It has been called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports, and rightfully so. Every night, at rodeos across North America, dozens of cowboys climb aboard bucking bulls that often approach 2,000 pounds.
Each rider’s goals are twofold: record an eight-second ride and escape intact enough to do it again the next night. Both carry a high degree of difficulty and a low rate of success.
So how do they do it? With the 101st Snake River Stampede in town, we got the inside scoop from three professional bull riders. Each addressed eight keys to successful bull riding — one for each perilous second required to post a winning score.
“Crazy” is one word that comes to mind, but Oregon cowboy Cain Smith prefers “thrill-seeking.”
“My parents stuck me on a sheep when I was 2 years old,” Smith said. “That’s all it took for me.”
But all three riders pointed to one mental aspect as the biggest key to success — positivity.
“You have to stay positive all the time,” California rider Walker Greynolds said. “You have to surround yourself with positive thoughts and positive people, and you have to believe you’re a winner.”
Balance, timing, strength, flexibility and body awareness — all are important bull riding traits.
But according to Smith, none of those things matter as much as attitude.
“You don’t have to have all the talent in the world,” Smith said. “If you have heart and the mindset to never give up, that will take you farther than talent ever will.”
For such a dangerous endeavor, the required equipment is relatively simple. Each rider uses a bull rope weighted down by a metal bell that hangs under the bull during the ride. Spurs, gloves, chaps and a protective vest complete the required ensemble, although many riders also opt for a helmet, mouth guard and heavy arm tape to manage soreness.
Some riders use mechanical bulls during the offseason, but the best way to practice is to climb on a living, breathing, kicking bull.
“At this level, we’re getting on enough bulls that we don’t practice much,” said Weiser cowboy Dallee Mason. “But when I was younger, I was getting on practice bulls every day, every chance I got.”
So what goes through a rider’s mind as he straddles a bull in the bucking shoot, moments from attempting the most dangerous feat in pro sports?
“When I’m in the chute, I get pretty amped up,” Smith said. “I’m just thinking ‘This is the day you’re gonna get rode.’ ”
Greynolds says the adrenaline rush is inevitable, but he does his best to stay relaxed.
“I really try to calm my breathing,” Greynolds said. “By the time I get on the bull, my mind is blank.”
It may look like riders are hanging on for dear life, but the cowboys say the harder you hang on, the more likely you are to get bucked. Instead, the goal is to make fluid movements as the bull thrashes.
“You try to make the right counter-move for each move the bull makes,” Smith said.
Added Greynolds: “When I make correct rides, eight seconds feels like a long time. When you keep moving throughout the ride, it almost goes in slow motion.”
Most riders who survive a full eight seconds score high enough to make the money round. But when the competition gets fierce, cowboys can spur the bull in an effort to earn higher marks from the judges.
“That shows you are in control and dominating the bull,” Smith said.
But riders must walk a fine line — or risk losing a qualified ride that could lead to a paycheck.
“I mostly just worry about staying on, because if you’re staying on, you’re getting scores and winning money,” Mason said.
More times than not, the bull wins the day. And when a cowboy gets thrown, a lot can go wrong.
“Getting hurt is part of bull riding,” Mason said. “It’s not a matter of if — it’s when, and how bad.”
Professional bull fighters step in to distract the bulls and protect the riders, but serious injuries still happen.
“I try to get to my feet as fast as I can and get to the nearest fence,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, I land on my head a lot, but that’s why I’ve got the helmet.”
Thursday was a big night for the bull riders. Five cowboys recorded scores, including the top three rides of the week. Ty Wallace posted a Stampede-leading 86.5 points aboard Sandi’s Dream, a bull that hadn’t been successfully ridden in nearly two months. Cole Melancon was right behind him with an 86-point ride aboard Go Texan; Tyler Smith posted 85.5 points on Buffalo Jump; and Chase Robbins of Marsing scored 79 aboard Redneck.