Extreme bull riding: finding passion in a dangerous sport

Extreme Bull Riding was held in Hansen Agricultural Center in Ames, Iowa. The event had bull riders of all ages competing on Feb. 20. The best riders qualified for the Championship round. 

Mica Magtoto

The gates clamor as they break open, and the bull bucks his way out violently while the cowboy thrusts his body to counter the bull’s thrashing.

Running through every possible scenario, adrenaline surges through the rider’s veins, but his mind is empty. There is no time to think.

For eight seconds, the rider’s body is thrown in 20 different directions. Before he knows it, he’s sprawled haplessly on the dirt; a raging 1,600-pound bull is ready to crush the life out of his 150-pound body. For eight seconds, it is life or death for the bull riders. For eight seconds, they are in a state of addiction.

Welcome to the world of bull riding.

The Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center welcomed the top 30 finalists of the Double S Bull Company Extreme Bull Riding Tour from across the Midwest on Saturday. 

The program started with the singing of the national anthem, an opening prayer and introduction of bull riders, followed by the rounds. Bulls are drawn randomly for each rider, and all riders can do is hope for the best. 

Since riders don’t have opportunities to establish relationships with the bulls they ride, they watch the bulls’ bucking patterns and remember them for future competitions.

Riders must remain on the bull for eight seconds, and the free hand may not make contact with the bull. If riders do not reach eight seconds, they are not given a score.

Scores are out of 100, divided evenly between the bull and the rider. The bull’s score is based on how well he bucks, and the rider’s score is based on how well he rides and how in control he remains.

After riders are thrown off the animal, they hustle to the nearest gate to avoid getting trampled on. In the meantime, bull fighters dressed in colorful blue costumes attempt to distract the bull away from the rider.

Bullfighter Jonathan “Possum” Gibson of Arkansas describes his job as an addiction.

“You wouldn’t keep doing it if you didn’t think it was fun … I don’t want to be on my deathbed going, ‘I wish I would’ve,’” Possum said.

In between sessions, barrel man, or rodeo clown, Shawn “Boom Boom” Thompson, entertained the crowd with witty comedy. Face painted and dressed in over-sized overalls, Boom Boom energized the crowd as cheers echoed across the arena.

He engaged audience members in barrel soccer, where individuals placed themselves in inflatable barrel garb and tried to knock each other down sumo style while attempting to score a goal. Another game played was human tug-of-war, where contestants were strapped onto the same rope and ran in opposite directions. 

Bull riding is a lucrative business, but only if the hearts of the rider and the bull are truly in it. Some riders only ride as a second job, while others depend on bull riding as their main source of income.

A first place winner can win between $1,500 to $4,000 from one rodeo, with some as high as $7,000. Depending on how often a rider frequents rodeos, his skill and his luck in drawing a bull, riders can make $15,000 to $30,000 annually.

Bull riders Dusty Rains and Matt May tied for first place with 86 points, taking home $895.23 each. Mason Ormesher, 83 points, came in third with $586.53 won, followed by Daniel Lambright, 82 points, at $401.31. Hunter Dreager finished fifth with 78 points and $308.70.

For champion bull rider Dusty Rains, 24, faith plays an important role in his bull riding career. It is his main source of income, apart from his full-time job.

He said he has been riding for 19 years and takes three months out of the year to ride. After a serious injury that left him inactive in the bull riding business for four years, Rains’ wife has remained supportive and continues to push him to return to the business.

Rains returned stronger in his religion and said he is thankful for all of the blessings 2015 brought his family.

Bull riding isn’t really about physical strength, more so riding style, Raines said.

A strong mental game to fight the physical pain is necessary to keep going.

“You gotta stay positive, or you ain’t no good,” Rains said.

Another challenge has been keeping the sport alive. Those entering the sport have become a dying breed, and as the caliber of bulls continues to improve, fewer individuals will want to pursue the sport.

Just like any sport, injuries are bound to happen. Riders wear vests and helmets, but broken bones, collapsed lungs, kicks to the head and other injuries are not uncommon.

Arkansas bull rider Jimmy Tubbs compares the pain to a hangover, only getting the rider the next day. However, despite the pain and unpredictability, many riders remain loyal.

Iowa bull rider Mason Ormosher, 26, took third place after a short break from riding in August 2015. Taking time off for family and work, Ormosher was worried about getting back on a bull, but, just like riding a bike, he said it easily came back to him.

Ormosher said he was lucky to get a more docile bull. Despite this, he maintains that riders can never second-guess bulls.

He said riders don’t know what the next second will bring, and the mere seconds they’re on the bulls is a mixture of “70 percent excitement and 30 percents nervous.”

Ormosher started riding 10 years ago after asking a family member to help him break into the rodeo business. Currently, he mentors some of the younger riders and provides them with needed encouragement.

He advises novices to remain persistent and to possess agility, grit and humility. He said novices oftentimes get over their heads and choose bulls too good for them.

“If your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t be climbing on, but if you have a doubt that you still want to, you might as well keep going because there might be that one thing that sparks your desire again,” Ormosher tells doubtful riders. 

The potential for big money might be a draw for some riders, but it’s the rush and unpredictability of the bull riding sport that keeps bull riders coming back. Riders said it’s the essence of family, good friends and fine camaraderie within the rodeo community that keeps the hearts of the bull riding world beating.

“We love it, no questions,” said Shad Smith, a stock contractor and owner of Double S Bull Company. “We love the Western life, livestock and cowboys. There’s not a better set of people in the world more honest and hardworking than the agricultural and ranching community.”

The Double S Bull Company is a family-run business, started by Smith 23 years ago. His wife, Vicki, does most of the administrative duties. His children are responsible for taking care of the animals and partaking in the production.

Over the years, Double S has been awarded Bull of the Year, Bull of the Bull Riders of America and Indoor Event of the Year.

The company prides itself in being honest and blunt for its success. Shad Smith believes in the importance of loyal customers and maintaining strong relationships with bull riders. However, it also goes back to the basics.

“We just work harder and keep an elite group of bulls,” Shad Smith said.

Double S was recently named Contractor of the Year. Shad Smith breeds great buckers by ensuring that bloodlines and genetics come from successful buckers. Most importantly, he said he makes sure his bulls get excellent care.

The company sometimes attends up to four rodeos in a weekend and puts on 75 to 100 performances each year. Shad Smith said they’re not in the bull riding business, but rather the entertainment business.

Thus, a phenomenal production is critical. The extreme bull riding tour attracted families from across the state. 

A good stock of bulls, good riders, entertainment, crowd participation and community support are all essentials for a memorable performance.