Bull riding is one of rodeo’s most popular and dangerous events. It originated from informal cowboy competitions to see who could stay on an untrained bull the longest. Today, bull riding is an intense 8-second ride that takes skill, bravery, and a little bit of luck to conquer a bucking bull.
For those new to the sport, there’s more to bull riding than meets the eye. From the specially bred bulls to the protective gear riders wear, and even why they hold onto that rope, bull riding has many intriguing elements that casual viewers may overlook.
To help you better understand and appreciate this wild, action-packed event, let’s highlight some of the most fascinating facts about bull riding:
The Bulls Are Specially Bred Athletes
The bulls used in rodeos are no average cattle. Bucking bulls are bred specifically for their strength, agility, and tendency to jump and kick. Most come from lineages purposefully selected for generations to produce rough riders with fierce bucking abilities.
Many bulls on the circuit today can jump as high as 6 feet off the ground and kick their hind legs over their heads! Popular bucking bulls can become celebrities along with their rider counterparts. Top performers like Bushwacker, Bodacious, Code Blue, and Little Yellow Jacket have earned six-figure paychecks and cult followings over storied careers.
Riding Hand Requirements
In bull riding, contestants must ride one-handed, holding onto a braided rope tied behind the bull’s front legs. Most riders grasp this handle using only their riding hand – the hand they leave free from the body. This helps center their balance as the bull bucks and twists beneath them.
There’s no rule about which hand they must use, though. World champion bull rider Jerome Davis, for example, successfully rode with his left hand throughout his career earning over $1 million in prize money.
It’s More Than Just Hanging On
Sure, staying aboard a twisting, bucking, one-ton bull seems challenging enough. But professional judges score rides based on more than just how long cowboys can hang on without touching themselves or the bull with their free hand.
Judges look for style, control, and balance over the 8-second ride. They especially keep an eye out for keeping toes turned outward and free hand held high despite the bull’s furious efforts to dislodge its unwanted passenger. Spurring motion on every jump and roll with free arm waving adds extra style points too.
Protective Vests Save Lives
Bull riding ranks as one of rodeo’s most hazardous events, with a high risk of injury for all parties involved. Fortunately, modern riders wear specialized protective gear to help reduce injuries.
All bull riders now wear snug fitting vest lined with shock-absorbing foam over vital areas. Made from ballistic fabrics like Kevlar or Cordura nylon weave, they provide extra cushioning from impacts if slammed down by a bull or its hoof. They disperse the force rather than allowing it to harm vulnerable internal organs.
Many credit the mandatory adoption of safety vests in the 1990s with significantly reducing the number of catastrophic internal injuries and rider deaths over the past few decades.
Why They Hold the Rope That Way
If you’ve ever watched bull riding and wondered why they wrap the bull rope around their hand instead of just holding it, there’s a reason behind this seemingly awkward grip. The hand wrap provides a little extra security, ensuring the rider cannot be flung off or disqualified for losing hold of the rope.
Because inertia would continue pulling a released rope along the bull’s side, the wrap helps prevent getting bucked off by force alone. Riders will tape their palm and grip the wrapped section to reduce rope burn as the bull yanks it taut. It may look strange, but ensures they only release when ready (or unavoidably gets flung into the air).
Ranking the Rides
Scoring rides against the clock seems straightforward at first…until you consider variables like bull difficulty. Judges rank rides on a 0-100 scale, weighing several factors:
- Bull performance – how quickly and forcefully it bucks in patterns and spins
- Cowboy control – balance, spurring motion, free arm movement
- Length – hanging on for the full 8 seconds earns more points
To help standardize inconsistent bulls, each has an additional “bull score” from 0-50 assessing its bucking talents. This gets added to the rider’s points for his ability to match the bull. So an “easy” bull with few jumps would mean lower points, while a rank bull could boost an equivalent ride score higher.
Longest Recorded Ride
Most times, staying on just 8 seconds while being flung, twisted, and rammed on all sides feels like an eternity. But one brave Brazilian rider managed to endure nearly 10 times that long in what’s recognized as the Guinness World Record for the longest bull ride.
In 2016, Marcelo Pereira set the astounding record by staying on for 82.86 seconds – yes, nearly a minute and a half! 1 However, it wasn’t aboard just any bull. To safely set the world record, Pereira rode aboard a mechanical bull that spun and bucked on a programmed cycle rather than relying on the true unpredictability of a rank livestock athlete.
Million Dollar Cowboys
The very best bull riders get rewarded handsomely for their daring rides and death-defying moments. Those reaching the pinnacle of the sport can earn over $1 million annually through competitions on circuits like the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) and PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association).
The 2019 PBR World Champion, Jess Lockwood, took home over $1.5 million in earnings after also winning Rookie of the Year and the Overall Championship in previous seasons since going pro as a teenager in 2015. And plenty of other top competitors clear six figure salaries on a regular basis.
Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number
With bull riding’s intense physicality and danger level, you might assume it’s a young person’s sport best left to daring college kids and 20-somethings at their physical peak. But that’s not quite the reality in professional bull riding.
While teenage phenomenon can find success (Jess Lockwood won his first World Champion title at just 19 years old), it also has some old timers going strong well into their late 30s and early 40s.
In fact, the oldest rider ever to qualify for the PBR World Finals was 57 year old Gary Williams in 2009 over competitors less than half his age. Williams began riding bulls in his 40s as a new challenge after retiring from bronc riding…proving bull riding can be a life-long adrenaline fueled passion.
- Bucking bulls are specially bred for their strength, agility, and explosive bucking ability to challenge riders
- Contestants must ride one-handed, holding onto a braided rope handle tied behind the bull’s front legs
- Judges score rides on factors like rider control, spurring, and staying centered over 8 seconds
- Protective vests reduce catastrophic internal injuries from impacts with the bull
- Wrapping their riding hand in the bull rope offers more security to avoid getting bucked off
- Rank bulls can boost a rider’s score compared to easier bulls in a standardized scoring system
- The longest recorded ride was nearly 83 seconds…aboard a mechanical bull
- Top professional riders can earn over $1 million annually through various competition circuits
- While challenging, bull riding can be a lifelong sport with some competing into their 50s
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions newcomers have about professional bull riding:
How heavy are the bulls?
Bucking bulls generally weigh from 1,500-2,000 pounds. The enormous bull Bushwacker tipped scales at over 2,100 pounds!
Do the flank straps hurt the bulls?
No – the soft cotton flank straps are designed to encourage bucking but do not harm or goad the bulls. Bulls naturally dislike having anything on their back.
How many bull riders die each year?
Thankfully, fatalities are rare due to modern safety improvements – around 2 per year over 15,000+ rides. But injuries are still common requiring a high pain tolerance.
Do bulls or bull riders retire earlier?
Bulls generally retire sooner than riders. Most bulls reach peak performance around age 5 and ride 4-5 years. Riders can compete into their 40s or only retire after injury recovery.
What happens to bulls after retirement?
Many retired bulls relax away their days on pastures peacefully breeding cows. Top performers go to breeding programs to pass on their genes to future bucking bull dynasties.
Ready to Ride?
I hope these facts shed new light on the fascinating world of bull riding. It takes tremendous skill and bravery to battle a muscular bucking bull that can explode with over a ton of power. Both man and bull athlete display an intensity and passion that sets bull riding apart as a crowd-thrilling rodeo spectacle.
While dangerous and injury potential exists, modern safety improvements allow fearless riders to challenge themselves against these incredible bovine athletes. If you found these facts interesting, grab some tickets to a local rodeo or PBR event. Seeing these titanic battles in person will give you a whole new appreciation for the sport!