This past summer I attended the Let R Buck Bull Riding School located in Victoria, VA. It was a two-day intensive course that teaches students the mechanics and skills of bull riding using both live animals and a stationary barrel. On paper we were charged with learning how to successfully ride a bucking bull for eight seconds. But I learned much more than that. Here are eight things I took away from the experience. A lesson for each second.
- I can be capable of great courage. I have not always acted courageously in my life. I’ve backed down from fights by apologizing, passed up on job and travel opportunities and shied away from educational opportunities, like the time I avoided taking AP English in high school, or the time I chickened out on studying journalism in Prague. Who knows what butterfly effect? But on this particular weekend in July I climbed onto a 1500-pound bull that wants only to get you off his back and I rode him. Not successfully, of course, but in the world of bull riding, I also learned:
- Success can be measured merely by the fact that you strapped onto the bull in the first place. The slang term for lasting the required eight seconds on a bull ride is “covered.” Of the approximately 25 rides we all took collectively, only one student covered.
- Despite feeling impotent and small on something so powerful, you can feel incredibly large. The universe shrinks to a single spot on the bull’s withers, the ridge located just between his shoulder blades. The most successful riders are the ones who stare at that spot and never pick up their head. At one point, the teacher at our school JW, a man who commanded such respect we weren’t allowed to mount our bull until he was there to oversee it, coughed up a wad of spit and let it drop on the bull’s withers. ‘Stare at that the whole time,’ he said in his thick country Virginia accent. When you do…when you listen to him, your chances of staying on the full eight seconds dramatically increases. When you don’t listen, you pay the price almost instantly.
- Once you’re on the bull you immediately forget every element of your training. Don’t look up. Keep your chest puffed out. Keep your chin tucked. Move your free hand forward when he rears up and pull the hand back when he drops his head. Keep your heels tucked under his ribs and your toes pointed downward ballet style. Sit on your crotch. Squeeze with your thighs; don’t put your butt down on his back. Use your free arm to correct yourself if you feel like you’re sliding off to one side. Land on your feet! Translation: Chute gate opens. Bull bucks. ‘Oh shit, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do’ Boom! You’re on your back looking up at the sky. The only part of the training you remember is to get up as fast as possible and run (or roll) like hell out of the arena before he comes back round to step on you. What is it about that gap between our preparation and our execution? Why is there such a chasm between what our brain imagines we will do in a situation and what we actually do once the situation arrives? Is it possible our brains are designed to protect us from the matter we encounter? If you’ve ever tried to look at an object through water, you would see how the image (the reality behind the water) is slightly distorted. I wonder if our brains create a plasma barrier between our created conscious and reality. Maybe it’s a necessary function of our brain, lest we never take the chances we have taken as a species. Age and constant training erodes this barrier. Muscle memory drives it into our reflexes. We sometimes call it instinct, but it’s misnamed. The barrier is present when you try something incredibly dangerous for the first time. The consequences reveal the necessity of training and patience.
- Bull riding is a young man’s game, but not for the reasons you think. It seems logical with any contact sport, like football or MMA, that young people thrive in it because they have young muscles. Fresh strength. Shorter recovery time. Greater flexibility. Stronger bone density. Quicker reflexes. More energy. All of this is true, of course. But when it comes to bull riding, the greatest advantage a younger person has over an older person is 100% mental. I’m 42. I was the oldest by far in this weekend’s class. There was Allesio, 16, from southern Maryland. His mother, an Italian émigré, clung to the arena fences and held her breath every time her son climbed down into the chute. Allesio was curious to know if he has any raw potential. Then there was Hunter, 15, from Virginia. It was his first time on livestock of any kind, including horses. Joe (nicknamed “Tang) 22, finished his tour in the Army and is chasing a shot at the pros. Colton, 19, told me he “wanted to be a cowboy his whole life.” He was first to arrive at the arena, and lent his hand to feeding the livestock around the ranch in the morning before school started. Levi, 21, was the only rider who covered. Then there was Justin, 23, from Virginia. He’s only been riding for a few months and has already busted his collarbone. When he mounted Jammer (one of the school’s meanest bulls) in the 90-degree afternoon on Saturday, it was his first bull ride since he was injured. He vomited his lunch. He paced around the arena. He buried his face into his hat and cried. His father followed after him and talked him off the ledge of quitting. Then he climbed down into the chute and nearly covered Jammer. He got bucked around seven seconds into the ride. He has already won n amateur purse and assuming he stays healthy, will try to break the pros in the next year or so. Toward the end of the day on Sunday, Colton tied on to the school’s nastiest bull, a white monster named Charlie. About four seconds into the ride, Charlie reared up as Colton lost his posture and fell forward. Charlie’s ight horn clacked against Colton’s helmet. He was bucked off a moment later. Without the helmet, Colton would have likely been knocked unconscious from the horn strike, if not more severely injured. As we opened the gate for him to escape the arena, a fellow rider said ‘that’s why we wear the helmet. Charlie would’ve killed you there.’ Colton’s response: ‘If today was my time to die, so be it.’ Only a 19-year-old would say that with any degree of honesty. Death, for most of my fellow riders, is an abstraction. It can’t happen. It happens to other people. This is why car insurance companies charge higher premiums for teenage drivers. They think they are invincible. But that sense of invincibility, that foregone conclusion in their minds that they’re going to live forever, serves them well in the bull riding arena. Each time I mounted my bull for a ride, I was a bundle of raw fear. I thought about my kids who were watching me. I thought about my infant daughter back in New York, who would never remember me. I thought about how much I still had to accomplish. Mortality for me is real. That band of the plasma protection has worn down. Not with the other riders. I got on my bulls thinking of death. Allesio got on his thinking of fun, thinking of making his ride more successful than his last. Death, or severe injury did not enter the equation in his calculations while he sat in the chute with his left hand raised and nodded for the gate to open. It pervaded my thoughts constantly. It rode with me. Little wonder I was the only rider who got hurt pretty much every time I got bucked off: I could only think of NOT getting hurt. It’s not about strength. It’s a mental sport as much as it is physical. Fear is the enemy of the bull rider. Fear is the enemy of many things, I now realize.
- A family emerges quickly in the presence of a common enemy. All of us were different ages and from different parts of the country, with different goals in mind. Yet within hours all of us were like brothers, working the chutes, helping one another get our gloves on, spot checking to make sure our gear was fixed properly, and cheering one another during and after the rides. On my debut ride, the bull, Poker Face, came out of the chute like he was on fire and I cracked my kneecap on the metal side of the chute. Seconds later I was tossed in the air and landed square on my back. I couldn’t get a single gasp of air in my lungs. I could see Poker Face still kicking around me, so I did the only hing I could do: I rolled across the arena until I slipped under the fence to safety. JW was standing over me in seconds, helping me get my gear off. Eventually I caught my breath and they stood me up. When I got to my feet, all the riders had circled me and started to clap. One of JW’s trusted hands at the school, a middle-aged man they called “Geritol,” told me something interesting about this. He said, ‘even in competition, we may be against each other and you may get the better score and the better ride, but at the end of the day, we’re on the same team because these bulls don’t give a shit if you’re hurt, dead or otherwise. These bulls will break your wrist, break your ribs, tear your muscles, knock out your teeth, trample you while you’re unconscious on the ground, and not a single one of these bulls will ever come up to you and apologize for doing it. We root for each other because at the end of the day, all we have is each other.’ If we could somehow harness thatsensation. If we could only decide that, perhaps, our common enemy is unhappiness and unhappiness is a 1500-pound animal seeking to break our teeth and mash our guts. If we could get together as a people and understand that unhappiness, that misery, doesn’t apologize for wrecking our lives and leaving us breathless in the dirt, then perhaps we can be a human family that applauds one another.
- I am no longer afraid of anything but unhappiness.
- Not knowing the outcome of your decisions electrifies every nerve in your body. Each time I got on that bull I had no idea if I would lift my hands in the air, or be airlifted to the nearest hospital. In the moment it is an awful feeling. In hindsight, it’s one of the purest ways to live. Do things that have unknown outcomes. It pokes holes in the blackness of our unilluminated future.