Few people can say they have sustained two broken thumbs, a broken ankle, a badly bruised knee and multiple concussions and then finish by saying that they’ve been pretty fortunate in their careers.
But bull riders are not like “average” people. They spend most of their lives training every day to face animals more than 10 times their weight, and each encounter is unpredictable and carries with it the possibility of ending in death. Being “fortunate” is the ability to get back up after being thrown from a bucking bull.
Cityview spoke to two members of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) organization to see what it takes to make a living as they prepare to descend on Des Moines April 25-26 at Wells Fargo Arena as part of the series’ premiere tour, the Built Ford Tough Series.
A family affair
For many riders, the ambition to ride bulls professionally begins at an impressionable young age when first get to see the sport up close and personal. It’s a family affair as well. For Matt Triplett, 23, and Tanner Byrne, 22, joining the sport was about following in their fathers’ footsteps.
“My dad rode bulls, and my dad’s been my hero my whole life,” said Triplett, a native of Columbia Falls, Montana, who is ranked second in the world at press time. “I just kind of knew that I was going to be a bull rider all my life because he did it, and I just wanted to do exactly what he did.”
Triplett held the coveted top ranking until late March when he was bucked off a bull and kicked in the knee. That injury forced him to sit out for a couple weeks, but even without earning new points, Triplett has still managed to keep more than 400 points between him and third place.
“At first I thought I’d torn my PCL and LCL, but it’s just bruised and a slight little tear, so I’m good,” he said casually. “I’ll only miss one event.”
The PBR tour spans the majority of the year — from January through the middle of May and August through October — with competitions nearly every weekend. Triplett’s injury came just before an off week, which saved him from sitting out two rounds. But a bruised knee can’t keep him down. He rides his bike nearly every day to re-strengthen it, lifts weights and practices hot yoga to help with his flexibility.
“I do a lot of yoga,” he said. “It keeps me really flexible and really limber, and those are two key points of riding bulls.”
Byrne also practices yoga to improve his flexibility, in addition to regular cardio and core exercises.
“It’s weird to say, but it’s kind of like being a gymnast,” Byrne explained. “You have to be able to put your body in the position that it needs to be in, so you have to have full control over it.”
Byrne grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, and joined PBR as soon as he was eligible at age 18. He started riding smaller animals when he was 9 years old and worked his way up to junior bull riding before getting on his first full-sized bull at 15. This is his second year on the Built Ford Tough Series.
Similar to Triplett, bulls were always present in Byrne’s life.
“My dad was a bull fighter for many years — one of the guys who protects us when we hit the ground,” he said.
Byrne says his mom used to be a barrel racer, and his two brothers are both bullfighters now.
“My brother Jesse is actually one of the main bullfighters on the Built Ford Tough Series that works every weekend at the events that I go to, so we’ve kind of got that cool little bond,” he said. “We get to stay together, and he’s one of the guys that protects me out there, which is kind of cool.”
Facing the bull
When it comes to sports, eight seconds can seem like a blur or a lifetime. The first eight seconds of a football game pass in the blink of an eye. The last eight seconds of a basketball game can take five minutes.
When it comes to riding bulls, those eight seconds are what riders have been training for their whole lives. It’s make or break. Life or death.
And when your job — and sometimes your life — comes down to surviving those few precious seconds on the bucking back of an angry bull, it takes a certain type of mindset.
“I try to not let anything go through my mind before I go out to ride, because if you think, you’re a second behind. And you can’t be a second behind,” said Triplett. “All bull riding consists of is muscle memory, and if you put the training and the time in during the week, you shouldn’t have to think about it.”
Triplett knows that firsthand, as he’s dedicated his life to training for the sport. During the weekend he is riding, and by Monday, it’s back in the gym.
“That’s all my life consists of,” he said. “If you don’t put as much training into it as possible, then there’s no reason to get on them.
“Every weekend we get on the best bulls in the world, so if you don’t train yourself, you could die doing it.”
The bulls are competitor, too. You’ll find both under the “athletes” tab on the PBR website, with pictures, names and statistics. The top two bulls currently are Asteroid and Mick E Mouse, both with 100 percent buck off rates.
“No matter if you stay on, you’re still getting whipped around or hitting the ground,” Byrne explained. “So you’re always sore, and that’s something we have to deal with every weekend. The main goal is to stay healthy while you’re on this tour, because it’s such a grinding tour. The bulls are the best in the world, so you’ve got to be healthy as best you can.”
Triplett agreed, adding that the bulls are bred like Kentucky Derby runners, treated like kings and highly respected. They are trained every day, just like the riders. Byrne says raising bulls has become similar to the horse racing business.
“It seems like everybody and their dog owns bulls nowadays,” he laughed. “They’re going full force making these bulls as highly ranked as possible, because that’s how these people are making their living. They get fed better than we do, I think.”
The riders see a variety of bulls throughout the year, depending on the location of each event. They are paired via a drawing, and Byrne says there are a few bulls that everyone would prefer to ride because of the potential to produce better scores for the riders. Each bull has a different bucking style, just like each rider has a different riding style.
Byrne said it’s possible to draw the same bull twice, which is an advantage to know how the animal feels or what it might do. But he acknowledged that no matter how often a bull bucks one way, there is always the chance he’ll go another.
“You’re never going to overpower an animal, so it’s all about making those counter moves to try to move the power away from the bull,” Byrne said.
Byrne is ranked 19th at press time, up from his previous spot at 22nd, despite coming down with the flu between events. Much like Triplett, he doesn’t seem to be concerned. As long as he’s feeling OK come Friday and Saturday, he’ll be riding.
Byrne talks about his ailments and injuries like the average person talks about paper cuts.
“I’ve had a bunch of bumps and bruises, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’ve had some broken bones, collarbones, concussion — different things like that. But in the bull riding world, I’ve been very lucky that way, not getting seriously injured like a lot of the guys have.”
Byrne had his collarbone broken when he was 16, and clearly remembers how the bull stepped on him and his bone “just snapped.” But he tells the story like one might talk about a time they fell out of a tree and sprained a wrist. To riders, most injuries simply aren’t a big deal.
Byrne and Triplett have carried that fearlessness into adulthood. That’s not to say they scoff at the deadliness of the sport; both men are deeply aware of the risks that come along with their chosen career. But they’ve thousands of hours of time and commitment into getting this far; risks won’t stop them from chasing their passion.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this world that can keep me from riding bulls,” said Triplett. “I’ll do it until I absolutely can’t do it anymore.”
Triplett has seen more than a fair share of injuries, both small and severe. By now he’s learned that it’s not a matter of if a rider is going to get hurt; it’s a matter of when. But even with that knowledge, he’s never really been scared, he said.
“I’ve been doing it all my life,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty good relationship with the good Lord, so if that’s when he wants me to go, that’s my time I guess. The only thing I really get scared of is failure.”
An early retirement
Most professional sports see their athletes retire at a much earlier age than that of a typical business professional. For the high-impact, high-risk sport of bull riding, that magic number is roughly age 35.
Both Triplett and Byrne say their goal is to have made enough money on the PBR circuit to fully retire from work after their time on the tour ends.
“Hopefully I’ve made enough money where I don’t have to do anything,” said Triplett, who has his sights set on the first place title, which takes home $1 million at the end of the season.
The winner is determined by a point system throughout the PBR’s various events throughout the year. The 2015 season is the beginning of a new points system created to ensure that the most consistent rider — the rider with the most wins throughout the season — would be the PBR World Champion. The Built Ford Tough Series is one of several PBR tours that play into the final score. The others are the 15/15 Bucking Battles, BlueDEF Velocity Tour, Touring Pro Division and international tours in Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.
That prize — and the bragging rights of being the top bull rider in the world — is enough to make the training, broken bones and long hours on the road worth it. Riders have the opportunity to travel around the world — although there’s not much time for much else on the grueling schedule.
“It gets tiring, that’s for sure,” said Byrne. “It’s not like we go somewhere and get to see the city wherever we’re at. We’re pretty much just in the hotel room and then go to the event and then get ready for the next state.”
Byrne’s schedule is a bit more hectic than some of the other riders because he likes to go back home to Canada during the week to spend time with his wife. For him, a typical week includes events on Friday and Saturday, flying to Canada on Sunday or Monday to spend two days at home then leaving again on Thursday to make the next event.
“I just like to come home and regroup,” he explains, adding that he still enjoys the places PBR has taken him and the times that his wife can join him on the tour.
Triplett’s weeks are a little more “normal” for the touring circuit. When he’s not training, he spends some time exploring the new venues.
“I think there’s just maybe a handful of places I haven’t been to,” he said. “Every place we get to go to has been remarkable.”
His favorite place is Anaheim, California, which he says is always his favorite event.
“We’re right there by the beach, so I get to go to Disneyland and act like a kid,” he laughed. “It’s a fun one to go to.”
As someone who has seen so much of the world already, Triplett says he plans to stay close to home after he retires.
“As of right now, I like my living situation,” he said. “In the winter I live in Texas because it’s warm there, but in the summer there’s no place like home in Montana. I live in a beautiful state surrounded by mountains. Really, I’ve traveled around the world and I’ve been everywhere, and there’s no place that matches Montana.”
What it takes to win
In sports, having a good strategy is key. Athletes must be prepared for every possible outcome, because they never know exactly what their opponent will do.
That’s especially true for bull riding, when the opponent is a raging animal. In that case, it comes down to the preparation before the event.
“There’s not much really going on [in your mind] when you’re in the chutes,” said Byrne of the moments leading up to the ride. “It’s all reaction, so whatever that bull — whatever move he makes — you have to have your body in that position to stay on that next jump. If you’re thinking about it, you’re probably that half a second behind, and your leg will probably be in the dirt.”
The years of training and practice all up to those eight seconds when the rider meets the bull. Byrne says it’s all about clearing the mechanism and letting the body take over, letting go of any fear or hesitation that might take him out of the game for even one moment.
At this point in their lives, these riders have spent more years riding bulls than not. They know the dangers and the risks, but they also know the rewards.
“Like any other professional athlete, it takes a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work,” said Triplett. “It’s not something that’s just given to you. Just like anything you want in life, you’ve got to want to succeed, and you’ve got to want the dedication, the training.
“You’ve got to do whatever it takes to reach your goals.” CV
2. Protective Vest. Every bull rider must wear the protective vest, which has dramatically reduced the number of internal injuries.
3. Glove. A bull rider wears a glove on his riding hand. The leather glove, which protects both the hand and fingers, is secured around the wrist with tape to keep it from being torn from the rider’s hand by the tremendous force of the bull.
4. Rosin. Each bull rider carries a container of rosin, a sticky substance that provides a little extra grip.
5. Chaps (pronounced shaps). Each pair of chaps is custom-made. They reflect a rider’s personality while also displaying sponsor logos. Chaps can also provide some protection, particularly in the chute.
6. Bull Rope. Braided from nylon or grass, the bull rope is placed around the bull’s chest behind his front legs. The flat rope has a handle braided into it, constructed partially of leather, which is the bull rider’s only anchor for the duration of his rider. At the bottom of the rope hangs a metal bell designed to give the rope some weight so that it will fall off the bull as soon as the rider is bucked off or dismounts the animal. The bell has smooth, round edges and does not harm the bull in any way.
7. Boots. Bull riders wear boots that have a special ridge on the heel, which helps their spurs stay in place.
8. Spurs. Spurs help the cowboy stay in position on a bull. The rowels are dull so they don’t injure or cut the skin of the bull.
The Professional Bull Riders will be at Wells Fargo Arena April 25-26. Tickets range from $12-$102 and are available at the Wells Fargo Arena Box Office, online at www.iowaeventscenter.com or by phone at (866) 553-2457.