What are The Basics of Bull Riding?
Some call bull riding the wildest eight seconds in sports. Others call it the most eight dangerous seconds in sports. Whatever you wish to call it, there’s no denying that the sport of bull riding is an adrenaline-pumping activity requiring nerves of steel.
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the sport than saddling a bull, climbing aboard, and hanging on for dear life. There’s a proper way to go about this popular spectacle and rodeo staple. This method exists on a plane where art, science, and safety intersect.
History of Bull Riding
Before we can get into the basics of modern-day bull riding, it’s important to trace the origins of the activity. Not surprisingly, the sport has its roots planted in the concept of machismo. These roots are also traced to something much more brutal.
Bull riding traces back to Mexico in the 16th century, where it was developed as an offshoot of bullfighting. It was created as a showcase of one’s horsemanship and ranch skills, but there were no time limits to be had. In fact, the original goal of bull riding was to ride the bull to death.
Thankfully, sensibilities evolved, and the object of the sport was to ride the bull until it became too tired to buck. By the mid-1800s, the sport had migrated to the American Southwest, where it became a hit in Texas and California thanks in part to the influx of Anglo and Mexican ranch hands working together. While it gained popularity through the rest of the century, it was still an exhibition event as wild as the Wild West itself.
This changed in 1936, when an organization called the Cowboy’s Turtle Association was formed to streamline the treatment of rodeo performers. The sport of bull riding continued to evolve over the years, eventually reaching a point where the riders created their organization solely devoted to the sport of bull riding in 1992. This organization, now known as Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR), has grown into a multi-million-dollar sports organization that continues to grow in popularity.
What are the Most Important Bull Riding Rules?
The object of bull riding is a simple premise. That is, stay on the bull for 8 seconds. Of course, it’s a little more complex that what this basic description offers.
For one thing, a successful bull ride must be done with just one hand held onto a flat, handled rope called a bull rope. The other hand must be held in the air for the entire eight-second ride. Once either hand falls out of position, your ride is over regardless of the time.
The eight-second journey begins once the bull's hip or shoulder breaks the plane of the gate that you and the bull will be behind. The clock will keep going for the full eight seconds unless one of three things happen:
- The rider touches himself with his free arm
- The rider touches the bull with his free arm
- The rider touches the ground with his free arm
How is a Bull Ride Scored?
These days, the endgame behind bull riding isn’t to impress fellow ranchers. It’s to score as many points out of 100 as possible. However, the scoring is twofold, evenly split between man and beast.
The points are doled out by a judging system. Usually, there are two judges, but some events may have more judges on hand to further parse the points. Ultimately, 50 of the 100 points up for grabs are awarded to the rider’s performance, with the other 50 points awarded to the bull.
For riders, judging is carried out on the following criteria:
- Riding rhythm – that is, how well they are coordinated with the bull’s movements
It’s possible for judges to award points for style if the rider’s control on the bull is particularly on point.
For bulls, judging is carried out on the following criteria:
- Specific movements, such as back end kicks or front-end drops
If a rider does not make it through the full eight seconds, they will not be granted a score. The bull, however, will be given a score.
Additionally, judges may grant the rider the opportunity for a re-ride if they score sufficiently low due to a poor performance on the part of the bull. In this scenario, the rider gives up the first score, waits for the other riders to finish their run, and rides again. There is risk involved, as the rider faces the possibility of getting bucked off the bull and receiving no score.
What Makes Bull Fighters So Important?
Also known as rodeo clowns, bullfighters are almost as recognizable as the bulls and riders. They’re certainly hard to miss – even though they don’t necessarily wear clown makeup like they used to back in the day, they still don bright, loose, sometimes outlandish clothing. Despite their outward appearance, they serve a critical purpose to bull riding – one that helps to protect the safety of the riders and the bulls.
A bullfighter’s primary objective is to distract the bulls once the rider’s been thrown. Their presence provides an alternative for bulls to go after other than the downed rider, should they be in the mood to attack.
Bullfighting is a dangerous job, as they’re deliberately putting themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the rider. As such, a proper bullfighter will carry a combination of speed, agility, and the capacity to anticipate a bull’s forthcoming moves.
While the art of clowning used to be part of the bullfighter’s job description, this is no longer the case. While there are clowns that provide entertainment and humor for the crowd during lulls – thus keeping the crowd engaged – they aren’t required to pull bullfighting duties at the same time.
There is no uniform size to a bull-riding arena – they vary from venue to venue. However, there are a few parameters to each arena that are common regardless of where the action is held.
Each arena will contain a large, open area that’s sufficient enough to allow the bulls, riders, and bull fighters to move without restriction. The arena is also encircled with a fence typically set six to seven feet high, which is in place to protect the customers from escaped bulls. Exits are also built into each corner of the arena to allow riders easy exit from the arena, and there is an exit chute specifically designed for bulls to leave.
What Equipment is Needed for Bull Riding?
A bull rider may look like a cowboy or ranch hand when they climb aboard their bucking ride. While it’s an appealing aesthetic that fits the sport rather well given its history, there’s more to the outfit than looking the part. Each piece contains a specific purpose designed for safety and performance.
Let’s start from the top and look at the headgear. Riders are required to wear either a helmet or a cowboy hat, with the latter tending to be the preferred choice even though it offers less protection than the former. If the headgear flies off during the eight-second session, they will not incur a penalty.
The vest and chaps that a rider will don for the ride are specifically geared toward giving the rider an extra layer of protection. These will not only help guard them from a fall should they get thrown off, but they’ll also give them an extra layer of protection from a bull’s horn or hoof should the bullfighter fail to lure the beast away. It’s common for a rider to wear chaps that are adorned with fringe and bright colors.
Spurs also play an important role in a bull riding session, as they are designed to get the bull going when the gates fly open. However, a rider must be careful with this piece of equipment. If they wear spurs that are too long or if the spurs are determined to hurt the bull, they could incur a fine.
Gloves complete the rider’s look, and they make it easier for them to hang onto a bull as it bucks. It also helps protect the rider from potentially suffering rope burns during the riding process.
Speaking of ropes, a good bull rope is key for a rider’s performance, as it allows the rider to hang on to the bull as it bucks. It’s common for riders to put glue on the rope for extra grip. A proper saddle is also a key component, and they’re designed to fit the rider’s contours as perfectly as possible – it’s certainly not a “one size fits all” situation.
The flank strap is perhaps the most important piece of equipment for a bull to wear. This adjustable strap is an important motivator to encourage the bull to buck. As the name suggests, the straps wrap around the bull’s flanks; once the ride is over, this strap is removed as quickly as possible.
Finally, no flank strap would be complete without a bell. The sound the bell makes also encourages the bull to buck, which could pay off big dividends on the score sheet.
Fred is the editor of Equine Ridge. He grew up raising horses and has been riding, training, and competing for almost four decades. Fred started out performing on the AQHA and PHBA circuits. Fred trained other competitors in English and Western riding disciplines and today offers free riding lessons to youth who would otherwise not be able to afford lessons. When not working with horses he can be found backpacking or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Email Fred at firstname.lastname@example.org