Chasing the Gap: Cowboys Face a Rigged Fight Against a New Breed of Bucking Bulls

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

 

Clay Hindman was feeling good as he wrapped his bull rope tightly around his right, dug in his spurs, and got ready to give the go on an August night at the rodeo in Herreid, South Dakota. He couldn’t know then that some time between his nod and the split second when it all went black, his whole summer would change fast. In less then eight seconds anyway, which may be the worst of it. 

Before the wicked turn that knocked his inside foot loose and lost him his kilter — and the horn that tossed him ragdoll-like to where he landed, all shoulders and neck, on the arena floor, and the swears, gasps and prayers from the bleachers — he was sitting in pretty good position to qualify for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) Badlands Circuit Finals. He was as close as he’d been to reaching the cowboy dreams of his youth around Belvidere and Kadoka, where the White River parallels the I-90 in both directions as it snakes listlessly eastward toward Lake Francis Case. 

When he drew his bull earlier that evening he had reason to be optimistic about his odds. He had rode Money Maker true to his name for 84 points just that spring. 

“This time," he recalls, "things just went wrong."

The next morning he'd be under the knife in Sioux Falls, as the surgeon implanted plates in two of his cervical vertebrae to keep his broken neck from shifting and pinching or severing his spine. 

clayhindman5.JPGClay Hindman at Desperado Days in Kimball, South Dakota.

From outside the cowboy community looking in, bull riding might be seen as a denim and rhinestones-heavy staging of capitalism’s cruel pageantry out on the Plains — pitting man versus beast of burden against each other in service of spectacle and mammon, a gladiator’s arena lorded over by Stetsoned Caesars, Wranglers stretched tight by the bulge of salacious bankrolls, Stetsoned Cleopatras on their arms. 

Fly in from office country to a small town Western rodeo, or turn on the homespun macho hype of a televised Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Built Ford Tough Series event — soundtrack by Gary Allan (“Maybe I just get off on the pain”), intro barked by R. Lee Ermey in a country western reprise of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman — it might look that way. There’s something else there too though, like a primal respect (a love maybe?) of cowboy for bull, that though unrequited keeps them coming back, that keeps even the maimed survivors on the periphery if not center stage. But the danger is what sells the tickets. 

There aren’t enough reliable stats available on Afghani buzkashi to make an educated comparison. For now at least, bull riding is widely considered the world’s most dangerous sport. 

Until recently, the game has been about as cavalier about compiling data on injuries as cowboys are toward injury itself. The premier authority on rodeo injuries is Dale Butterwick, a sports epidemiologist recently retired from the University of Calgary. His team of researchers set up a registry, the first of its kind, that scoured local newspaper reports, tracked down word-of-mouth from cowboys, bullfighters and rodeo medics to paint as accurate a picture as possible of the years 1989-2009 in the US and Canada. The registry counted 21 fatalities, sixteen of them bull riders. 

riders3.JPGBulls commonly stream rainbows of mucus as they attempt to eject their riders.

The New Yorker, reporting on the registry, noticed “an alarming spike: in the last two years of the study, the rate of catastrophic injury was more than double that of the twenty-year average.” Butterwick is more circumspect about the spike. “Getting a spike later, in the more modern era doesn’t surprise me really,” says Butterwick, “but the question is: is it a spike in injury or a spike in data collection? We don’t really get to know the answer.” 

“The trouble with the study was, it was the first one ever done. There was nothing to compare it to. With cowboys, they have computerized programs that can tell you where they got on a horse or a bull and how many times and all of that, whereas with injury, we haven’t matured to the point where that is happening. So we had to start all those systems. But we certainly found that bull riding had the most fatalities.”

Butterwick expects the next data set compiled by the Rodeo Catastrophic Injury Registry to be published within a year, and hopes that from there a more reliably precise picture will emerge of the dangers of bull riding. “We’ll know soon whether a spike is going on,” he says. “I don’t think it’s getting less dangerous.” 

riders16.JPGA bull rider gets a nudge of the horn, and a little help from a bullfighter, at Desperado Days.

Like many observers, and participants in the sport, he suspects that life got harder for cowboys when science was wed to the quest to create the perfect bucking bull.  

“PBR is paying lots of money for bulls that are really hard to ride. And so people are breeding for those outcomes. There’s not a weak bull in the whole group. And there are more young bulls, because they need reputations. The bull side of the equation is being followed carefully and planned. The bull riding part of the equation is falling behind.” 

And as the quest to create meaner, ranker, buckin’ bulls escalates, the danger increases, or at least that’s what almost anybody in the business will tell you. In the last twenty years, the sport’s popularity has traced an arc that hews parallel to the rise of name bulls, and, according to the anecdotal evidence, a corresponding uptick in painful unwanted off-time for injured cowboys.  

In 2013, Forbes named bull riding “America’s Fastest Growing Sport,” lamenting opportunities lost with the late realization that “if you were one of the original 20 cowboys that invested $1,000 to fund the start of the Professional Bull Riding circuit 21 years ago and remained an owner – which some have – your seed money would now be worth over $4 million.” PBR tours now award over ten million dollars per year, attracting thousands of fans to arenas in towns like Watford City, North Dakota, Uvalde, Texas and Big Sky, Montana, broadcasting the Built Ford Tough Series on CBS and to sports networks around the world. PBR’s successes are cloned, on a smaller scale, by bull riding-only leagues like the CBR (Championship Bull Riding), and countless other small, regional operations.

As the sport’s popularity grows, and bull men stand to make more money, there’s more incentive to breed ranker bulls.  
  riders.JPG"Young Guns" prepare their ropes and wait for their chance to ride.
To make a bull ride official, and obtain a score, the rider must remain tethered to his ride for eight seconds, one hand on the bull rope, without touching any part of the bull with his free hand. Judges give a maximum score of fifty to both bull and rider. Reaching that eight second mark moves the bull’s score into the rider column for a max of 100. The max score has only been reached once — in 1991, by Wade Leslie versus Wolfman Skoal, at a PRCA rodeo in Medford, Oregon. The vast majority of rides end in a no-score. Even the PBR’s very best still end up in the dirt before the buzzer about half the time. The vast majority of bull riders bat below the .300 range.   

Westward from Belvidere, the White River traces a muddy sidewinding squiggle past Kadoka, where the prairie begins to recede then gives way to craggy splotches of sun-caked regolith, jagged cliffs and billowy mounds with orange, red and yellow piping. It was on this landscape — where verdancy and desolation hopscotch and circle each other like turkey buzzards then call each other quits, where even a pale primrose must put up something like a fight for a spot in the sun — that Clay Hindman developed a taste for rough stock. 

The son of a bronco rider who made a living on the land doing ranch work and rodeo, Clay grew up in the game, riding steers as a young boy then working his way up to saddle broncs and bulls in high school. After college in Texas, he narrowed his focus to bulls, traveling to South Dakota Rodeo Association (SDRA) events and open bull ridings, then graduating to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) circuit. He even tried a bull at one PBR event. He didn’t make it to eight seconds at that one though. And the PRCA felt like home. “Rodeo is one big family, the people that you meet and run into. When I was doing PRCA and didn’t have a job, just going down the road rodeoing, I met all kinds of really nice folks along the way, and folks that helped me out, and made some really good friends.” 

hindman:plooster.JPGClay Hindman on Two Strikes at Desperado Days in Kimball.Photo: Tom Plooster

He reached the top of his game in 2010, when he was called in to replace a no-show at an Xtreme Bulls event in Rapid City, and stole the prize money from higher-ranked riders. He took the first round with an 89 point ride, enough to keep his average up after drawing a more lackadaisical bull in the second. Then he brought the crowd to their feet with an 86 on the deceptively named The Breeze.

The win netted him just short of $7K. Less then a PBR payoff, but good money for a South Dakota bull rider, and it helped him climb to within the PRCA’s top 15 that year, closer to his dream of making a National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas then he’d ever been, before he hit a summer slump that burned through his travel reserves and sidelined him early. 

Even at the top echelons of the sport, whether in the PRCA or PBR, professional bull riders don’t get paid unless they still have hold of the rope when the eight second buzzer goes off. 

For the elite riders of PBR, payoffs at regular season events can top six figures, more than enough to live comfortably off all year, and pay travel expenses. The top three riders have amassed cumulative winnings in excess of five million dollars, with 27 having hit the seven figure mark. Still, the majority of riders who show up for an event get nothing but bucked off — a scheme cowboys aren’t quick to bristle under, as that’s the way it’s always been. 

The PBR’s near-mythical origin story begins with a meeting of some twenty iconic cowboys at a Scottsdale, Arizona hotel room. They had a hunch that bull riding had a better shot at making money as a stand alone event then, say, barrel racing, and with less of the standard rodeo staples on the ticket, there would be more to go around for bull riders. They were right. 

The league’s by-cowboys-for-cowboys origins don’t offer any guarantees though that effort alone will earn you the cost of the bus ride. No cowboy would expect as much. They do operate a Rider Relief Fund to assist riders and bullfighters injured on the job. And the PRCA — as well as some of the other rodeo and rough stock operators — provide insurance included with the annual membership fees. Though paying for the deductible, let alone the coinsurance or covering costs above the maximum coverage on a major injury, can be hard on a cowboy who doesn’t have additional insurance or a well-stocked savings account.     

Far away from the bright lights of big league venues like Guymon and Moline, at the bread-and-butter circuits that constitute rodeo’s minor leagues, the paydays are seldom, and smaller. And though the rankest bulls will buck their way to bigs, often they’ll hone their spins, vertical kicks and belly rolls before smaller town crowds, against harder luck cowboys, without much in the way of insurance, or maybe gas money depending on their day job situation.      

clayhindmanchutes.JPG

Clay Hindman hasn’t reached the top tier in the PRCA standings since he hit that late summer slump in 2010, though not for lack of trying. 

That August, he was in the running for the Badlands Circuit Finals, feeling good as he drove into Herreid. When he drew the white bull by the name of Money Maker, he felt even better, having proved his rideability. When he had his rope rosined and wrapped and liked his position in the chute, he nodded his head and the gate swung open.       

Winter Hindman, Clay's wife, feels he should have received a score for the ride. “According to my video he was already at 8 seconds.” 

As Clay came off, Money Maker turned, caught him with his horns and catapulted him like a human bottle rocket headfirst to the ground. 
 
When he stood up, Winter could tell something wasn’t right. “When he came off, he just kind of stumbled in the arena like he couldn’t get his footing, so I went back into the bucking chutes after they got the bull out of the arena, and he seemed to be fine. I picked up his rope and he walked behind the bucking chutes and he said, ‘What happened?’”

She pulled out her camera and showed him the video. “Then about five minutes later he’s like, ‘Well, what happened?’ So I knew at that time he had suffered a concussion.” 

With some convincing, she got him to let an EMT look him over. The EMT suggested he needed to go to the hospital in Bismarck, but he insisted on going home to Pierre, even got out in Gettysburg to pump some gas.

“I finally got him talked into going to the hospital the next day. He probably never would have went for it if it wasn’t for his thumb being numb.”

madbull.JPGA bull ejects his rider at the "Rumble On The Prairie" in Leola.

At the hospital in Pierre, they discovered that his sixth and seventh vertebrae were broken. The doctor told him he was lucky not to be paralyzed. He was sent to Sioux Falls for surgery, then told to spend three months at home recuperating, a tall order for a restless cowboy with no insurance (at the time). 

The time away from riding bulls and his day job at a reclamation and fencing company in Pierre was lean. “We found out what it was like to eat lots of processed food,” says Winter. 

But people helped out. “Really amazing people, people we didn’t even know before,” says Winter. Family and friends held a fundraiser for him at the Sargent Ranch Lodge — featuring a fishing contest, pulled pork dinner and silent auction. 

Last Fourth of July’s Eve he made his return in Faulkton, South Dakota, taking Slick Willie — owned by Faulk County Sheriff Kurt Hall — for an 84-point ride. It was a well-earned eighth second, but on the dismount, he caught a horn to the head that dredged up memories of the previous summer. “I’m nine months pregnant, straddling the fence, and it dawned on me, ‘I can’t go in there,’” Winter recalls. “All I can see is a replay of Herreid. That’s what was going through my mind is, ‘Oh my gosh, not again.’ But he was fine, and he agreed with me that he wouldn’t get on his other bull.” 

Despite skipping the “short-go” — the final round for those who receive qualified rides in the first, that 84 points would win him the night in Faulkton.   

Since coming back, Clay's rehabilitation tour has stuck to the regional Northern Bull Riding Tour (NBRT) circuit and some other regional rodeo and rough stock shows. Though he plans to get his PRCA card soon. 

riders17.JPG

Bull riding has never been easy. Bulls do not consent to be ridden. So much of the West’s lore is in Sisyphean attempts to tame inherently untamable lands, animals, spirits, people. Most rodeo events can trace their origins to a practical purpose. A beast’s will is bent or broken toward utilitarian aims. Wild ponies had to be made to abide contact, carry their riders, ford rivers, herd the cattle toward their wintering grounds or railcars bound for Chicago’s Back of the Yards; beefs had to be roped or penned, obstacles negotiated on horseback. There is no real utility at the primordial heart of bull riding other than to elevate the test of wills between cowboy and cowbeast to eight seconds of totemic combat.  

For some bulls, the insult of an uninvited backside seems to fester even after the itch has been scratched and the rider lies bested. These bulls sometimes turn their horns, or their full weight, on a rider as he falls, as he lies helpless in the dirt, or walks away. Bullfighters are employed to misdirect some of this surplus rage, but sometimes they lose too.  

Among the icons on the cowboy side of the sport are the names of fallen and catastrophically injured riders. They are obsidian, often monosyllabic names, like Lane Frost, who died after completing a successful 85 point ride on Takin’ Care of Business at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, when the bull turned on him and pinned him to the floor of the arena with a blow of his horns that broke several ribs, piercing Frost’s heart and lungs. Or the legendary Jerome Davis, paralyzed below his arms by Knock ’Em Out John in 1998. Davis is one of several former PBR pros who raises bulls now, and hosts the annual Jerome Davis PBR Invitational at his ranch in Archduke, North Carolina.    

Many trace the rise of the new era bull to one moment of bull vs. cowboy violence by Bodacious, a bull infamous for his signature move: throwing his head back while his rear legs thrusted skyward, cracking skulls with a vicious head butt as cowboys were flung forward and crumpled by the blow. The legendary Tuff Hedeman famously met with the backward-flung dome of Bodacious in 1995. The blow broke every bone in his face, though somehow he managed to walk away mangled and dazed. Hedeman would return and win the PBR World Championship that year, but he wouldn’t ride Bodacious again. When he drew the bull who nearly killed him just a couple months later at the National Finals Rodeo, Hedeman fulfilled a promise to his son and held onto the girders of the bucking chute as the gate opened. The crowd respected his decision.

When rider Scott Breding drew him at the same event, he attempted to protect himself with a hockey mask. Bodacious shattered his eye socket anyway. Owner Sammy Andrews retired his money maker in his prime, afraid that he would kill somebody. 

Bodacious became a prolific stud in retirement and through artificial insemination his semen went on to sire bulls and dams even after he moved on to celestial pastures. Rank PBR bulls like Avalanche can trace a short line to the origins of their fight. The paternal legacy of today’s bovine superstars like Mick E Mouse, Asteroid and Roy will live on long after they’ve bucked their last. In the last couple decades, the art of raising bucking bulls has become a lucrative science. And the new breed is raising a ruckus at rodeo grounds from São Paulo to Okotoks, Alberta.

Nate Morrison raises bucking bulls in the Potato Creek area of the South Dakota badlands and operates an auction site for breeders. A couple years ago his website hosted the sale of a bull named Magic Train to NFL star Jared Allen’s stable for $200K. He’s watched the bull breeding business explode. “It wasn’t until 10 years ago that bucking bulls became a really big business. It used to be limited to your stock contractors who would just go to the sale barns or raise the bulls from their own programs. Getting a rank bucking bull that way was a lot harder and took a lot longer than it does now.” 

leolabull.JPGA young rider on a bull at the "Rumble On The Prairie" in Leola.

Morrison has seen firsthand how newer breeding techniques — like artificial insemination and “flushing” dams who come from good bucking stock for multiple embryos, pairing them with rank sires and finding them a gestational surrogate — have revolutionized the game. “There used to be rank bucking bulls back in the day but there wasn’t as many of them as there is now. Now, you go to a rodeo and every single bull is ranked at the top of their game.”

Associations like the American Bucking Bull Inc. (ABBI) run registries to trace the bloodlines of rank bulls and host derbies where owners of smart-bred bulls compete with each other for top ratings on their buck, kick, and intensity, sometimes earning five figure sums for their owners.    

The highest paying operation a stock contractor can aspire to for his bulls is the PBR, but Morrison says the industry’s biotech turn and the consequent glut of rank bulls has a trickle-down effect felt across the overlapping constellations of rodeo and rough stock events run by various regional or statewide operations and one-offs. “As far as the quality of the bulls, they’re going to be the same. They’re going to be as rank as bucking bulls going to the PBR finals and going down to PRCA rodeos.” The smaller events are where the rank bulls go to make a reputation before they move up to the bigs. “The big difference is going to be the quality of riders getting on those bulls.”  

The ability gap that smart breeding has opened between today’s lab-bred bull and old-fashioned organic cowboys is a frequent topic of conversation in the world of bull riding and raising — more a refrain then a lament. Tears shed for cowboys are hard to come by. “We may have to start flushing some world champions’ moms to keep up with the bulls,” jokes Jerome Davis.

The pugnaciousness of today’s riders compared to those of yore is never a settled matter. At the PBR level there’s some consensus that the modern training regimen is more in sync with that of other athletes — more gym time, less whiskey and brawling then in cowboying’s glory years. Except for the elite riders who make the big money though, (this year’s PBR champion will receive a $1 million dollar bonus in addition to the quarter million he receives for the win) most must still make a living outside the arena. 

Harvey Bierema supplies stock for events throughout the Northern plains through his Northern Bull Riding Tour operation, headquartered in the White River area. Some of his bulls, like Fire & Smoke, Slim Shady, Cuddle Bug and Jack Wagon have moved up to the PBR (some under new ownership). NBRT events like the Desperado Days Rodeo last weekend in Kimball, South Dakota — a stop on Clay Hindman’s road back to the PRCA — can be an opportunity to shine, for cowboy or bull alike, and maybe even move up a level. In this, man and beast share something like a common way station on their road through the ranks. 

clayhindman7.JPG

Bierema, who rode bulls for 24 years in the PRCA has seen the tables turn on the ability ratio. “I remember going to little rodeos that would have over 100 bull riders. They didn’t have enough good bulls. Sometimes you’d get on a bull and he’d run across the pen. And that was pretty tough, to win money on those kinds of bulls.”  

A sure sign of these sedentary times: there are fewer bull riders today then a few decades ago, which combined with the rise of the new breed of bull means more opportunities for the best riders to make money, and many more for them and everybody else to get hurt. That’s the business. Cowboys know what it is.

Clay Hindman knows first hand. Only he knows whether it’s really the money that lures him to places like Kimball. The purse at this year's annual Desperado Days was $3K. Most would walk away empty-handed, and blaming none other than themselves for that. There’s always next time. 

easton.JPGTucker Easton prepares his bull rope.

The next generation was there at Desperado Days as well, the young cowboys who will have to unlock the secret to narrowing the gap. Fifteen-year-old Tucker Easton of Wessington Springs competed in the “Young Guns” contest versus bulls, ideally, at  points on their trajectory commensurate with their rider’s.

Treating his bull rope with glycerin — the better to hold the rosin he’d rub it with to make it stick when he pulled it tight around his draw’s torso — beneath the blazing six o’clock sun outside the stock pens, as the crowd cooled off with cans of Coors on an airless prairie night, he dedicated this one as always to his big brother Tyler, who lost his fight with osteosarcoma five years ago at age 22. “He got me started before he got diagnosed with cancer, and I just always wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Tucker said. Tyler got to watch Tucker ride once, when he was ten. He hopes to graduate from the Young Guns to riding in the PRCA or PBR. At Desperado Days, like most of the Young Guns, he was bucked off, by a white bull with black spots named War.

easton:plooster.JPGTucker Easton on War.Photo: Tom Plooster

Clay Hindman drew Two Strikes. He started off well, stars on the heels of his boots dug deep into Two Strikes’ hide and holding position to weather the first furious round of spinning skyward kicks. A few seconds in he lost his footing, then his bull rope on a turn. He somersaulted head over horns to the ground. A disappointing outing, though part of the game. But it wasn’t time to roll the tape just yet. Before he could get up, Two Strikes, some bluster in his eye, squared his shoulders, lowered his horns and took a charge. In the bleachers people bit their lips. The bullfighters rushed in and caught Two Strikes’ eye. He raised his horns and leapt toward another target.

"He ran a hook into me, clipped me pretty good,” Clay said after. “Everything went wrong from my nod, but I still fought.” Nothing major, only bruises. There’s always the next one. “I guess some days it’s chickens,” he says, “other days it’s feathers.”

Maybe there’s some sunny rodeo out there somewhere beyond the bonecrushing maw of The Gap where every cowboy gets a chicken.

Update: After this story was published, Clay Hindman won the bull riding event at the Lower Brule Rodeo with an 82 point ride.

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