It should have been a lucky day, with all those sevens lined up like that: 7-7-2007.
Clouds drifted overhead but it was still and warm in Gallup, N. M.'s Red Rock Arena. Behind the bucking chutes, eighth-grader Dylan Henson rubbed rosin on his bull rope with a gloved hand. He was going to ride a bull more than 10 times his size and he was nervous. Not about riding a bull. He was the New Mexico State Champion Junior Bull Rider. He was nervous because this was the day he would take home the championship buckle from the National Junior High Finals Rodeo. Or he wouldn't.
Kids came from all over the country to ride bulls here, some from states that barely had rodeos. Most of the riders ate dirt long before the buzzer. Those who had good form and stayed on for eight seconds without touching the bull with their free hand earned enough points in the early rounds to move on to the "short go." In the short go, 15 riders, including Dylan, would ride one last bull to decide the championship. His dad thought it was one bull too many.
Riley Henson rode as a kid, too. But not bulls like these. In his day, you rode domestic breeds: Herefords and Angus from the sale barn. If one happened to have a little jump-kick to it and someone noticed, it became a bucking bull instead of ground beef. Only a small percentage of those sale barn buckers turned out to be powerful, gravity-defying athletes.
These days even your average bucking bull is a formidable opponent.
Breeding bucking bulls has become a high-tech, multimillion-dollar industry. In the hopes of creating the next legendary bull, breeders pair semen from famous buckers with embryos from cows with distinguished bloodlines. American Bucking Bull, Inc. (ABBI), the largest organization tracking lineage, keeps a DNA database of more than 160,000 animals. And those are just the registered ones. These "born-to-buck" bulls have flooded the market.
Like many rodeo parents, Riley Henson took Dylan to junior events nearly every weekend of the year. He often saw born-to-buck bulls at these events, and he thought many of them were too powerful for kids. It terrified him when an athletic bull burst into the arena with a 70-pound sixth-grader on his back. "I would have traded Dylan's bull riding equipment for piano lessons at any point, I promise you," he says. But Dylan ate, slept and breathed bull riding, and his father chose to support him.
Still, he protested against putting kids on hot bulls to anyone who'd listen. He begged the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) — the organization that sanctions more than 1,100 youth rodeos a year and the governing body behind the Junior High Finals — to reexamine the livestock they were using. In Dylan's first year in junior high, Riley Henson held him back, insisting he ride steers instead; bulls castrated before sexual maturity are more predictable and lack the power of their testicled brothers. The next year he and another parent bought a few bulls and loaned them free of charge to the man who brought stock to New Mexico's junior high rodeos. Small jump-kickers with timing and not much strength, bulls to give a beginner some confidence. "Once the kids got to the Nationals, though," Riley Henson says, "we were at their mercy."
The bull Dylan would ride was about 1,200 pounds to Dylan's 115.
An hour before the short go, the officials posted the draw. (Bulls and riders are matched at random.) The bull Dylan would ride was about 1,200 pounds to Dylan's 115, and white with a smattering of red, a pattern common to the acclaimed Plummer bloodline. Riley Henson immediately walked to the booth of a video production company. The company had filmed all the events so far and was selling clips to proud parents. Henson pulled $5 out of his wallet. He wanted to see footage of the red-spotted bull in earlier rounds. He tried to assess whether Dylan had a chance.
The bull was too big, in his opinion. But he seemed slow. And if Henson didn't let Dylan ride, there went his shot at the national championship. "Here's this kid who's really dedicated to this, who tries hard every time, who's reached the pinnacle of what you can do in bull riding for that age ..." He headed toward the chutes.
Dylan's ride was midway through the lineup. His father stood on a riser and pulled on the braided rope that girdled the bull, tightening it. Dylan pounded his fingers around the handle with his free hand, cementing his grip, just like the pro riders on TV. He nodded and the gate opened.
As soon as the bull cleared the chute, Riley Henson could tell the ride would end badly. Four seconds and a jump or two and the bull went into a right-handed spin, throwing Dylan down over his head and onto the ground beneath him. A hoof landed on Dylan's torso and glanced off his protective vest. A vest may help spread the force of blunt trauma and protect against punctures, but it's no match for the impact of a bull's hoof. From 1989 to 2009, at least 16 bull riders — including at least one child — died from blows to the chest. Almost all of them were wearing vests.
Dylan staggered to his feet and ran, as he'd been taught. His father was already in the arena to catch him as he collapsed. Riley Henson fell to one knee, balancing his son on the other. Dreams of a gold buckle ceded to prayer.
Medics strapped Dylan to a backboard, carried him to a gurney, and rolled him to a waiting ambulance. At the local hospital, doctors inserted a tube in Dylan's chest to help re-inflate a collapsed lung, but his other injuries were beyond their capacity. A helicopter team flew Dylan 125 miles east to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Riley Henson and his wife Pauline drove 100 miles per hour, in silence, to meet him.
Waspy, welly, wolfy. Juicy, junk, dink. Square wheels, honest, empty. There are many ways to describe how a bucking bull bucks, or fails to. Some bulls whirl out of the chute like dust devils, spinning to throw their rider. Some "sunfish," twisting their bellies upwards mid-kick. Some always spin to the right. Some always spin to the left. Some kick and spin at the same time. Some pitch and rear like a boat in rough water, without spinning. "Hat benders" don't buck at all.
Young bull riders watch videos of the great bulls and riders over and over again. (VHS lives on for these kids in tapes with titles like "Bullmania Classics 6: Hell on Hooves." YouTube is good, too.) They watch in slow motion, noting spur and back pocket placement, free arm position, dismount. They reenact rides on stationary barrels and mobile drop barrels. Many young men trace their obsession with bull riding to "8 Seconds," a 1994 biopic starring Luke Perry as Lane Frost, a world champion rider who was gored to death by a bull in 1989. But dreams of riding with the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) are what keep them tying on the glove. The televised tour has transformed bull riding into a lucrative glamour event that plays venues like Madison Square Garden.
The PBR was born in 1992, the year 20 of the country's best bull riders bailed on the venerable pro rodeo organization, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). The riders wanted better pay and more bargaining power. Each man chipped in $1,000 to form the PBR.
The PBR is now better known than the PRCA. Before each event, riders are introduced with all the high drama of a KISS concert, the arena lit by pyrotechnics and rings of fire. Last year, 2.5 million people attended PBR events. More than half a billion watched on TV.
The founders have a made a mint on their small investment. Top riders can make big money now too, at least for rodeo. Dozens make more than $50,000 a year and top riders can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Last year's world champion took home nearly $2 million. Riders pad their earnings with hefty corporate sponsorships from companies like Wrangler Jeans and Stanley Tools.
Bulls have their own Facebook pages and T-shirts and action figures.
Bushwacker, the No. 1 ranked bull in PBR. (Via Facebook)
The bulls are as celebrated as the riders. Bushwacker. Little Yellow Jacket. Mossy Oak Mudslinger. Dillinger. Bulls have their own Facebook pages and T-shirts and action figures. They're occasionally flown in airplanes to avoid the discomforts of long hours in the stock trailer. They receive acupuncture for sore muscles. They are on expensive high-protein diets supplemented with electrolytes and trace minerals and probiotics. Rumors of anabolic steroid use also periodically circulate. The PBR began testing for banned substances in 2008.
Overhead isn't cheap, but a good bucker earns his keep.
A "rank" bull is one that's hard to ride. An "out" is an attempted ride. At the PBR, the rankest bulls earn $1,000 dollars per out plus bonuses, usually for less than eight seconds of bucking. The Bucking Bull of the Year wins $50,000 and a trailer. The PBR's sister organization, American Bucking Bull, Inc., also holds about 40 competitive events a year for bucking bulls with more than $3 million in prize money for bull owners. (In these events, the riders are the also-rans.)
But for the rankest bulls, the real money is in breeding. The semen of a renowned bucker is precious. A single tiny straw of the stuff can cost $5,000. Artificial insemination success rates hover around 60 percent, so your buyer could spend thousands of dollars on semen and end up with no calf at all, let alone the next Bushwacker. It's a rich man's game.
But a lot of people try to play.
Slade Long, who started the statistics website Pro Bull Stats.com in 1999, says he tracked 60 or 70 stock contractors to pro bull riding events that first year. (Stock contractors provide livestock for rodeos.) Now he follows about 800. Many of them have breeding programs, and all hope their bulls will make it to the PBR. PBR livestock director Cody Lambert, one of the organization's founders, is the man who chooses which do. Stock contractors send him videos so he can see their bulls bucking. From those, he selects the best and arranges to see them buck in person. In the 1990s, less than 10 videos a week landed on his desk. Now he averages five a day. Some days, he says, it's more like 30. Insiders often say it's easier for a rider to reach the top tier of the PBR than it is for a bull.
So many breeders are trying to create bionic buckers that the bulls have outpaced the riders. To "cover" a bull means to stay on for eight seconds. In the early 1990s, the best pro bull riders covered 75 percent of their bulls, according to Slade Long. Now some riders at the same level cover less than 35 percent. (This isn't necessarily bad news for fans, who root for the bulls as passionately as for the riders. The PBR promotes this, posting video montages of the top "wrecks" on its website.)
As Riley Henson noticed, these powerful born-to-buck bulls are also showing up at junior events. Although it appears that riding percentages have declined for kids too, statistics summing up that decline are hard to come by. Hundreds of local youth associations are sprinkled across Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and neighboring states, where the sport is most popular, and no one national organization oversees them all. But the general downward trend is clear to those who pay attention to such things.
"It's an epidemic," says former world champion bull rider Cody Custer. Custer, now retired, has become nearly as well known for his opinions on youth bull riding livestock as he once was for riding bulls.
Custer, 48, was one of the cowboys who started the PBR. He did not foresee what the organization would do to the breeding industry, and by extension to kids. "We didn't realize we weren't doing anything to help the sport from the bottom," he says. "Our focus wasn't down here." He's the father of a 16-year-old bull rider. His focus has changed.
Custer believes that at any junior event, more than half the kids should be able to stay on for eight seconds. At this year's National Junior High Finals only about 28 percent did. It's a similar story — or worse — at other junior competitions. Take this year's finals for the Tri-State High School Rodeo Association, headquartered in Vernon, Texas. Seven contestants rode three times each, a total of 21 rides. One kid had one qualified ride. One out of 21.
He says 11-year-olds are now getting on the kinds of bulls he rode in college.
Cody Custer rode with legends like Tuff Hedeman and Lane Frost. He won the 1992 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association World Championship, qualified for the PBR World Finals nine times and the PRCA's National Finals Rodeo eight times. He says 11-year-olds are now getting on the kinds of bulls he rode in college.
Just talking about it makes him sweat behind the ears. "I speak out about it a lot because it disgusts me when I see some little kid just getting mucked out, or hear of it."
Getting mucked out, biting the dust, wrecking. Getting your butt slammed, getting dropped in the well, having an egg broke in you. There are many ways to describe how a bull ride can end.
Cody Custer at the Oklahoma ranch where he teaches young bull riders proper techniques.
Riley and Pauline Henson walked into the hospital lobby just as night was falling. They found Dylan in a bed in the pediatric ward.
The young rider already had the grit of a pro. "You need to tell these people to hurry up so I can get out of here," Dylan said. He wanted to drive all night to Colorado to ride in a rodeo the next day, like they'd planned. The chest tube and the beeping monitors and the pain hadn't changed his mind.
His body wasn't so sure.
The collapsed lung was a side note. The bull's hoof had lacerated Dylan's spleen. Spleen injuries — most often the result of car accidents — can lead to massive bleeding in the abdomen. If Dylan's spleen started bleeding, it would require emergency surgery. Family members gathered in Albuquerque. Days passed while Dylan remained under observation.
One day, Cody Custer walked in. He and Riley Henson were friends from the old days on the rodeo circuit. Dylan had gone to a couple of Custer's steer riding workshops. Dylan and Custer's oldest son were friends. Custer was pissed. He thought the bull that stepped on Dylan was too big and too rank for a junior event.
"That sparked me to get in the middle of something there," Custer says. "That's what really set me off."
After six days in the hospital, Dylan Henson was released and he was back on a bull within eight months. But his accident had launched Cody Custer on a ride of his own. Custer had been taking his young son Brett to youth events. He'd seen enough to know that Dylan Henson's bull was not an anomaly.
Custer lodged complaints about the caliber of bull showing up at junior events with all the major youth rodeo organizations, from the NHSRA to the National Little Britches Association to the Youth Bull Riders, and with numerous local associations. He bought bulls of his own and eventually began bidding out as a stock contractor at youth rodeos for as little as $30 an out, hoping to undercut contractors who supplied more dangerous stock. He pretty much broke even financially, but it helped fill the chutes with docile bulls. By the time Brett was in junior high, Cody Custer was choosing the bulls for the NHSRA Texas State Junior High Finals. (Now that Brett is in high school, he is no longer actively involved.)
That's like going straight from flag football to the NCAA.
In 2010, he launched a letter-writing campaign, urging the NHSRA to replace bulls with steers for the youngest kids in the Junior High Finals. Custer guesses that he rode 2,500 head of steers by the time he was 14; steers are, in general, safer to ride. Practicing on steers, Custer says, allows a rider to build skill and confidence and makes the bucking motion second nature. Some kids skip the steer stage entirely now. Given the quality of bull kids now often get on, that's a bit like going straight from flag football to the NCAA.
A number of prominent cowboys wrote letters as part of Custer's campaign. They included eight-time world champion bull rider Donnie Gay, former NHSRA Finals judge Glenn Sullivan, and the PBR's Cody Lambert. The NHSRA did not acquiesce. At the Finals, an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old still have an equal chance of ending up on the toughest bull in the pens.
In response to inquiries, a spokesperson said the organization did not wish to comment on Custer's proposal. But the stock contractors they employ spoke freely. Dan Mundorf — who has supplied bulls for the Junior High Finals since the organization created the division a decade ago — says that over time he has gotten better at choosing appropriate stock. And he supports what Custer is trying to do. "I think it might be better if it was steers myself," he says. "But I have employers that say bull riding, and that's what they want."
At the high school level, Custer says the NHSRA "isn't even close" to the right kind of bulls. Frontier Rodeo Company has provided bulls for the High School Finals for the last several years. Frontier has one of the largest bucking bull herds in the country, and regularly sends animals to the PBR and the National Finals Rodeo. Operations manager Heath Stewart admits that Frontier has brought several bulls that previously bucked in the National Finals to the High School Finals. "We try to take out all the eliminators and just try to pick out the nice little spinners," he says.
Over the years, Custer has developed a following — or perhaps a movement has found its spokesperson. "Cody speaks for a lot of the parents, and all of the kids, whether they know it or not," Riley Henson says.
"Until people like Cody Custer start putting their foot down and saying ‘No, I'm not putting my child on this type of stock,' it won't change," says Brad Curtis, an Arkansas pastor and former bull rider whose son competes in high school rodeos.
"Cody really opened my eyes," Craig Hatchel says. His son Nathan placed third in the Oklahoma State High School Finals this year. "If you want to make a career out of it, getting in a hurry isn't the way to do it."
Custer has a website that covers the topic and posts regular diatribes on Facebook, where his "Answers for Bull Riders" page has more than 3,000 followers including a bevy of supportive commenters. One recent post of his referenced a video someone had put on YouTube: "This is the Stupid bull crap that goes on all the time at Jr rodeo/bull riding events. ... He's 10 years old and should be riding Holsteins. Damn it!!!!!!!"
Custer is the sort of person who draws attention when he's angry. As a rule, he's reserved and courteous, ardently Christian. He once rejected a generous endorsement offer from Anheuser-Busch because he didn't want to promote alcohol. His foul language tends toward "dang" and "bull crap." He weighs less than 150 pounds and has a slightly tilted grin, maybe from the time he had his jaw wired shut for a month. He has a bum knee and a shoulder that bothers him some, but considers himself lucky compared to a lot of bull riders. He hasn't been on what he'd call a "real" bucking bull in more than a decade.
Custer lives in a modest rancher on 30 acres outside Elk City, Okla., in the path of the Great Western Cattle Trail. His oldest son, Aaron, was killed in a car accident three years ago at the age of 18. Aaron's initials form the family brand and his friendly Australian Shepherd still runs up the washboard driveway to greet visitors.
Every year, Custer teaches six to 10 bull riding schools, usually two- or three-day affairs. He teaches technique. He talks about Aaron as a way of reminding his students that bull riding "is not the fullness of your life." And he preaches against kids riding overly athletic born-to-buck bulls. Here he hopes people have ears to hear.
A 7-year-old practices on a drop barrel, operated by his father.
Pastel landscapes clatter overhead, the windows squeak, the headboard rubs against the wall. It's otherwise quiet, as suits a motel in rural Oklahoma at 6 a.m. The oil field workers eating shrink-wrapped breakfast muffins in the lobby seem unfazed. Someone says it's the second earthquake this week.
Oklahoma has had a record number of earthquakes lately, and the oil and gas industry has been injecting a lot of wastewater into the ground there lately. The U.S. Geological Survey has found that these things are probably related. The Sooner State was already prone to cataclysmic acts of nature. Eighty-two tornados touched down last year. Wildfires and dust storms are frequent because large swathes of western Oklahoma are in "exceptional drought," as the U.S. Drought Monitor puts it. The land surrounding this motel in north central Oklahoma enjoys the slightly damper "extreme drought."
Like the song says, this is a place "where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain," throbbing in your ears and coating your skin with red dust. The colors this dry spring are dull, with the occasional zing of a purple redbud. The prevailing winds have fixed the trees in a northward lunge. They look surprised.
It's no country for crybabies. "Cowboy up" is something people actually say here.
A small rodeo arena sits on a gravel road off Highway 164 near Lucien, population 88, just past the bobbing oil pump jack. Every year former bull rider TJ Casteel hosts one of Cody Custer's riding schools here. Casteel's 3-year-old son is trying to lasso a concrete bull lawn figurine as students arrive. The dozen or so young men range from 7 to 23 years old. Most are teenagers. Some have been riding bulls for a few years. Some have only been on a few. (The 7-year-old still rides calves.) Even so, this crowd could already really slow down an airport security line: the steel rod running from shoulder to elbow, the screws in the ankle, the metal plates in the knee.
A good number are named Lane, or Lane is their middle name. One Lane wears a T-shirt that reads: "My Attitude: 70% Sarcasm, 20% Don't Care, 10% Lazy = 100% Awesome."
Custer sits on a barrel suspended in mid-air, a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand. Nearby, a loose piece of metal roofing clanks in the wind. He opens with a low-key prayer: "Father, we love ya ..." He demonstrates some technique, "riding the front end," as a student raises and lowers the barrel beneath him using a handle at the back. Custer shifts forward tight and sharp as the barrel rears up. Then he sits again, transitioning to the theme that has become a fixation.
"You guys are faced with some things I never had to deal with," he says. "The bulls are different. You got a ton of different junior bull riding associations running some juice hogs in there. ... Try to find the kind of bull where you walk away with your shoulders back and your head up and you're going ‘Man! I can do this.'"
Bulls like that are scarce. Some stock contractors are sending the same animals they compete with in American Bucking Bull, Inc. competitions — especially futurities, events for 2-year-old bulls — to junior high rodeos, according to Custer. (It costs anywhere from $425 to $5,025 to enter a bull in an ABBI competition, so only bulls with serious bucking potential end up there.)
Meanwhile, some of the best bulls in the world are showing up at the high school rodeo. In 1984, Cody Custer successfully rode three out of three bulls at the NHSRA High School Finals. He ended up in sixth place. "Nowadays, if you ride three bulls," he says, "you pretty much win."
"Kids are expected to compete at a professional level from the very beginning."
Keyshawn Whitehorse, 16, rides a bull at Cody Custer's school.
Parents complain that it's not unusual to find the bulls their kids draw at high school rodeos listed on the Pro Bull Stats website. Arkansas pastor Brad Curtis says it happened to him at a local rodeo recently. "Bull riding is the only sport where kids are expected to compete at a professional level from the very beginning," he says. "You don't take a kid who's good in Little League and put him up against Nolan Ryan."
It's hard to find a stock contractor who'll admit to putting kids on bulls that are too much for them. But it's clear why it happens: Rank buckers can earn money in bucking bull events, in adult rodeos, and through breeding. Mediocre buckers only earn the meager pay junior rodeos bring.
Most junior associations are funded solely by contributions from contestants and can't afford to pay stock contractors much. (Even at the National Junior High Finals, the pay ranges between just $50 and $100 per out, plus expenses.) A bull can consume 15 pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay a day. Neither is cheap and prolonged drought in many areas has forced even bull owners with grazing land to buy much of their feed. Meanwhile, beef prices are at record highs. If a bull doesn't buck like a champion, the logical financial decision is to sell him for meat. (And the sooner a contractor knows a bull's bucking potential, the better.)
The students take turns on the drop barrel and then straggle into the house for iced tea, and beef tacos served in Doritos bags. After lunch, Cody Custer sits on a placid bull in an arena chute for a good 20 minutes, talking technique. Then: "You guys ready for some beef?"
Lisa Chace watches her son Kade from the bleachers. Kade is 12 years old. He's freckled and gangly, quiet in this group of mostly older kids. He lowers himself onto a small black bull. One buck out of the gate and he lists to the side and slides off. He's accustomed to steers. Lisa Chace lowers her video camera. She agrees with Custer that inappropriate bulls sometimes show up at junior events. And she says stock contractors who supply bulls for 10- and 12-year-olds shouldn't "bring the heat." But, she adds, parents are also responsible. "I'm gonna take care of my kid," she says.
Keyshawn Whitehorse and his family drove seven hours from the Houston suburbs to get here. The 16-year-old has studied with many other pros, all over the country: Gary Leffew, Adriano Moraes, Robson Palermo. "I approach it like an Olympian parent," his mother Del says.
Keyshawn prepares for his ride in solitude. He does squats and jumps up and down. He kneels to pray. He has been obsessed with bull riding since he was 5 years old and saw it on TV. At home he keeps a dry-erase board of his goals. He cross-trains. Swimming, horseback riding. Yoga. He is preternaturally mature. "I choose wisely," he says. "If I know guys are bringing bulls from the pro level, I won't get on them."
Tyler Timmons, 23, will get on anything. He was already in his 20s when he started riding, and he has two kids and a full-time job as a truck driver. He rides where he can. One of the few places he and others without connections in the region can get on bulls is a practice barn just south of Oklahoma City, on the D&H Cattle ranch.
Practice pens draw a lot of bull riders, and stock contractors welcome them. Some charge a small fee. Others have been known to pay riders as much as $100 to get on. They need outs on their bulls. Even seasoned bulls get a shot of confidence from throwing a rider, and promising bulls prove themselves (or don't). Young, inexperienced bulls are usually bucked with remote-controlled "dummies" before a rider ever gets on them. But there's a big difference between a 15-pound box and a human being. Post-dummy, inexperienced bulls need practice with real riders. Stock contractors often film rides, looking for the dramatic one that might help them sell a bull or get him into a lucrative bucking event. Practice pens are good for the bulls, but when the bulls are powerful buckers, they're not so good for beginning riders.
D&H, which runs the practice barn where Timmons goes, is a renowned contractor to the PBR and runs one of the best bucking bull breeding programs in the world. "That's my problem. I've been on 100 bulls, but 90 of them have been there," Timmons tells Custer. "They're hot-headed." A few weeks before, he says, he got on Stone Sober at the practice barn. Stone Sober weighs 1,500 pounds. So far this year, he has bucked nine times in the PBR's premier tour, the Built Ford Tough Series. Of those nine, only one was a qualified ride.
Angry parents say that too often stock contractors are getting their outs not from guys like Timmons, but on kids, whether at practice pens or youth events. "The associations that have been around a long time that were originated to develop young cowboys are now being used to develop young bulls," Brad Curtis says. No one interviewed for this article admitted to this practice, and Custer emphasizes that some stock contractors are careful not to put kids on rank bulls. But, he and others maintain, it happens more than it should.
Lyle Sankey, a former bull rider who runs a series of bull riding schools across the country, thinks he knows why. Cash-strapped bull-riding associations will often award contracts to the stock contractor who provides the lowest bid. "The reason the bid's low," Sankey says, "is they very much want the contract so they can bring their bulls in and get some outs on ‘em and use those kids for test dummies."
Cracked skulls, dislocated shoulders, internal injuries. Everyone knows it: It's not a matter of if a bull rider is going to get hurt, but when and how badly.
"It's a very serious, dangerous contact sport," says the PBR's Cody Lambert. "And it's always gonna be. People can die doing it, even champions, even when you do everything right."
bull riding is the most dangerous organized sport in the world.
A 12-year-old is thrown from a bull.
A 2011 study led by Dale Butterwick, a kinesiology researcher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, confirmed that bull riding is the most dangerous organized sport in the world. An earlier study on adult bull riders in which Butterwick also participated found the rate of injury was 10 times higher than for football and 13 times higher than for ice hockey. On the PBR level, about one in 15 rides ends in injury.
No one has studied how dangerous bull riding is for kids.
President Obama recently convened a youth concussion summit to make parents more aware of the dangers of contact sports like football and hockey. Repeated concussions can lead to brain damage; one study recently found that even a single concussion can have lasting effects. Concussions are one of the most common injuries in bull riding. (A 15-year-old at Cody Custer's school had had five.)
Rodeo parents — particularly those who've been on bulls themselves — know the risks. "There's nothing that makes you fall on your face in prayer as a parent more than having a kid that wants to ride bulls," Riley Henson says.
Riding even a mediocre bucker is dicey. If a half-ton animal steps on you, his bucking caliber doesn't much matter. Ask Timmons. The last day of Custer's school, one such bull threw Timmons and stepped on his chest, tearing his protective vest. He lurched out of the arena groaning. Ten minutes later he began coughing up blood. (The text message from the hospital came a couple of hours later: collapsed lung.)
Many people fear that the new breed of bucking bull has ratcheted up the risk. "When a bull is jumping 4 feet off the ground, someone's liable to get hurt," says Gary Leffew, a former world champion who teaches bull riding. "You're less apt to have injuries with a good practice bull."
"I think with better bulls, the injury percentages go up," Lyle Sankey agrees. (Both Leffew and Sankey say they have trouble finding appropriate stock.)
No national group exists to track youth bull riding injuries and local associations tend to be informal volunteer-run affairs. Kyle Partain, a spokesperson for the NHSRA, says even that organization does not keep official figures on injuries. Partain claims that at the Junior High Finals — where Dylan Henson was hurt in 2007 — injuries are "almost nonexistent." Other national organizations did not respond to requests for comment.
Cody Custer is among those who believe more kids are getting hurt. "Every week I talk to somebody who has a kid who's gotten overmatched and gotten hurt or is just down and discouraged and not showing any kind of progress," he says.
The discouragement part really gets to him. Bull riders often do not receive any formal coaching, leaving parents to provide much of the guidance. Custer's own son Brett rode about 1,000 steers and dairy-bred calves before his father let him on a bull, and he's choosy about the bulls. "I know which ones he's capable of getting on and where I can help him step up," he says. "And, you know, back him up if I can tell his confidence is a little low. I can put him on one that's gonna make him pound his chest and feel like he did something."
Custer worries that many parents are letting their kids ride hot born-to-buck bulls before they're ready. As a result, kids aren't learning to ride properly. (That's another reason for the decline in riding percentages, he says.) He says many parents are failing to call associations and stock contractors to task. Even as bull riding has gained fans and become a more lucrative sport, Custer fears for the next generation of riders.
"[PBR's 2013 World Champion] J.B. Mauney won $1.8 million last year," Custer says. "Why are there not 30 bull riders at these junior bull riding deals?"
The number of kids competing as bull riders has, by most accounts, dropped off dramatically. "High school organizations that used to have 100 bull riders, they're excited now if they have 12 or 18 kids," says Lyle Sankey, of Sankey Rodeo Schools. "Six years ago, we were doing about 35 schools a year. Now we're doing closer to 20."
Susan Baldwin is secretary of the Texas State High School Rodeo Association — the largest of its kind, in the state most identified with bull riding. She wrote via email that the number of bull riding entries at the state finals averaged around 70 for many years. Last year there were 48. "We don't really know why but the numbers have been declining the last few years," she says.
No one knows why. The NFL's concussion crisis appears to have affected youth football participation; perhaps rodeo parents are becoming more risk-averse as well. Others blame an increasingly sedentary, urban population. Custer is convinced it's psychological. "I think the biggest reason is the kids get outmatched and they just lose heart," he says. "They've never experienced complete domination at any level, ever."
Elk City's downtown looks like that of many others along Route 66, but for the 180-foot-tall oil derrick just south of Main Street. The rig no longer functions, but many in the region do. The self-proclaimed "Natural Gas Capital of the World" is booming. The oil and gas industry has brought such growth that there is a housing shortage in this town of 12,000.
Over waffles and grits at the Huddle House, just across from the new Walmart Supercenter, the small-town feel remains. The waitress brings Custer coffee before he orders it and several patrons swivel in their seats to say hello. "I'll see you in church," one says.
Custer wears a sweatshirt from the Rumble on the Red 2014 Memorial Rodeo, an event in memory of his son Aaron and another young man who was killed in the same accident. The rodeo is held every year in Altus, an hour south. It draws many of the same bull riding contestants other youth rodeos across the region do. The youth bull riding community, like Elk City, is small. And by speaking out about the bulls, Custer has made enemies.
"My biggest problem with all of this is that I've got so many people I'm friends with and it turns into something personal at some point," he says, sipping coffee. "I haven't been punched yet, but it might not be far away." Custer has no plans to shut up. He believes youth rodeo's born-to-buck problem won't be solved unless people demand it.
Jerome Davis was the best bull rider in the country in 1995. Three years later, he was paralyzed when he was thrown from a bull.
"It has to change at the national level," he says. If the most prominent organizations — particularly the NHSRA — were adamant about using mild buckers, local associations would follow suit, he says.
On paper, the Little Britches Rodeo Association explicitly prohibits "first string professional stock." The National Junior Bull Riders Association does not post its rules online and did not respond to requests for comment. The NHSRA rulebook dictates how blunt the horns must be, yet it does not mention the bucking caliber of the horns' owner. After a brief initial conversation, Partain of the NHSRA said the organization had no official comment for this story.
Bart McBeth is on the board of the National Little Britches Rodeo Association. McBeth helps choose the stock for the organization's National Finals. He says they've made a conscious effort to find appropriate bulls, and are improving. "Last year, in our junior bull riding, I was pretty happy with the stock we had," he says. (Cody Custer agrees that Little Britches is actively trying to reduce the use of hot-bred bulls.)
But McBeth doubts there's a real solution to the underlying problem. "You'd be living in a cardboard box if junior rodeos were your main event, " he says. Little Britches pays about $60 an out at the Finals. "Every year, some of the stock contractors that get it say, ‘I don't know if I can afford to do this anymore.'
"The only possible solution is for enough stock contractors to bite the bullet knowing they're not gonna be known for a great bull breeder," McBeth says. "They're gonna be the unsung hero behind the scenes that sacrificed financially to keep 8-year-old boys from getting hurt. See the wall we're up against?"
Young boys who make it to their late teens without major injuries enter a sport without coaches or teams or even a guaranteed salary. Instead, they get the sorts of friendships forged under dangerous circumstances. Professional bull riders log hundreds of hours on the road together. They room together. They pray or party together or both, depending on their predilections.
Rivals become intimate; the bulls are the real foe.
"That camaraderie is what makes me love it," Cody Custer says. "That's the purity of the sport."
The problem of kids and born-to-bucks goes to the heart of the sport Custer loves. Bull riders often compete with the kind of injuries that sideline most athletes: broken bones, torn ligaments, dislocated joints. In one celebrated scene in "8 Seconds," Luke Perry-as-Lane Frost lies on a cot groaning. A bull has just stepped on his groin and he's pale with pain. His friend and traveling companion Tuff Hedeman enters the medical tent. "I got two words for you, Lane," he says. "Cowboy up."
It's been more than two decades since Lane Frost had his last, fatal bull ride. "Cowboy up" is, if anything, an even more popular sentiment than it was in Frost's time. Bumper stickers, Harlequin romances, belt buckles, tattoos, and even the occasional public service announcement feature the phrase.
But in the arena, it has new implications.
Tell a 14-year-old boy to "cowboy up" now and you could be asking him to get on the kind of bull only pros once rode. Cody Custer believes it's likely that boy will either get hurt or lose heart. Either way — by choice or on a stretcher — he will leave the arena.
One day, Custer worries, all those precision-engineered bulls will have no one left to ride them.