Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Reason behind Risk

Bullriding is an incredible sport. 
Over the weekend, my husband and I watched the bull riding documentary, Rank (2006), and we were blown away. John Hyams masterfully constructed this 90 minute peek into a high-intensity sport by following the three top-contenders for the championship match of the national organization, Professional Bull Riders (PBR). The two-time champion Adriano Moraes (Brazilian-born) competes against Justin McBride and Jamie Lee for the million dollar first prize and a solid gold belt buckle (!!!) that declares them the champion bull rider of the United States.
This near-2000 pound bull is flying. 
Before watching this documentary, I didn't know much about the sport. But after watching it, an obsessive amount of article reading and youtube watching followed. Unlike the Bull fighting which originated in Spain, bull riding is a sport that involves almost no risk whatsoever for the bull, while the bull-rider assumes all of the (quite grave) risk.

In Spanish-style bullfighting, part of the sport is slowly killing the bull. In bull riding, the opposite is true and in fact the bulls are very well taken care of, especially if they are good buckers, because all the riders want a shot at trying to ride them. The harder and the stronger these bulls can buck, the more famous they become... the "rankest" bulls go down in cowboy history.
"Sir, kindly get off my back." 
The bull riders receive a score (on a scale of 100) only if they are able to remain on the bull's back for 8 seconds. If they cannot stay on for the full 8 seconds, they receive no points for the ride. Now, those 8 seconds seem like an eternity when you see the intense and athletic attempts of the bull trying to buck off his rider.

The bulls also receive a score for their performance (on a scale of 50). They are scored on how hard, how high, how unpredictably they can buck... these bulls are considered athletes that are competing just as hardily as the riders. Each year, a bull is named champion right alongside a rider.
That's a rank bull.
The question that immediately springs to the lips of all the sports' outsiders is, invariably: why on earth would you want to ride a 2000 pound bucking, goring, trampling machine?! The frustration inspired by the lack of a definitive answer for this question becomes abundantly clear when perusing the reviews for Rank. The most consistent reaction to this film was one of utter bewilderment-- reviewers desired to know the "purpose" of the sport or the "motivation" of its competitors and were unhappy with what they considered the filmmaker's lack of a definitive answer for these questions.
Bull riding exists because it is awesome. Any questions?
In the review published in the New York Times, the reviewer attempts to answer these questions for himself: "The lure of bull riding... has little to do with reason... experiencing the excitement of facing down physical danger is irresistible. We need our kicks." He concludes this after making a sweeping generalization about the kind of man who becomes a bull rider: "'s easy to imagine that these men's rugged lives leave them little time for reflection." I find this answer to trivialize the entire sport and wiggle out of getting at a much more interesting possible answers.

By claiming there is neither "reason" nor "reflection" behind the decision to get on the back of a gargantuan animal and try to hold on to it with one hand for all of 8 seconds is to claim that these men (and a few women) do this sport because they are mindless and macho; it implies that they aren't creative enough to come up with any other way of getting an adrenaline rush (or "kicks," as the reviewer smugly calls it).
There's a reason behind the risk.
I believe that there is a communication between man and bull, man and himself, and man and other men that is very unique to this sport. The majority of the film is, in fact, the bull riders talking with their families and friends (grandparents, parents, wives, children, colleagues) about their decision to do this sport, the risk they assume in doing it, the mind-blowingly strong animals they work with, and the dreams they have for their future. The men come from all different places, even speak different languages, connected only through the sport and its unique philosophy.

Many of them talk about the moments of actual riding, the meditative state they must enter, and the instincts they must train and rely upon when reacting to the movements of the bull. As if they are alone in the huge arena, they focus on the balance of their bodies in relation to the bull, the shifts in direction and speed and duration of the bucking, and they almost become as wild as the furious animal beneath them.
Rob Smets, "rodeo clown" and guardian angel.
When the rider either dismounts or is thrown off the bull, there are other men in the ring (called "rodeo clowns' historically but now referred to as "bullfighters") waiting to run into the line of danger on behalf of the rider, so that he won't get trampled. This self-sacrificing risk-taking is not the mindless act of a hillbilly, but the noble act that recreates the way in which men would help one another out on cattle drives or while doing ranch work.

The risk that the rider and the rodeo clown take is an essential practice that keeps them (and I would argue the spectators of the sport) connected to a wilderness that is both within and without man. Nature commands respect and proves that it deserves to be respected without an intension of good or evil-- Nature runs its course and we are a part of that, sometimes riding atop and sometimes trampled underfoot.

Remaining connected to one's own mortality and the graceful power of the natural world is less about a simple adrenaline rush than it is about humanity's need to risk everything to learn the limits of... everything.
Taking the bull by the horns should never just be a figure of speech.
If there were no risk, there'd be no civilization. These men understand that and practice it as a way of life. This sport is not about the dominance of one animal over another, it is about mutual admiration and the unlikely (and yet completely natural) partnerships forged by men and beasts.

One of my life theories is that everything can be related back to the Quijote, and bull riding is no exception. Don Quijote faced incredible physical harm and constant risk of life and limb throughout the book- and yet, in spite of it, he was able to create the world he wanted to live in. There is a significant amount of reason behind taking risk, and the rewards for success are proportionate to the risk of failure.

We cannot lose sight of the benefit of risk-taking, of placing our lives into the hands of fate, and of doing it over and over again. Without these risks, we could lose all contact to the wilderness and wildness that shaped and continues to shape our lives.

"I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness." -Aldo Leopold

What do you think about the sport of bull riding? What are the risks that you've taken to get you where you are today?

Until next time, band of wild petticoat rufflers... ruffle those petticoats and ride those rank bulls!


  1. It makes for an interesting comparison with the Minoan Bull Riders -- whose skill was to leap over the bull's horns. But that same idea of pitting oneself against a massive animal. I had heard, however, that electric shocks are applied to the bulls testicles just before releasing him with the rider -- to insure an angry and violent response. (and therefore better show) It seems to me that shouldn't be necessary and therefore more cruel than it ought to be.

    1. Wow, the Minoan Bull Riders...!! I hadn't heard of that before!

      Just a quick note on modern bull riding: there is actually no harm done to the bull's manhood. There are several factors that go into a good bucking bull: 1) Breeding (shown as a key element in the documentary Rank); 2) Spurs that the rider applies to the bull's flanks (and a bull's skin is about 7 times thicker than a person's, so it doesn't hurt the bull, just infuriate him); 3) Flank strap (this is tied around the bull's waist - NOT around his testicles - and is actually there to help the bull buck with his back end-- essentially it works like a weight belt so that the bull can give a more athletic performance.

      Thanks for your comment!!

    2. Hey thanks for the clarification -- It does seem to make so much more sense that there would be a measure of respect for the bull and no dirty below the belt kind of nastiness. Otherwise, it would sort of ruin the real bravery of it. And here is a cool link to Minoan Bull Leaping practice -- the art alone is worth it.