Eight Seconds of Pure Fear

Bull riding is the new booming sport from America. It has nothing to do with cowboy romanticism; these courageous daredevil riders are modern gladiators. The target audience is young, urban and educated. The eight-second duel is incredibly brutal and the rescue paramedics are a godsend.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Robert Huber (photos)

Impatiently the wild steer thrashes around in the narrow corral. He snorts, raises and drops his horned head, sweating, his fur twitches. With no hesitation Wiley Petersen seats himself atop the feverish hulk. The dark-haired rider wedges his right fist under a rope tied to a band around the bull’s chest. He adjusts the mouth-harness, shifts his bum to and fro until he’s seated properly and then roughly he slaps the left side of the bull’s hump. Petersen closes his eyes and makes a sign of the cross.

A loud bang and the steel gate opens. The bull – named Hornet – shoots out, not far, only a couple of metres. On the verge of explosion, he throws his back legs in the air, bucks, jumps, thrashes, twirls and bucks again, never easing up. Finally, the siren sounds, eight seconds are up. Petersen, the rider, has done it he’s stayed on top, defied the wild steer and beat the animal. Carefully, he leans to the side and jumps off. From the loudspeakers dins rock music.

In recognition the audience claps, nothing more. Many of the spectators at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit were sweating with the bull. They come to see the casualties, they want to see “a man get thrown off by the beast”, says a blonde- curled student in too tight jeans and a cowboy hat. The venturous riders from the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) suffer plenty of casualties. Every weekend in a different city these gladiators sit atop these assault-friendly huge animals. Only a third of these riders maximum will last the required eight seconds on top. The others will be thrown off, shaken up – and often seriously injured. These grim statistics drive the American public in droves to the arenas – and in front of the television. Professional bull riding is the fastest-growing sport in the USA. For the last three years the sport has increased in popularity by more than fifty percent yearly. It’s not just big in the West, but even more so in urban centres of America.

The PBR show is “not a conventional rodeo”, emphasises the director of the organisation, Randy Bernard. It is a perfectly staged form of entertainment where elements of the old west and rock ’n’ roll are mixed together and commercialised. John Wayne paired up with Mick Jagger. The macabre veneration of death and danger define this drama. “We all know that we could die on our next ride”, says Wiley Petersen, who wears his black felt hat low on his forehead. His eyes sparkle. “It’s a risk we accept.”

The 14-year old organisation decided to capitalise on this death wish of “the hardest sport on dirt”, as their slogan states. At that time, the twenty best bull-tamers split from traditional rodeo with the notion that since bull riding was so popular, the prospect of exploiting this and earning loads of money was great.

They were right. It’s Saturday night. Families are seated in the Palace, the arena where the Detroit Pistons usually toss basketballs around. Floating under the ceiling is a remote-controlled blimp in the form of a steer – advertising mountain boots. The hordes wear sponsor logos, numerous sponsors. Ford advertises trucks, Jack Daniels for whiskey, Enterprise for rental cars and Stetson for cowboy hats. The US-Army, a major sponsor, recruits soldiers.

The bright lights glare with the red numbers of the clock that measure every ride, sponsored by a chewing tobacco company. It’s getting dark; white smoke is rising followed by fireworks. An Army honour guard carries the American flag. Fighter jets fly by in a video on a large screen. Heroes from the Iraq war enter the stadium and stand at attention. “In honour of our soldiers the cowboys will ride the bulls this evening”, a voice resonates over the loudspeakers. He greets the prizefighters that stride past the podium. One after the other they lift their hats and lower their heads, accompanied by the rock hit song ‘Eye of the Tiger’.

A wife of one of the cowboys sings the national anthem. Then finally the crowd gets to see a real star. The gate opens, the spotlight targets a powerful steer and follows him. “Thaaaaaaat’s Pandoooooora’s Boooooooox”, announces the announcer exorbitantly. The animal does one round glances at the riotous audience and trots off confidently. “We should give the bulls just as much respect as the other riders”, says Petersen. “And they treat us like meat.”

That’s why with professional bull riding it’s about this epic rivalry between man and beast. Each time 45 riders advance to the top of four leagues. During two evenings each rider sits atop one bull. At the end, the ten best compete a third time. A draw decides which rider is paired with which bull. Every one of the barbaric beasts has a ranking that determines his difficulty. The more successful a bull has fought, the more riders he has bucked off, the more points he has.

And, all the more money. The best cowboys fight on these bull’s backs for well over a million dollars in prize money. The world champion, selected in November in Las Vegas receives an extra million. In addition, there are lucrative advertising contracts that bring in many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, managed by clever agents.

Almost all of them grew up in densely populated areas of West America, on farms with cows, steeds and sheep. Some still cram for their high school diplomas. The youngest is 18, the oldest 36. “I was still in diapers”, says Travis Briscoe from New Mexico when his father first set him on the back of a calf. The 19-year old bull rider weighs only 58 kilos. His facial features are boyish, his demeanour detached, his body small and wiry, but his handshake is surprisingly forceful.

Briscoe is wearing what they all wear, which reminds one of the origin of the sport. A buckle as big as a saucer, attached to a belt garnished with turquoise. A stiff shirt tucked in to too tight jeans that accentuate the bum and cowboy boots with rubber soles. Not the fashionably polished ones that city dwellers like to wear to emphasise their Armani suits, but instead, boots that are used and worn away from being worn with spurs for years. The hat is always on. At his neck dangles a crucifix made from wire. Briscoe is cleanly shaven, smells a bit too strong of aftershave, his hair is freshly cut; the television cameras should capture him as dapper as possible.

His deep blue eyes sparkle when he describes what happens sitting on the back of a bull. “For eight seconds long the world stands still”, says Briscoe. “It’s as if you’re sitting on a pistol’s bullet.” Hot adrenalin shoots through your veins. It’s a feeling he doesn’t want to miss. “I’m addicted to the constant danger”, he says, his babyface turning to stone. “It fascinates me that I never know if I’m going to die today, or if the bull is going to trample me to death.”

Cord McCoy lies on the stretcher contorted with pain. The doctor lays an icepack on his knee. Sweat is running down his forehead. The clock hadn’t even got to three seconds before the bull Red Star had thrown the red-haired rider from Oklahoma off his back. He was lucky he was left with only a few bruises. A Canadian rider lies next to him on his side with his head bleeding. “What is wrong with my hand?” he screams suddenly and stares horrified at his index finger. It bends upward instead of downward. With an aimed crack, the doctor sets the digit back in place. He’s hardly finished with the Canadian when the next rider drags himself in to the sickbay and requests an icepack.

“I’ve broken every bone,” says McCoy. The scar-filled face testifies to the not-at-all dramatically intended announcement. Last year a hoof caught him in the head. He was out almost an entire year, three weeks in the hospital and a few days unconscious. After three months of speech therapy, he was able to speak again. He never wants to stop though. “The healthier I feel, the more I crave bull riding.”

To protect himself he wears a padded leather vest and recently added a helmet. Most ride with a stiff brimmed hat. “The best way to protect yourself is not to end up under the bull”, says McCoy. Three guys stand ready if necessary, should the bull should flip out. A mounted cowboy with a lasso also hastens to help. “My bones don’t heal like they used to”, says the 25-year old McCoy. Risk-happier are the 18-year old newcomers who win some of the tournaments.

This is a development that suits Randy Bernard, the large, tanned CEO of Professional Bull Riders Inc.. The future of the sport belongs to the young and wild victorious bull riders. They should carry their daring image to urban centres, to the MTV audience, in the arenas as well as on television. PBR already has now a higher viewer audience on the East coast than in the West, says Bernard. His pungent aftershave leaves a long lingering after-scent. He wants the riders and bulls to be known in the mainstream, just like NASCAR series cars. This should finally happen next year when a competition will be held in Madison Square Garden in New York. There they expect a more mixed audience to come to the arena.

The majority of spectators are white. A marketing survey showed that while the men identify with the riders, the women root for the bull. The bulls are the stars, cherished and nurtured by their narcissistic breeders, who are reminiscent of Formula One race team owners. Plenty of aggression lies in the small, glaring eyes of Cody King. Probably because he’s driven all night with 24 live stock in tow. King, 33, breeds so-called bucking bulls. Seven months out of the year he is on the go, driving his steer across the highways to the 29 event locations. Last year he came second in the breeder’s ranking competition. “This year I want to win”, he lisps through his broken front teeth. The “perfect athletes” that the muscular cow breeder now yields due to scientific methods should help him reach his goal. Bulls bred for size, agility and bone quality, all harmonising in one bucking whole.

He plants the semen from a really fast steer in to the daughter of a bull that was once big and bucked well. He wants to let animals loose in the arena that “keep up at the top level and are aggressive on command”, says King.

For their first appearance – usually at four-years old – he shortens their horns. At the highest level a steer will buck for six years – and gauge about a half a million dollars in prize money. Just as important is the free publicity in television, says King. That raises the price of the bulls – top animals cost around $300,000 dollar – and their offspring upward. If one of his bulls bucks really ruthlessly then the orders for calves and females increases immediately. “Good animals bring me a profit of up to a million dollars”, says King.

His animals earn more than most of the worldwide 800 licensed bull riders that forge ahead to the top leagues. All are freelancers. Their expenses – flight, hotel, their gear – are paid by themselves. Only those who reach the Top Ten, receive prize money. That’s also why the sport is so well received in the USA, believes CEO Randy Bernard. “It is an American principle, that only the successful should be rewarded.” He measures success in dollars and cents. He’s content when the best 25 riders yearly earn a million dollars that frankly defines Bernard’s aim.

Helping him with this are the sponsors. US firms treasure the loyal fans, mainly young and male, but also families. The cowboys’ manners “Yes Sir, Yes Ma’am” – are polite and accessible. The tournament has hardly finished and they are already pulling out their felt pens to sign autographs for the crowd.

The bull ride has been “custom-tailored for television”, accounts TV producer Joe Loverro the interest from the multi-national corporations. Loverro wears a baseball cap and sits casually in a dark, broadcasting van, parked outside the arena. His eyes gaze at twenty screens and search for the corresponding tuning. “Cut directly to the crash”, he directs the editor. Every weekend Loverro travels where the cowboys are. For the sport channel OLN he stages the show that helped PBR to its success: The two-hour television show runs every Saturday and Sunday evening. It is breathtaking. A dozen cameras attached to cranes and held by hand, catch every ride. From close-up you can see everything. How the rider sits on the bull. How the animal bucks. How the man falls. How he suffers mortal fear. How he triumphs. Or how he hobbles away injured.

“We film every fight so that the toughness of the sport really comes across”, says Loverro. So emerges “first an intimacy between the bull and the rider, followed by naked brutality.” The producer loves hard falls the best. “Of course, I don’t wish anyone a fatal toss, but spills create good television”, he says, “and higher ratings.”

No other sport on OLN has more viewers, yearly 100 million tune in. Loverro isn’t satisfied yet. He wants to bring the cameras even closer, either attached to the bulls or the riders, “to show the extreme intensity.” It’s a fine line. “We don’t want to make the viewers ill.”

Wiley Petersen stands in the changing room wearing only a red shirt and hat, no trousers. The 27-year old cowboy from Idaho pulls on longjohns, wraps his legs, and on top of this will come knee and ankle protection. Next to him Travis Briscoe, the young talent from New Mexico cleans the dirt from his rope with a sharp knife. Once the rope is clean he dips it in fresh resin. Then Briscoe turns to his boots, he turns and taps them, then puts them on, takes them off again, and binds them tightly with a leather strap.

This ritual takes two hours, this malicious preparation for the hellish eight second ride. It smells of resin and male sweat. Everyone tries in their own way to control their nervousness. One tucks his shirt in to his trousers and pulls it out again. A Mexican rider moves constantly to the garbage can that serves as a spittoon. A Texan puffs on a cigarette. Many slurp down Red-Bull. The Brazilian riders joke about together in Portuguese.

The atmosphere is high-spirited and amicable. “This isn’t a rivalry between 45 riders, says Petersen, “we’re 45 friends, things get squared up between man and animal.” One last time he checks if his pants sit right. For days now he’s known which bulls he’ll ride. Where some of the riders watch videotapes to study the animals, he doesn’t want to know too much. “The bull will do what he wants anyway”, says Petersen. “When you think you’ve got him under control, he changes direction immediately and bucks you off.” A good rider has to keep his balance it’s as easy as that. “It takes total commitment to defeat a bull”, he says. “No one can learn that.”

His body is like that of a gymnast. In the weights room he strengthens his stomach, thighs and also the muscles in his rear-end. He watches his weight. Every additional kilogram shifts the centre of gravity to the advantage of the wild beast. He’s never afraid. “God takes fear away from me.”

Petersen, the beautiful cowboy, kneels down, holds his hat in front of his chest and bows his head in reverence. A dozen riders follow suit. He says the prayer before the ride – Petersen is the leader of a group of Christian cowboys. Around half of the top riders see Jesus as their saviour. They consider it their divine duty to spread the gospel while bull riding. “Bull riding is a professional sport”, says Petersen, “the world is watching when we celebrate Jesus.” PBR is great for missionaries, “because it shows us Christians as tough guys. Toughness attracts.”

Pastor Todd Pierce, 35, a former rodeo rider travels on every tournament. He stands by the riders before they mount the bulls; follows them to the sickbay or to the hospital. In the evenings he holds bible study courses. Sundays he brings the desperados to the church service in the dusty arena. There the fans pray with their idols. “God made stars out of normal people”, Pierce greets the faithful in Detroit – and asks that the service not be used as a time to get autographs. Like the most faithful of boys, Petersen lifts himself from his stadium seat and says a prayer that is broadcast throughout the arena via loudspeakers.

The CEO is not bothered by the missionary work. “Our audience is anchored in Christianity”, says Randy Bernard. “An atheist wouldn’t sit atop a 2000 pound bull.” You need a good portion of optimism, he says. “A pessimist would never do anything that crazy.”

Cool-headed and seemingly sane, Wiley Peter climbs on the back of Black Smoke, a bull from Oklahoma. In the intermediate class he’s in the lead, if he stays on top he wins the tournament. The gate opens. Petersen leans his chest forward his left arm follows the movement of the bull as he gets in to the animal’s rhythm. He can’t allow any mistakes, mistakes end in the dirt. He handles well and stays on top. “It’s instinct and the sheer will to win”, says Cody King, the breeder who follows him to the corral. The siren sounds. Petersen jumps off, he’s won. Because as he says later in his victory interview,
“I trust God”.