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American Rodeo – Not for the Faint-Hearted

Brian Barry blogs about his experience attending the Dustin Bergsing Memorial Bull Riding, in Laurel Montana last Saturday.

Rodeo in America is not just a sport. It is a culture, an identity. The atmosphere revolving around an event is second to none as crowds travel huge distances to take part, or simply, in this writer’s instance, to spectate. And after a long journey, it did not disappoint. Quite simply, it is a crazy sport. Most would not step foot near the ring for all of King Midas’ gold. And they shouldn’t be blamed.

The riders put their lives on the line when mounting the bull before attempting to cling on for eight seconds. And believe me, eight seconds is a long, long time when mounted on a bucking bull. Even from the safety of the crowd, this is clear. Considering the speed and ferocity at which they are thrown up and down, and side to side, it is a miracle that they can even make it out of the pen.

However, this would not be possible were it not for the efforts of the bullfighters. This is not Spanish bullfighting. They are not matadors. Once a rider is dislodged, the bullfighter gets in there as quickly as possible before the animal turns its attentions to hurting the dislodged cowboy, now sprawled out on the ground. The fighters ranged in age, from just 18 to late thirties. Four hardy men putting their body on the line for the riders. If a rider is on the floor, they make the sacrifice. If your primary care is for your own well-being, bullfighting is not for you.

Having travelled six hours across the state of Montana to Billings with Kaleb Barrett, four-time Montana Circuit Finals bullfighter, for his season debut, I could sense that this is something different. The sport is accompanied by a cowboy culture. The hundreds in attendance at the arena were all donned in jeans and cowboy hats. Whiskey and beer galore. I quickly acclimatised to the habits of the sport. Now for the show itself.

First things first. These are the hardest athletes on the planet. Forget about UFC, forget about Australian Rules, forget about hurling. Only the bravest would mount a bull. 40 riders were competing. Riders attempt to stay on board for eight seconds, and afterwards, are marked out of 100 by the judges, who take into account the difficulty of the ride and the size of the bull.

Such bullfighting is considered bloodless bullfighting, in relation to the animals, but the riders are not always so lucky. One rider was thrown off the back as the bull bucked, and on his way down, his face was met by a horn on the way back up. Lights out. The fighters got in the way in time to divert the bull, and the rider came to a minute later, lucky to walk away with only a few broken bones and a deep cut on the face.

Rodeo is a sport I confess that I did not know much about. How these guys don’t get the widespread international recognition they deserve is a mystery. I’m counting down to the next event in two weeks.

Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.

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