Bulls are unpredictable athletes. Riders in the Professional Bull Riding Association (PBR) have scouting sheets on what direction each bull turns and even their temperament after the ride is finished. Yet unexpected dangers are always present.
Bullfighters, once called rodeo clowns, have learned to anticipate unforeseen behavior by bulls. The most gentle-acting animal could suddenly be in a bad mood and some bulls are always grouchy.
Cochise is a 1,900-pound bull with the power of a locomotive. He is not fond of riders on his back and sometimes throws his weight around like a high school bully. He is not crazy wild, but occasionally shows off a little “bad to the bone” attitude.
Jose Vitor Leme, an accomplished PBR rider, is generally competitive in this arena of the world’s best riders and bulls. So, choosing Cochise to ride in the championship round of Kansas City’s PBR event held in the Sprint Center on Feb. 12 seemed like a good pick. He was there to win and rank bulls like Cochise produce good scores.
There is always excitement at a PBR event. Many fans are knowledgeable of the riders and bulls, this mixed with the showtime atmosphere creates electricity. Many anticipated this matchup of Leme and Cochise, as evidenced by their cheers.
Cochise left the chute twisting left before heading straight out into the arena. Leme managed a good seat with a couple of spurs for about two leaps and then the 5-foot-6, 139-pound rider was launched over the bull’s head toward a rough landing. The bullfighters were immediately moving in, but watched in shock as Cochise stopped, glared down at Leme then laid on the hapless man.
The bull curled up in a ball like a kitten playing with yarn and rolled over the helpless rider a couple times before the bullfighters could get there to sidetrack the annoyed mass of muscle. Leme stood up and walked out of the arena shaking his head, apparently unhurt – besides a few bruises and no doubt sore muscles.
Welcome to bull riding in 2018, in which the bulls are fed and bred to be bigger, faster and stronger. Bullfighters are superb athletes with knowledge of each bull they face. PBR bullfighters Seth “Shorty” Gorman, Frank Newsome and Jesse Byrne have worked together for many years and know exactly what their partners are going to do in any circumstance.
“There is no set rule book for working bulls,” Byrne said. “We just react to what happens. We watch the rider to see if he will stay on the bull or not be able to recover. So, we start moving before the rider is on the ground. We work a three-man system and start in a triangle. This allows us to cover all angles and the triangle allows a shorter point of attack. Coming in from different directions makes it easier to not get in each other’s way. There is no pre-planning. We just react.”
This effective triangle was demonstrated when a rider at the Kansas City event was hurt and helpless on the ground. The bullfighters formed a triangle around the bull, Newsome between the bull and rider. The men started yelling and whistling at the bull until it forgot about the rider. After lunging at the bullfighters a few times, it stood defiantly staring at the three men before turning to trot into a chute that leads to a quiet pen and food.
Occasionally a bull will charge one of the bullfighters, who either sidesteps or runs to the fence for a quick climb out of harm’s way while the other bullfighters are trying to get the bulls attention from their coworker. Recently Newsome was badly hurt by a bull and knocked unconscious.
“Everything happens fast and you don’t get a chance to think, so when one of your partners goes down, he becomes like a bull rider,” Byrne said. “We do whatever, at all costs, to get that bull away from him and defuse the situation. But when the dust settles, it is an emotional time to see someone you are basically brothers with being carried out of the arena. We make our peace with it quickly to focus on the next rider who is relying on us.”
There were no backups that day, so only two bullfighters worked the remainder of the event. The following day another bullfighter was flown in.
Hang-ups are probably the most dangerous part of a bullfighter’s job. The rider’s hand will only be released when a bullfighter loosens the wrap. The first bullfighter goes to the bull’s head and gets its attention, giving the other bullfighters a chance to slide in from the side and release the hand. Riders are generally dragged and stepped on.
An unconscious rider is even more of a problem because they are dragged behind the bull and all the weight is on their hand. A conscious rider can help himself by staying on his feet and moving with the bull.
The bullfighters, too, are aware of bull habits, like throwing riders over its head. Memory of each bull is important to anticipate quick reaction time. How a bull leaves the chute is another factor bullfighters watch closely. A rider trapped on the ground in a chute could easily mean serious injury.
Bullfighters pick and choose what protective articles to wear. The vest is required and worn under their loose jerseys and knee braces for low hits from bulls. Problem is, too many pads slow down the process of saving riders. Bullfighters, too, wear cleats for traction in the dirt arenas.
“New bullfighters should enter the business for the right reasons,” Byrne said. “There definitely is an adrenaline rush and some praise, but the harsh reality is, it can end at any time in injury or even death. Beginners should never stop learning and working hard. This is a tough business.”
PBR bullfighters are voted in or out by riders and the organization. They are independent contractors who are paid by the event. Yet Gorham, Newsome and Bryne are the some of the best.
You can watch the PBR on CBS Sports Network Saturday and Sunday or stream PBR events at ridepass.com.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.