Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Welcome to the rodeo: in rural America, the sport of bull riding goes from strength to strength

At a time when America is deeply polarised, the simplified world of the rodeo offers an escape from all the noise

Cowboys and cowgirls gather at the Fox Hollow Rodeo arena
Cowboys and cowgirls gather at the Fox Hollow Rodeo arena

At the centre of the Fox Hollow Rodeo arena in Waynesville, Ohio, on a windy Saturday night, dozens of cowboys and cowgirls – all young, many of them teenagers – belt out the US national anthem. ­Surrounded by hundreds of spectators, they take a knee to pray, each placing a hand on another’s shoulder.

Among them is 17-year-old Nick Neupauer, who travelled four-and-a-half hours from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, to compete in the event. His goal is to become a professional bull rider, despite the obvious dangers involved. Two months ago he broke his jaw when the bull he was riding bucked, catching him square on the chin.

Standing at about 183 centi­metres tall, and with a gangly frame, maintaining his balance as a rollicking, three-quarter tonne bull tries vigorously to dislodge him is particularly challenging for Neupauer. “I stand on an exercise ball every night for about an hour while I watch TV, to improve my balance,” he says.

At Fox Hollow, he’ll compete for only a few seconds. Riders must stay aboard the bull for eight seconds to return a score, using only one hand and their legs to avoid being bucked off. Up to 50 points are awarded for the degree of skill the rider exhibits during his ride and 50 points are also awarded for the bull’s attempts to unseat the rider, although scores above 90 points are rare even in top professional events.

Many of the participants are teenagers, and they drive in from all over. Photo: Stephen Starr
Many of the participants are teenagers, and they drive in from all over. Photo: Stephen Starr

While the Fox Hollow Rodeo is made up of amateur riders mainly, it feels like time slows down as they are tossed around like ragdolls. Your heart skips a beat and your breath is pulled tight as the cowboys are sent flying, hitting the dirt inches away from a flailing horn or hoof. Bull riding was once seen as a parochial pastime that attracted hyper-masculine John Wayne types, but filmmakers and artists are now turning to the world of the rodeo to depict the vulnerabilities, harshness and isolation of modern life in rural America.

Films such as the multi-award-winning The Rider (2017), which is about injured rodeo riders in the South ­Dakota Badlands, have fuelled new conversations about what it means to be young, rural and American, with Vogue magazine crediting the film’s director, Chloe Zhao, with re-inventing the Western genre. Yellowstone, a TV drama starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Reilly, depicts life on a fictitious ranch bordering the famed national park and has been a hit in the US. This month, Netflix releases Walk. Ride. Rodeo. – a film based on a true story of a paralysed cowgirl – while the producers of the hit TV series, The Americans, are working on a pilot about a female rodeo rider.

In rural America, the rodeo goes from strength to strength. Stephen Starr
In rural America, the rodeo goes from strength to strength. Photo: Stephen Starr

Rodeoing has also become big business, with Forbes magazine once naming it the fastest-growing sport in the US. One of the industry’s biggest organisations, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) was founded in 1992 when 20 riders scraped together $1,000 (Dh3,673) each. Today, it has more than 600 riders competing for millions of dollars across five countries.

Rodeoing is no longer the sole domain of the archetypal white rancher and the sport is hugely popular across Latin America and Australia. The Brazil team’s victory in the PBR Global Cup last month was its second in two years, while the PBR world champion hails from Sao Paulo. The PBR Global Cup also featured a team of Native Americans for the first time, finishing in third place.

“I felt like we did fairly well for our first event competing, when the other teams have been around for a long time,” says Keyshawn Whitehorse, the 2018 rookie of the year from the Navajo Nation, and a rising star on the circuit. “I felt like now is the time for a Native American team because there are a lot more Native Americans riding.”

Riders must stay aboard the bull for eight seconds to return a score. Photo: Stephen Starr
Riders must stay aboard the bull for eight seconds to return a score. Photo: Stephen Starr

At a time when America is deeply polarised – and technology is dominating people’s lives – the down-to-earth, simplified world of the rodeo offers an escape from all the noise. The majority of those attending the Fox Hollow Rodeo were families and teens attracted by pony riding and line dancing, as well as the bull riding.

“In America, we get so caught up in the progress of things, trying to improve technology and the like,” says Whitehorse, who was raised in rural Utah, hours from the nearest city. “When you bring the Western lifestyle back, it’s only helping the sport and the culture.”

But riding bulls ranks as one of the most dangerous sports in the world and cowboys are ­regularly stomped and gored through by bulls. In the past seven months, riders have been killed in Massachusetts, Denver and Rhode Island, as more money is pumped into breeding programmes designed to produce increasingly powerful bulls.

Hundreds of spectators watch. Stephen Starr
Hundreds of spectators watch. Photo: Stephen Starr

The estimated rate of ­injury – whether minor or more severe – is one every 15 rides, although it’s rare for a rider to be thrown cleanly without at least incurring bumps and bruises. Riders can experience up to 10Gs of acceleration, (a typical rollercoaster ride reaches about three) as the bull thrashes. Riders are also at risk of concussion and other chronic brain injuries as a result of heavy falls.

There has been controversy in the sport, too

. Last year a leading rider was accused of making racist comments about Native Americans and the sport continues to draw the ire of animal welfare campaigners.

“During the rodeo, spurs and bucking straps are used to hurt the bulls and provoke them into displaying ‘wild’ behaviour in order to make the riders look brave,” says Jason Baker of PETA, the world’s largest animal rights organisation “While rodeo riders voluntarily risk injury by participating in these events, the animals have no choice.”

Back at the Fox Hollow Rodeo, Neupauer waits ­patiently for more than three hours before it is his turn to ride. Behind the corral, the teenager runs his gloved left hand vigorously up and down a rope, giving his muscles and joints a final work-out. He shows no sign of nerves. His ride isn’t a pretty one but Neupauer manages to stay on his rollicking bull for six or seven seconds before he’s thrown off, with a last kick scrapping his left thigh.

But he is elated with his ride. “You’re a cowboy, there’s no use in showing pain,” he says. “You want to get on bulls and show people what you’ve got.”

Updated: March 29, 2019 02:44 PM

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