough stock events: bull riding, bareback, and saddle bronc.
Sankey lives on a ranch in Missouri, and walks with the stiff gait of a cowboy whose legs and body have been weathered by the physical demands and chronic pain of bull riding. He’s a God-loving cowboy in an overtly Christian sport where bull riders are lauded for “giving the glory to God.” Sankey, for his part, seamlessly transitions between talking about “getting yourself into a right relationship with Christ” and how to not get gored by a bull.
In the three decades since he founded the rodeo school, he’s earned a reputation for being one of the best, and the safest, in the business. Every year, hundreds of bull riders, both experienced and first timers, sign up for one of more than thirty clinics held across the country. The clinic here in Penrose is a regular stop on the annual circuit, and there are fifteen of us, a motley crew of thirteen men and two women. We come from seven states and Canadian provinces, and from equally diverse backgrounds. A select few have been on a bull before. The rest of us are bull riding virgins who don’t fully appreciate what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Rodeo is widely credited with having started in 1864 in Deer Trail, Colorado, when cowboys from two neighboring ranches got together to settle a debate over who performed best at everyday ranch tasks - roping calves, riding horses, and just for good measure, riding bulls.
In premise, bull riding is straightforward and simple. One bull. One cowboy. One rope. Hold on with one hand. Do it for eight long seconds. In practice, it’s anything but. Even more, it’s downright dangerous.
Bull riding is unrelentingly hard on the body, and by the end of the weekend, our group of fifteen will become a hobbling, Ibuprofen-popping testament to that fact. Bull riding has the highest injury rate of any pro rodeo event, and 36% of those injuries are considered serious: major concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments. Experience doesn’t help, either. Whether you’ve ridden a bull once, or been doing it for twenty years, your chances of injury are equal. Ultimately, the laws of probability take over, and sooner or later, you’re going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of when and how badly.
It’s for that reason that rodeo announcers call bull riding “the most dangerous eight seconds in sport.” Forbes Magazine called it one of the ten most dangerous sports in the world. It’s been called “America’s original extreme sport.” And my wife, Kelli, calls it just plain crazy. Maybe they all have it right.
A month and a half before I arrive here in Penrose, a twenty-five year old was killed at a similar bull riding school in Ohio. It was the young man’s second ride of the weekend, and of his life. The bull bucked him off and then stepped on him. His internal injuries were too severe. Had I known about the incident before I arrived at the ranch, it might have been enough of a sobering reality check for me to seriously reconsider whether or not I want to do this in the first place.
Let’s be honest. A cowboy I am not. I’m a New York native who moved to the outdoorsy town of Boulder, Colorado several years ago. Something about the American West called to me from a very early age, but my passion for the landscape and the lifestyle has been rooted in rock and ice climbing, not rodeo. Sure, I worked on a farm on Long Island as a young teen, but we grew pumpkins and strawberries, and the docile horses I tended to were part of an elaborate petting zoo, nothing more. I have a feeling that any “real” cowboy would laugh me all the way back to east of the Mississippi.
Yet, here I am, ready to embrace the heritage of the Wild West. It’s time to authenticate my status as a Coloradan.
The morning of day one - Friday - I get equipped with riding gear: spurs, bull rope, bells, rosin, and riding glove. With the rest of the class outfitted as well, we clamber into a rickety set of wooden bleachers six rows tall on the edge of the arena. Sankey introduces us to his assistant instructors. There’s Cody, who speaks through a thick southern drawl. He’s a roughneck bull rider who also wrestles alligators in the bayou of his native Louisiana. Then there’s Brian. Tall and confident, with a sharp jaw, he’s a former Alaska bull riding champion. Rodeo in Alaska! Who knew?
“This is about men being men,” Sankey tells us, psychologically motivating the group for what lay ahead. “It’s about grit and determination and courage. 99% of the people that watch bull riding don’t have the guts to try it. You’ve already set yourselves apart just by being here.” With that, he disbands the group and suddenly we’re down to business.
We spend a cursory hour reviewing technique for how to ride a bucking bull, and each practice twice on a padded, red vinyl swivel horse known affectionately as the Mighty Bucky, even though there’s nothing mighty about it. Then, feeling only marginally prepared for the real thing, it’s time to get on live stock.
My fellow classmates and I are herded into a holding area behind the bucking chutes, the gated steel boxes that hold a bull and cowboy until it’s time to ride. I’m nervous with anticipation as the bulls file into the chutes. Each brute weighs more than 1,500 pounds - ten times as much as I do. And with names like “Bodybag,” they don’t exactly inspire confidence in us riders.
I’m slotted to ride third, but as I don a protective Kevlar vest and a helmet, Russell, one of the more timid members of our class, gets bucked off his bull and knocked unconscious. The bull flips his limp body once before the bull fighters gain the beast’s attention and usher it out of the arena. For a few tense moments, Russell’s body convulses in the dirt.
He regains consciousness, but no one’s taking any chances. An ambulance has already been called, and soon I hear the sounds of the siren and see a plume of dirt on the horizon as it speeds down the road toward us. Russell gets fitted with a neck brace and strapped to a backboard before the EMTs whisk him away to the hospital.
This is insane, I think to myself. Looking around at my classmates’ faces, their expressions all seem to register a similar thought: Why am I doing this again? But before I have time to ponder my fate for too long, Sankey’s eyes meet mine. “Time to focus, Pete,” he says. “You’re up.”
I swallow the lump in my throat, climb over the top rail of the bucking chute and settle down onto my bull. He’s a reddish-brown brute with thick, two-foot-long horns. I set my bull rope around his torso just behind his shoulders. Strangely, my nerves have calmed - I’m too focused to be concerned. I place my left hand palm-side up under the bull rope while a helper pulls it taught. Then, I take a wrap - I lay the tail of the bull rope across my palm, pass it behind my wrist, and across my palm again - so that in total three strands of rope firmly pin my riding hand to the back of an animal that weighs as much as my first car.
I brace my hand on the rail and set my legs. An anonymous voice cuts through my focus: “Have fun, cowboy!” There’s only one thing left to do…what cowboys call the “slide and ride.” I pull my body forward until I’m braced over my bull rope and nod my head. The gate swings open and the bull violently explodes out of the chute.
He bucks hard twice, jarring my riding arm. Then suddenly, I’m airborne. I hit the ground hard but immediately start scrambling to my feet. My ride is over, but the bull doesn’t know it. When I watch my ride on video later - all 1.5 seconds of it - I see that the bull was right behind me, his horns thrusting inches from my backside.
I’m quickly discovering that this is the real school of hard knocks, where learning means doing, and doing inevitably means pain.
Day two - Saturday - follows the same basic formula: ride a bull, watch the video replay, and limp around complaining about all the new bruises and sore spots that have surfaced since your last ride. Early Saturday afternoon, Carlos, a twenty-something college student from Colorado Springs, turns to me with a wry smile: “So far it’s Bulls two, Carlos zero.”
Things haven’t gone much differently for the rest of us. Qualifying rides - those lasting the eternity of eight seconds and the standard to which all cowboys aspire - are few and far between. But we’re getting better, albeit slowly and painfully, and we’re bonding as a group. Like combat veterans, our friendships are forged through a shared experience that threatens life and limb. We’re developing a healthy respect for one another, and even more for the guys who do this full time.
Our rate of attrition has been high. Perhaps scared off by what happened to Russell yesterday, a guy from Orange County simply never showed up today. We all assume he caught the next plane back to the sun, sand and surf of his California coast. Both women in our class are now in the hospital. One cracked her pubic bone. The other sustained a spiral fracture to her ankle when her bull started bucking while she was still in the chute. She’s now on crutches with several pins in her ankle holding the bones together. James, a grocery store produce clerk from Utah, sits in the bleachers, sidelined after getting “hooked” by his bull. “Hooked” is bull rider-speak for getting caught by the bull’s horns. James was picked up and somersaulted through the air before slamming into the ground. He came up with his Wrangler jeans torn and his face bloody. Even beyond those injuries, we’ve also collectively logged a broken finger, several concussions, and more scrapes, cuts, bruises, contusions and sore muscles between us than I can count.
Day three - Sunday, the Lord’s Day - dawns overcast and cold, with intermittent rain and snow. The bulls seem ornery, and so are we. Of the original fifteen class members, only five of us are still well-enough, physically and psychologically, to ride. Waiting behind the bucking chutes for my fourth and final ride of the weekend, Carlos unexpectedly turns to me. “You know, when you showed up Friday morning, I thought you were the biggest city slicker in the group,” he says. “But you’ve done alright.” It’s as honest a compliment as I’ve ever received.
Even with the disagreeable weather, and with my previous lackluster performance this weekend, I’m feeling confident. I’ve rehearsed the perfect ride dozens of times in my head. I even dreamt about bull riding last night. This is my last chance to get it right.
I meet my final bull of the weekend. He’s actually a giant white “beefalo” - a cross-breed between a bull and a buffalo. It’s time for me to “cowboy up” one more time. I settle into the bucking chute on top of my bull, take a wrap, nod my head, and the gate swings wide open.
The “beefalo” bucks out of the shoot hard, but several bucks later, partly to my surprise, I’m still riding. My legs are tight around his torso, my riding arm feels strong. As seconds tick by I start to come undone, looking more and more like a rag doll strapped to the back of the family dog. Then, just as I’m about to fall off, I hear a whistle blow - eight seconds. I score my first ever qualifying ride. It may not have looked pretty by the end, but it felt like a million dollars. In an instant, all the aches and pains vanish, supplanted by sheer joy and a rush of adrenaline.
And that reward is maybe what bull riding is all about. Despite the obvious risk, and despite the inevitable pain, bull riding is fun, even addictive. Perhaps that’s because something about riding is undeniably authentic - there’s no room for poseurs in this sport. Or because riding puts you in touch with the romanticized heritage of the Old West. Maybe, as someone said on Day One, it’s because “chicks dig it.” Maybe it’s the satisfaction and glory of testing your manhood against a bull, eight seconds at a time, and succeeding…sometimes.
As I jog through the gate at the edge of the arena, Alaska Brian wears a wide grin. “One more ride?” he asks. “No thanks. I think that was it,” I tell him. “I want to end on a high note.”
“Well that was a great way to finish. Well done.”
I grab my leather jacket and pull my cowboy hat down tight over my brow. My wife, Kelli, waits nearby to give me a congratulatory hug. Together, we settle into the stands to watch my remaining classmates “cowboy up” for their last time this weekend.
For some of us, this was a once in a lifetime experience. Others will go on to ride another day, with more rodeos in their future. In the end, though, we all walk away from the experience wearing the same badge of honor, with no regrets. We’re bull riders.
Peter Bronski is an award-winning writer from Boulder, Colorado.