Sexual dimorphism explains the phenomenon by which males and females differ in size and appearance. For example, horses have very little dimorphism. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish males from females. Hyena females are around 15% larger than males. Like horses, they have a matriarchal social structure. Conversely, male gorillas are usually more than twice the size of females.
This brings us to cattle where dimorphism is amusingly at work. Having lived in farming areas, I can assure you most cows are relatively docile and have simple goals in life. They aren’t particularly bright. They are occasionally moody but rarely to an extreme.
Meanwhile, bulls often live up to their stereotype as a large, raging, toxic male. This is by design. Cows aren’t very fast. They have minimal defenses from predators. The presence of a hyper-territorial, muscular male helps protect the females and young.
And so humans, in their infinite capacity for bad ideas, decided that riding them would make for a good sport. Today, bull riding is only growing in popularity. It has also evolved in new ways that are making the best athletes seem more human than ever — and bulls, unrideable.
The demand for action
The sport has a simple premise: stay on the bull for a full eight seconds. Like diving and gymnastics, there are levels of difficulty to choose from. Easy bulls get easier points but a lower ceiling on your score. The harder the bull, the longer you last, the more points you get.
And this is how bull riding is actually two distinct sports. Bulls compete to be the “rankest bull”, meaning the least desirable to ride (by rational people). Bull trainers are paid based on how impossible their bulls are. If nobody lasts eight seconds, they win money and advance to more lucrative tournaments. Trainers also get big paydays for breeding rights, much like thoroughbred horses. Bulls are even included in the hall of fame inductions.
The sport is getting more difficult for riders
Decades ago, the best riders could last all eight seconds on all bulls. Today, an even more athletic group of riders is performing far worse. The average ride time was 7.6 seconds in the 1980s. Today, it has dropped to 4.4 seconds. On the best bulls, their times far, far worse.
Why? Because just as baseball fans love home runs, rodeo fans like seeing biggesr, baddest bulls in action. It builds the tension to see who is capable of riding them. As the sport has garnered more attention, the sophistication around breeding and nutrition has drastically improved. Experts in animal husbandry began pairing the meanest, most athletic bulls with cows who were related to other champion bucking bulls.
The result is a class of bulls that are more athletic than any in the history of their species. You really should see it live. They are incredible specimens.
First, there was Bodacious, referred to as “The World’s Most Dangerous Bull”. Only the very best bull riders mounted him. But when they did, not only were they tossed, many were sent home with an injury to deal with. Bodacious could shift between going vertical with his head and hindquarters faster than many bulls prior. Many riders went face-first into his head. We were taught that in a headbutting contest, a bull wins, by a lot.
This epitomization of the super-athlete bull is Bushwacker. He weighs more than an entire NFL front line and once graced the cover of ESPN magazine. As a calf, he was identified for having a bad attitude and being temperamental. Throw in his excellent breeding, and Bushwacker went on a meteoric run, setting the record for most consecutive buck-offs. For 42 straight rides, he sent an A-list of champion bull riders flying off of him like ragdolls.
He could jump straight up in the air like a professional high jumper, and also spin while doing so. He was also shockingly unpredictable, with an ability to twist, bob, and weave. He violently jerked in random directions. It was never consistent from one ride to the next. Watching footage did riders little help.
Because of bulls like Bushwacker, the sport began seeing more injuries. New regulations require riders to wear vests for stomping and helmets — for obvious reasons. They may soon need full plate armor.
The big takeaway
Bull riding isn’t cruel in the way that most think, certainly not like the barbarism of bullfighting. For example, it is a popular misconception that a rope is tied around the bull’s “privates” to aggravate him. It isn’t. The ropes are tied around its torso for grip and to encourage it to buck its hind legs more. There are also significant rules around how often a bull can run. There is always a veterinarian at each event. Candidly, champion bulls are treated like kings, getting put out to pasture with cows and given a steady stream of the best food and caregiving.
Touring bulls often pitch a fit if they see the trailer leaving for an event without them. You can hear them bellowing out and angry they aren’t going to be ridden. It seems that these new bulls have come to enjoy tossing men who dare to test them.
You can expect participants to fly higher as breeding efforts continue to produce a kind of superathlete there has never been before. Attending an event is worthy of your bucket list. Riding is not.