You’ve showed up at the rodeo, paid your fees, and signed the waiver. Now what?
First, you’ll need to know what bull you’ve drawn. Your “draw” is the bull you are going to climb on and try to ride. Before you get to the rodeo, it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary used to describe cattle. Then, when you ask the contractor who your bull is—say his name is Undertaker—and he answers with, “He’s the bald-faced muhly,” you’ll know what he’s talking about.
An animal science textbook or encyclopedia can be used to review cattle breeds, but keep in mind that rodeo bulls are usually mixed and don’t always fit the textbook description. It is helpful when bulls are identified by a number. You can find these by looking at ear tags and brands. The numbers are irrelevant when the bull is identified by a name like Widow Maker or Freddie Kruger.
Once you’ve found the bull, you may or may not want to ask about him. If you do, ask a bull rider or rodeo clown rather than the contractor. Stock contractors seldom admit that any of their bulls are less than the bucking bull of the year. Regardless who you ask, don’t put too much faith in what they say. The bull that “you’ll score 97 points on if you can ride” may crow hop down the arena. The bull that’s “real nice” may put you in the hospital.
It’s time to get your gear ready. Hang your rope on the fence, next to another, so you can see how it’s supposed to be tied. The “tail” of a bull rope is flat and braided, normally about an inch wide, with a leather-braided handle in the middle. On the other end from the flat and braided tail, the rope is round and doubled. This end is tied to form a loop that you’ll hang your cowbells from.
Hang your rope, tail end up, on the fence. Use a wire brush to clean away any dirt, manure, or blood that is stuck to the tail from the last ride. Rub both sides of the tail with a bar of Fiebing’s Saddle Soap. Next, take a small rock of rosin in your glove, crush it on the pipe fence, and rub it into the tail. Be sure to use the glove. Work the rosin into the rope until it feels hot and you reach the desired stickiness. This will ensure that your hand never comes out of the rope—even when you fall off the bull.
Attach your cowbells to the looped end of the rope. Lightweight copper-colored cowbells are best. Avoid heavy steel bells made in the high school welding shop; they can become a deadly projectile if the bull launches your rope into the air. Use a good leather collar to connect the bells to the rope. This will prevent them from flying off and hitting a judge or a spectator.
The bells serve two functions. One is to clang; this adds excitement to the ride. The other is to add weight to the rope; it should fall off the bull after you do.
You are ready for spurs. Don’t bring your grandpa’s jingle-bobs. Bull-riding spurs have turned in shanks with rowels that only turn a quarter-inch. Use a piece of bailing wire to anchor your spur down on your boot; it runs just in front of the boot heel and attaches to each side of the spur. Wrap the wire with medical tape so that it doesn’t tear your boot heel off. A good leather spur strap that goes over the top of the boot will also hold the spur. Keep in mind that there are times when you want your spur strap to break, such as when the bull is dragging you underneath him by your foot because your spur is caught in the flank rope. You want to use good, but not indestructible, straps.
Tie your boots on just above your ankles. Use leather collars or long strips of leather string. Having the boots tied on makes it easier for you to run without slinging them off and tripping over them.
It is time to put the rope on the bull once he’s loaded in the chute. Don’t try it while he’s still in the pen. If he is in the loading chute rather than the bucking chute, you’ll need to either pen him between two sliding gates, or two pieces of pipe, or two other bulls. Otherwise, you’ll end up chasing him up and down the chute, and he’ll be mad, and you’ll be tired before you ever get on him.
Climb the fence. Straddle the bull (from the fence)—you should be facing his head, not his tail. Drop the bell end of your rope down the bull’s side, keeping it turned so that your leather handle is upward. If you are right-handed, the bells go down the left side of the bull. If you are left-handed, the bells go down the right side.
At this point, you need help.
Someone on the ground should reach under the bull—not with their hands, but with a long, metal hook—and grab the dropped end of the rope. They should then pull the rope toward them so that it goes under the bull.
Now, from your perch above the bull, take the hook from your helper. Reach down with the hook, catch the rope, and pull it up. You should be holding both ends of the rope and have a bull in the middle. If there is no bull in the middle, start over.
Place the tail of the rope through the looped end, then let the loop and bells fall back down the side from which they came. You should still be holding the rope’s tail and being careful to not get bull hair and dirt stuck to it. Hold the tail with one hand, the handle with the other, and shake the rope back and forth until the bells fall under the bull’s chest. That’s where they belong. The handle should be on the top of the bull, just behind his shoulders. Secure the tail to the handle so that it stays in place until time to get on.
Climb down from the fence. If you need to stretch, do it now. You should be wearing jeans loose enough to allow for this without splitting.
If you are going to pray, you need to do that now, too. It’s not efficient or wise to wait until you are sitting on the bull. If others see you pray before the ride, make a special effort to not cry, cuss, or kick dirt in the arena after you get bucked off. It is not appropriate to pray to win. Be sure to remove your hat. There is no set prayer, but it should be something to this effect:
Please forgive me for my sins, especially for being so foolish. Though I am testing you, please keep me safe. Please comfort my mother and family in the event that I this bull kills me. Amen.”
If you’re wearing chaps, put them on. If you don’t have any, fine. They serve no purpose but to make you look and feel like a bull rider. If you are going to buy the picture afterwards, go ahead and borrow some chaps—they look good in pictures.
Wait until it’s almost time to get on the bull before putting your glove on—you don’t want dirt and hair stuck to it. Make sure that it is a soft leather bull-riding glove. Have a helper pull the glove back tightly while you tie it on. Use either leather strings or medical tape. Tie it on well. If the glove gets pulled off while you’re riding, part of your hand will get pulled off with it.
If you use a mouthpiece, it’s time to put it in. Be sure to rinse out any dirt, manure, blood, or teeth left from the last ride.
When the chute boss tells you that it’s time, climb back up the chute and slide down slowly, knees first, onto the bull. You should be sitting one to two feet behind your rope and facing the front of the bull. Sit slightly cocked to one side. This helps to avoid smashing your face on the slide gate when the bull pitches in the chute.
It’s also good to have one or two people “spotting” you. If the bull climbs, they can grab you and keep you from falling behind and under the bull in the chute. If he bucks, they can keep you from going forward.
Take the tail of the rope and hand it to helpers standing outside the chute. Have them give you some slack, and then shake the rope into position.
At this point, don’t slap yourself in the face—even if you’ve seen other bull riders do it. If you are not awake without doing that, it’s best to get off the bull.
Slide your gloved hand into the handle. Your palm should be facing upward, your pinky in the middle of the bull’s back.
Your helper will begin to pull the slack out of the rope. Keep the rope in place by holding it with your other hand. When the puller stops pulling, pull the rope back, making sure there is no loose hide bunched up under the top of it.
Again say, “Pull.”
When the rope is tight, take the tail from your helper. Lay it across your open, gloved hand. Close your hand. Wrap the tail back behind the same hand. Then, with your gloved hand open, bring the tail back across it again. The tail should now be wrapped all the way around your riding hand.
For extra stickiness and motivation, run the tail between your pinky and ring fingers—some call this a “suicide wrap”— and close your hand. Then, if you have the nerve, grin and wink at the boys who pulled your rope. That will go a long way in furthering your crazy bull-rider image.
You’re almost ready.
Without delay, ease forward until you are sitting on your rope. Your free hand should be holding on to the gate. Sit up on your thighs, slightly squeezing, so that you are not sitting on “your pockets.”
Turn your toes out to get the benefit of your spurs, but don’t jab the bull while you’re in the chute. Stick your chest out, tuck your chin in, focus on the bull’s shoulders, and grit your teeth.
This is not the time to sit and reflect. You should make up your mind that you want to ride a bull before you get to this point. Waiting will only irritate the other riders and chute boss, and it will embarrass your girlfriend.
Without turning to look at the gate man, nod your head enough that the nod can be distinguished from your trembling.
The gate men will then let you and your bull out.
You should now be in the arena. Relax, you’re almost finished. There’s no need to get scared and bail at this point. Being on the bull’s back is just as safe as being on the ground.
Keep your free hand up. It’s ideal to have it at a 90-degree angle. Lift on your rope with your other hand while keeping the hand closed. Squeeze with your legs: thighs, knees, and boot heels.
Don’t look at the ground. Definitely don’t try to look at the crowd or the guy who’s yelling at you from the fence.
If you are still on the bull when the whistle sounds, grab the tail of your rope with your free hand. It is very important that you pull the tail out of your riding hand before jumping or falling off the bull. If you are right-handed, jump off the right side. Because of the way the rope is made, this reduces your chances of getting hung up. If, however, the bull is spinning to the right, avoid jumping off to the right. Open your hand, and let the bull fling you off to the left.
If you don’t land on your feet, it’s best to get on them fast. This is not the time to nurse your wounds or grin at your girlfriend. Quickly get to the nearest fence. Once the bull has been herded out of the arena, be sure to get your rope and any other part of you or your gear from the arena floor.
If you’ve made it to this point safely, now would be an appropriate time to pray again.