It all comes down to eight seconds. Eight mind-searing seconds of thrashing, whipping and flailing, when a cowboy attempts to hold on for dear life with one iron fist atop a wild, snarling animal. So why do competitors repeatedly and willingly put their lives on the line for this sport? All because rodeo is the pride and joy in the bold heart of Texas.
It’s a true Texas baptism where beginning bronc riders practice all across the state, like the Waller County Fairgrounds in the small southeastern town of Hempstead. When the air horn goes off, and the chute opens in the stock arena, the wannabe cowboy flying out on the back of a bucking horse has a few important decisions to make.
First, as the horse raises up and mercilessly kicks its hind legs in the air, he has to figure out the best way to stay on. Next, he has to decide the best and safest way to fall off the horse (if he’s lucky enough to have a choice in the matter). Lastly, after all the dust settles, the crowd leaves, and the bronco is brought back to its pen, he’ll have to decide whether rodeo is the life for him.
Rodeo is an expensive sport if you weren’t born into ranch life. You either have to enroll in a pricey rodeo school, live near a high school with a rodeo program, or buy your way into the saddle. But here, at the Southeast Texas Bareback Riding School, it’s free for the 60 young men during our visit, including city kids who’ve never touched a live horse, Australian ranch hands, and tanned, wide-eyed young bucks from Brazil.
Texas rodeo legend Jay Cannon, along with his sons Clint and Kirby, founded the school to help preserve something essential about Texas rodeo life. Even though over the last century, rodeo has become professionalized, standardized and monetized, at the root of it, it’s still about one thing: freedom.
Just like the cowboys of old, it’s a chance to control your destiny, set up a nice life on the road, and see the world from a saddle. And if you’re serious about becoming a rodeo cowboy, there’s only one place to do it right: The Lone Star State. Yes, you’ll find rodeo events in every state, but in Texas, it is part of the identity.
With the two largest rodeos in Houston and San Antonio, the sport represents the native spirit. Even if the closest a Texan has gotten to a bucking bull is a dentist’s chair, he still feels a bond with his stock riders. It’s sport, symbolism and local pride all rolled into one.
“It’s a great thing for individuals to find something they can put their whole heart and soul and body into and achieve by themselves,” says Cannon. After the campers ride a bucking bronco in the arena following a day’s worth of instruction, most will go home bruised and sore but with an irreplaceable memory. A few of the more promising recruits will be scouted and given full-ride scholarships to college. All, however, will learn why rodeo becomes an addiction.
“When you turn the animal out, it’s just you against him,” says Cannon. “It’s spine-tingling when you finally make the ride. It doesn’t matter if there are 100 or 1,000 or 5,000 people watching. You might as well have won the Super Bowl each time.”
“My youngest son is in college, and in one year, he’ll ride 175 bucking horses in more than 100 pro rodeos,” says Greg Champion, COO of Benchmark Hospitality. His two sons, Richmond and Doug, went to college on rodeo scholarships and both compete on the professional circuit. Champion adds, “It seems like high school and college kids usually just play video games and get into trouble, but these rodeo riders have no time for that. They have to learn about their bodies and be in the best mental and physical condition. Riding on a bronco for eight seconds might not seem that long, but that exertion and what leads up to it is equivalent to working for eight hours.”
Riders need immense leg and core strength to latch on to the animal, since they can experience forces 10 to 15 times the pull of gravity. At the same time, their upper bodies need to be strong and limber to survive the merciless whipping action. Shoulder muscles in particular can be torn while holding on to the rope.
Clint Cannon, the 2003 rookie of the year and one of the most popular bareback riders on the circuit, works out four times a week, doesn’t drink, and is scrupulous about nutrition. Despite that, Cannon is regularly called the “Bionic Cowboy” because he has Teflon in both his arms and one leg, and 29 screws and an artificial socket in his shoulder. He has punctured a lung, damaged his spleen, endured many concussions, and he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
His winning, picture-perfect bareback ride at the 2009 Rodeo Houston—the biggest of its kind in the nation—in front of almost 75,000 fans was voted the fourth greatest moment in Houston sports history by a local television station.
But the vast majority of rodeo riders never experience that kind of glory or even make much money. They live a life on the road and suffer brutal injuries. It’s simply about higher principles, and that’s something Jay Cannon tries to emphasize at his rodeo school.
“Not everybody is going to be a champion,” he says. “We teach kids how to set goals and achieve those goals. How to give all you got when you have the most terrible fear in your heart.”