The only good reason to ride a bull is to meet a nurse. Or so I’ve been told. But after an evening in the media seats at a recent Professional Bull Riders (PBR) event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’m not sure the prettiest nurse in the West is worth climbing aboard two thousand pounds of burger that’s hell bent on grounding me into the dirt. The forces at work seem an unfit environment for the human body.
The PBR is a rotating circuit of bucking bull rodeos that has exploded in popularity in the past ten years. Part of that’s because the added prize money—from $8 million in 2005 to more than $10 million in 2013—has spawned an elite caliber of bucking bulls and bull riders. The bulls are athletes, each with a bred-to-buck pedigree. The riders have professionalized in ways rarely seen at rodeo arenas. Most riders have agents representing their interests, interviews, and magazine cover shoots. Sponsor logos crowd their chaps and protective vests. The cowboys are also taking care of their bodies like never before.
And that’s a shift in cowboy paradigm. Times past, if you were bucked off and bounced your head off a fence post, the cowboy attitude was always to stand up and act like nothing hurt, even if you couldn’t breathe. But as bull riders have realized that no one makes money sitting at home under ice packs, they’re giving more attention to preventing injury, seeking professional advice for training and rehabilitation, and more of the riders are wearing helmets and mouth guards. One look at the sports medicine teams waiting behind the chutes makes it clear that the PBR ain’t no county fair.
In 1989, a bull gored and punctured the heart of cowboy Lane Frost, subject of the movie 8 Seconds. PBR co-founder Cody Lambert watched his friend die that day, and as a result, convinced the PBR to begin requiring all riders to wear protective vests made of ballistic material. That was the first major step toward rider safety within the bull riding circuit. The most recent came in 2013 when the PBR announced that any rider born after October 15, 1994 was required to wear a helmet rather than a cowboy hat.
Despite the safety measures and efforts to make PBR a family-friendly event, the young men doing the riding are still cowboys, few of them older than 30. The tobacco spit flies through the air as regularly as the contrails of snot left by spinning bulls. They use colorful language and wear big hats and big spurs. They’re young and without fear, and when the gate to the bucking chute swings open, they’re hard put to earn their money and their swagger.
According to a 2007 study published by the International Federation of Sports Medicine, professional bull riding is, not surprisingly, the most dangerous organized spectator sport in the world. As a function of injury incidence per hour spent participating, riding a bull is 1.5 times more dangerous than boxing, and far more dangerous than hockey or football. The results indicate 1.4 injuries for every hour spent riding a bull.
Rodeo life has never been easy for the cowboys. Or, for that matter, healthy. Driving, riding, honky-tonking. The body takes a beating; it comes with the territory. How each cowboy gets fit to ride varies from doing nothing more than ordinary farm jobs to training alongside other professional athletes. The same is true for coping with the normal wear and tear and the occasional, but often serious, injury. We asked three top PBR riders how they keep their bodies in shape for a competition season without end.
- PBR lifetime earnings: $4,644,744
- 2013 PBR season-end ranking: 1
- Hometown: Mooresville, North Carolina
- Date of birth: January 9, 1987
- Height: 5-10
- Weight: 140
- Years in the PBR: 9
I used to not take care of myself at all. When I was 20, 21, I was wide open. I figured if you can’t ride bulls with pain, you shouldn’t ride bulls at all. I’d just keep right on gettin’ it, just ride it out. But the difference is this shit hurts a little more as you get older. You get hurt, and you ain’t getting paid. If you’re laid up at home, you’re guaranteed to get nothing. I’ve had to stay home a few times. I collapsed a lung and had to have surgery and couldn’t ride. Three weeks ago, a bull stepped on my leg and it swelled up so bad I couldn’t get my boot on. A bull stepped on the palm of my hand two years ago, and I had to have it plated. But I only missed one bull riding because I came back right-handed. My wife is trained as a physical therapist’s assistant, and she usually just tells me what to do. But I can be a little hardheaded, especially with the hand. She had these exercises for me to do, and I thought, this shit’s dummer’n hell. But I eventually did them any way.
I’ve only been to a gym once in my life because someone bet me I couldn’t run farther than them on a treadmill. I don’t get too serious about working out or anything. Everybody always talks about my hips. I’ll have my hips on one side of the bull, and the very next jump I’ll be on the other. One day, ol’ Stormy Wing asked me, “How you get your hips so good?” I told him, “Tell you the truth, I think it’s cause I stand on that medicine ball.” And he said, “Huh?” I noticed the way the medicine ball rolled out from underneath me was the same way a bull rolled. I busted my ass I don’t know how many times when I started standing on it, but now I can stand on it and roll it across the floor. I try to use only my lower half to balance, with my arms down. If you try it, make sure you’re on carpet; it don’t roll near as bad. Once you get that, try it on wood.
- PBR lifetime earnings: $240,752
- 2013 PBR season-end ranking: 11
- Hometown: Missoula, Montana
- Date of birth: July 6, 1989
- Height: 5-9
- Weight: 160
- Years in the PBR: 4
A lot of bull riding is about recovery. You’re bound to get hurt, and you want the body to recover as quickly as possible. I probably got on 400 bulls total last year. I have these giant dreams I’m trying to make come true, and there’s no room for time off. The only time I take off is when I get injured. The most common injuries are to shoulders, hips and wrists. The main thing is that when you get bucked off you can’t choose how you’re going to land, and you’re probably going headfirst or shoulder-first. So people have shoulders pop out a lot. We also drive and drive and drive for 12 hours and then put our hips through this immense stress, and guys get bone spurs on their hips. Probably the worst is our hands. We basically put our hand in a block and wrap a rope around it, and if you come off the wrong side of the bull, your hand won’t come out. Your wrist is getting jerked on by however much you weigh, plus the G forces of the bull, and he’s probably trying to hook you in the guts at the same time.
My main focus is on balancing my body. Working on flexibility, strength, reaction time. I’m trying to equalize my body so there’s no excuse for me to say, well I can reach my left leg higher than my right, and that’s why I couldn’t spur my way out of that hole I found myself in. I want to eliminate as many of the physical barriers so that if I didn’t do something right it was because I didn’t react fast enough. I go to the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney, Texas, and we use machines to work on reaction time and we work on agility and flexibility. We lift weights, we tone, but we’re not looking for bulk. We want to be able to explode in any direction at any second. Because when you’re on the bull you have to be in absolute reaction mode—it can’t take a second, it has to take less than a quarter of a second.
- PBR lifetime earnings: $535,982
- 2013 PBR season-end ranking: 19
- Hometown: Alvin, Texas
- Date of birth: May 8, 1987
- Height: 5-10
- Weight: 165
- Years in the PBR: 6
I think it’s stupid when people draw attention to the injuries. It’s negative energy, and it’s not very cowboy-like of the guys who do. Bull riding’s not a sport for wimps. I hate when people ask how I’m doing, if I’m well. I’m here, ain’t I? And I’m ready to ride. But sometimes you can’t help it. When I broke my hip it felt like my leg was on fire, a thousand needles in me, but I damn sure tried not to limp. I’ve had three hip surgeries. I’ve had surgery on my ACL and MCL, and I don’t remember how I did it because I was knocked out. Several operations later you start thinking about these things. Riding bulls, you’re never going to be 100 percent health-wise. You have to find a way around your injuries. You’re banged up, but you have to adapt, ride around what hurts.
When I was younger, I used to go out too much. You know, drinking too much and not treating my body like professional athlete should. I’m better about it now, staying more focused, all that, but it’s kind of a boring routine. I go to a personal trainer at a gym nearly every day during the week, and I work out at the training center as often as I can. They have high-tech machines and ice baths, stuff I don’t have access to usually. We work on fast-twitch muscle movements, short bursts of power, like a gymnast athlete. We train the core by balancing exercises, standing on a ball or anything with an unstable bottom. We throw and catch tennis balls with one eye closed, and we work on coordination. Get everything flowing like it should. When I get on a bull, I’ve done rode that bull a hundred times in my mind, so it’s just reactions from then on. I prepare mentally, I prepare physically, and I just show up and do the job.