The bovine athlete

Sport showcases bucking-bull prowess, veterinary ingenuity
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Taking flight at the Third Annual Farm Bureau Spring Fling this April in Stephenville, Texas

Red Rock. Tornado. Dillinger. They are legends in the sport of bull riding. Cowboys squaring off against one of these bovine athletes almost always got bucked off before the 8 seconds necessary for a qualifying ride. Bodacious—a notorious, 1,900-pound crossbred Charbray with a knack for sending cowboys to the hospital—was ridden only eight times in 135 outings over his four-year career.

Bull riding has emerged from the world of rodeo over the past two decades to become a multimillion-dollar sport followed by millions of fans, with major events televised nationally. Rodeo bulls were once portrayed as murderous beasts with names such as Frankenstein and Cyanide, hellbent on hooking cowboys riding courageously to the 8-second buzzer. Today, bulls are the stars of the show. Top buckers such as Bushwacker and Asteroid are as famous as any rider on the pro rodeo circuit, if not more so, and receive top billing at events.

Much of the sport’s success is attributable to efforts in the 1990s to breed better bucking bulls. High-kicking, fast-spinning animals that change direction on a dime with whiplashlike intensity make this already dangerous sport even more thrilling for spectators. Stock contractors stand to earn thousands of dollars annually by fielding such high-caliber bucking bulls, which can be worth $250,000 or more. Bushwacker’s estimated value is just shy of a million dollars.

Like any athletes, bucking bulls are prone to performance-related injuries. In such cases, contractors turn to a small group of veterinarians who have pioneered the field of bovine sports medicine. A beef steer with a fractured limb at a feedlot is more likely to be culled than treated by a veterinarian. The prognosis for the same injury in a bucking bull valued at six figures is more optimistic. Dr. Gary D. Warner, considered one of the best bucking-bull veterinarians in the world, put it this way: “With these bulls, slaughter is not an option.”

Bovine sports medicine

Dr. Warner attributes his understanding of cattle to his father, “a heck of a cow man” who operated an auction barn and traded cattle in Louisiana. Dr. Warner enrolled at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine intent on becoming a cattle practitioner. But his studies led him down a different career path, and when he graduated in 1980, he joined Elgin Veterinary Hospital in Elgin, Texas, where he worked in the equine division for about 10 years.

The hospital was providing veterinary services for a company owned by the Steiners, a famous Texas family of rodeo impresarios, which gave Dr. Warner his first experience with performance livestock. “The bulls were secondary to the saddle and bareback broncs,” he recalled. “At that time in rodeo, the bull riders didn’t get the attention they do now. It was more about the clowns fighting the bulls than any actual riding.”

Bucking-bull events: National Finals Rodeo, Las Vegas, December 2011; World’s Toughest Rodeo, Rockford, Ill., February 2012; and (last two photos) Farm Bureau Spring Fling, Stephenville, Texas, April 2012

That changed when the Pueblo, Colo.-based Professional Bull Riders Inc. came on the scene in 1992 with a focus on fielding top-notch bucking bulls, he said. “Back in the day, the bulls weren’t real athletic. They got out there and spun a little bit, you know, maybe kicked up a notch or two, and that was about it. But these bulls are extremely athletic. Those guys get vertical, they get a lot of air beneath them.”

Working with the PBR to keep its bovine athletes healthy was “a natural fit” for Dr. Warner because of his years treating lameness in horses and show cattle. “When the sport really took off, we started seeing the same types of injuries in bucking bulls that you do in racehorses: bone chip fractures, fractured limbs, broken bones, as well as a plethora of foot problems—lacerations, foot abscesses, and so forth,” he said. “We already knew how to deal with these things, and not every other practitioner knows. We had the equipment, we had the facilities, and it was a natural fit, and when this (bull riding) went on, we embraced it.”

Stock contractors regularly call on Dr. Warner when their bucking bulls are injured. Although his A-list patients are extensive, Dr. Warner is best known for helping reigning PBR world champion Bushwacker return to competition in January of this year, less than three months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from both hind limbs. The field of bovine sports medicine is so unexplored that Dr. Warner admits to having come up with treatment protocols on the fly. “We’ve had to think out of the box so much because we’ve just had to spontaneously respond to the case,” he said.

One of Dr. Warner’s fellow pioneers and colleagues is Dr. Lisa Willis, who worked at Elgin Veterinary Hospital after graduating from Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005. Today, Dr. Willis owns and operates Mid-Texas Veterinary Associates, located in Gustine, which she described as “the heart of rodeo country,” where she’s treated world-class bucking bulls.

Bulls are amazingly tough animals, according to Dr. Willis, and are more likely to be injured fighting one another in a pasture than bucking in an arena. Their resilience poses a challenge for spotting an injury. Sometimes the only clue a bull is hurting is as subtle as the animal spinning in a direction it doesn’t normally go. “Some bulls will get arthritis, but they have so much heart, you can’t tell. They won’t look lame, and you have to watch them closely,” Dr. Willis explained.

Lameness in most animals can usually be attributed to a problem with the foot—except in bucking bulls. “It’s almost always something else, like an injured shoulder or a hip and a hock,” Dr. Willis said. “You’re trained to always think foot first, but lameness in a bull hardly ever begins as a problem with the hoof.” Identifying the source of a bull’s pain can require more time and patience than are needed for other animals.

Bull riding 101

The sport of bull riding has its roots in the steer-riding exhibitions of the Wild West shows that toured the country starting in the 1890s. Bulls, cows, steers—any livestock that could buck—were used in these events. Bull-riding competitions became a fixture of the American rodeo during the 1920s when promoters began capitalizing on crowds willing to pay to watch dangerous rides. Bull riding has since grown into the most popular of the rodeo competitions and is saved for last to keep attendees in their seats.

The trappings of bull riding have changed little since the sport’s early days. With one hand, the rider grips a plaited rope wrapped around the bull’s chest and weighted with a bell to make the rope drop once released. Seconds before the chute is opened, a flank strap lined with sheepskin or neoprene is tied behind the animal’s rib cage and is said to encourage correct bucking motion. Modern rodeo rules require a rider’s spurs to be dull so as not to cut the bull’s thick hide.

To receive a score, a rider must hold the rope for 8 seconds, once the bull’s shoulder or flank breaks the plane of the gate. The rider is disqualified if his free hand touches the bull. Both bull and rider are judged on their performances, with each receiving up to 50 points for a possible total score of 100. Riders are awarded points for style and balance, while bulls are scored according to how hard they buck. “You’re looking for violent motion,” a judge explained. Ninety-point rides and higher are considered exceptional. Wade Leslie achieved the only perfect 100-point score in pro rodeo history when he rode Growney’s Wolfman into the record books in 1991 at a competition in Central Point, Ore.

The sport changed dramatically with the debut of the Professional Bull Riders in the early 1990s. The company’s sleek promotion of bull riding as “the world’s most dangerous sport” yielded a major infusion of revenue from increased box-office sales, sponsors, and broadcast deals, resulting in large cash prizes. A bull able to consistently pull in 40 or more points per ride soon became a hot commodity for cowboys and stock contractors looking for a payday.

“The money’s driven the sport of bull riding to where it is today,” acknowledged Kaycee Simpson, executive director of American Bucking Bulls Inc. “When you can get a return on one calf for $250,000 in a year, it sure changes the bottom line on how you breed your animals.” Founded in 2004, ABBI supports the bucking-bull industry through pedigree preservation and promotion of bucking-bull ownership, breeding, care, and welfare. To date, the ABBI has more than 130,000 animals registered in its DNA database, with members in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil.

Like most bucking-bull breeders, Simpson supplemented his commercial cattle operation by raising bucking bulls as a side business he started in 1998. Nearly every bucking bull competing today is a Brahman crossbreed, and they come in many colors, shapes, and sizes; some have horns, others are hornless “muleys.” Employing the latest innovations in theriogenology, breeding programs have had notable success at producing bucking bulls that raise the level of competition on the pro and semipro circuits. But as anyone in the sport points out, great bucking bulls are born, not made.

“You can put the same cow and same bull together every year, and one year you’ll get a bucking bull, and the next year you won’t. We breed bulls to buck, but when it comes down to it, they buck because they want to. It’s the passion they have that makes them what they are,” Simpson said.

Dr. Gary D. Warner draws blood from a bull during the Farm Bureau Spring Fling, held in Stephenville, Texas, this April. The Professional Bull Riders have tested for banned substances since 2008.

Animal athleticism

The rodeo bull’s bad-guy image of yesterday has been eclipsed by a celebration of animal athleticism. “These bulls have to be physically in shape to buck with so much intensity. A bull in a pasture could probably buck for a little bit, but it couldn’t sustain bucking that hard for 8 seconds,” explained Dr. Douglas G. Corey, who chairs the Animal Welfare Committee for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the world’s largest and oldest rodeo-sanctioning organization.

“These bulls go from standing in a chute to immediately firing their hind legs and spinning, twisting, and bucking, and they maintain it until the rider’s off their back. That, to me, is real athleticism,” Dr. Corey continued. The best bulls aren’t aimlessly flailing around the arena, he says, but have learned which moves are effective for dumping riders. “They know what they need to do to buck off a rider. I’m not so sure some of these bulls don’t know who’s getting on their back,” he added, laughing.

Simpson considers bucking bulls to be athletes in the same way as human athletes who possess talents enabling them to perform beyond the abilities of most people. “A 1,200- to 2,000-pound bull that can buck 4 feet in the air, turn back, and make six or eight rotations in an 8-second period is an athlete,” Simpson said, adding that “an animal so big and powerful that can make that many moves is a freak of nature.”

A “rank” bull is an elite athlete that regularly scores big points and is almost impossible to ride. “Nine times out of 10, a cowboy won’t ride a rank bull. A rank bull has a move or a kick or a speed that is just outside the norms of bucking bulls. There are a lot of great bulls, but rank bulls are a class of their own,” Simpson explained.

The typical career of a bucking bull in the Professional Bull Riders begins when the animal is 2 years old. The stock contractor gauges the bull’s potential by strapping a 10-pound mechanical dummy to the animal’s back. If the bull demonstrates sufficient speed and intensity and an ability to change directions, then the animal will be entered in small, local events at 3 years of age, but with a rider instead of a dummy on its back. At 4, a promising bull will travel nationwide to compete for prize money. This is the stage when the star buckers distinguish themselves from those consigned to semipro and amateur events. A bucking bull hits its stride between the ages of 5 and 7 years.

Bulls idle in a pen at the World’s Toughest Rodeo this past April in Rockford, Ill.

A bull’s career depends on the contractor as well as the bull’s heart to buck, according to Simpson. His bull Red Alert was still competing at age 13. “We get 4 years out of some of them; others peter out along the way. You have bulls with careers as long as 10 years, but the majority are less than half that,” he said. Contractors often grow fond of their bulls, and it’s not unheard of for a bull to be treated as a pet or family member. Many bulls live out their days on the farm after retirement.

“If one of my bulls makes it to the PBR, then he’s earned the right to live on my ranch as a breeding bull, and when he dies, we give him a headstone,” Simpson said.

Who's hurting whom?

Bernard Rollin, PhD, is not an unequivocal supporter of rodeos. The professor of philosophy and animal sciences at Colorado State University is highly critical of the calf roping competitions, which he considers inhumane. Dr. Rollin has a different take on bull riding, however. “As far as welfare issues go, it’s got the fewest (of the rodeo events). Basically, the animals don’t get hurt,” he said.

Dr. Rollin says bull riding has achieved mainstream acceptance outside the rodeo world for two reasons. “First off, audiences aren’t worried about the animals being harmed. Secondly, those bulls are amazing. They flow like water. It’s incredible; it’s like they don’t have any bones,” he said.

A common complaint about the sport is that pain is used to induce bulls to buck. Critics say the flank strap squeezes the bull’s genitals, causing the animal to thrash and jump. However, most bulls stop bucking once the rider is no longer on the animal’s back. It’s been said that if a flank strap could make a better bucking bull, then stock contractors wouldn’t bother investing thousands of dollars in breeding programs.

Bucking is a behavior bulls express naturally, Dr. Willis explained, and can be hindered, not enhanced, when the animal is in a painful state. “Bulls will run around in the pasture and buck, just playing around. They don’t buck as well when they’re in pain, so everything is done to prevent that,” she said.

The use of electric prods or “hot shots” to provoke a reluctant bull from a chute is banned at events sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Professional Bull Riders. The prohibition is one of several policies both organizations have instituted to ensure the humane treatment of animals competing at their events. Both the PRCA and PBR require a veterinarian to be on-site during an event. Animals are inspected prior to competition and are sidelined if they show signs of injury or sickness.

In 2008, the PBR began testing the top bull or bulls at various events for anabolic steroids and other banned substances. The PRCA expects to institute a banned drugs and medications policy in the near future.

Less than half of all rodeos or bull-riding events in the United States are governed by PRCA or PBR rules, and Dr. Rollin says abuses are more likely to occur at amateur-level competitions. “I’m sure hot-shotting still occurs at smaller events,” said Dr. Rollin, who’s spoken to thousands of cowboys, stock contractors, and rodeo groups about livestock welfare issues. “There’s really very little regulation at these smaller events, which don’t always require veterinarians to be on-site. You’ll never be able to fully regulate this stuff away.”

A bucking bull has a 0.004 percent chance of sustaining a life-threatening injury at a PBR event, the company states, while the PRCA touts an animal injury rate less than 0.04 percent. Dr. Corey of the PRCA suspects the percentage rate is even lower for bucking bulls. “I’ve been doing rodeos for more than 25 years, and in all that time, I’ve seen maybe two bulls sustain a catastrophic injury that required euthanasia. It’s really, really rare for it to happen,” he said.

Much of bull riding’s appeal is that in no other contest between human and animal do the odds so clearly favor the animal. Simpson described it as “classic David and Goliath.” Yet most of these bouts end with David either limping or carried from the arena and Goliath trotting back to its pen. And the bulls continue to improve. “I’ve been saying for years they have to start breeding better riders,” Dr. Warner said.