In the American tradition the rider must stay atop the bucking bull for eight seconds. The rider tightly fastens one hand to the bull with a long braided rope. It is a risky sport and has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”
Rules and regulations
Each bull has a unique name and number used to identify the bull. A sufficient number of bulls each judged to be of good strength, health, agility, and age, are selected to perform. The rider and bull are matched randomly before the competition, although starting in 2008, some ranked riders are allowed to choose their own bulls from a bull draft for selected rounds in PBR events.
A rider mounts a bull and grips a flat braided rope. After he secures a good grip on the rope, the rider nods to signal he is ready. The bucking chute (a small enclosure which opens from the side) is opened and the bull storms out into the arena. The rider must attempt to stay on the bull for at least eight seconds, while only touching the bull with his riding hand. His other hand must remain free for the duration of the ride. Originally, the rules required a 10 second ride, but that was changed to the current eight seconds.
The bull bucks, rears, kicks, spins, and twists in an effort to throw the rider off. This continues for a number of seconds until the rider bucks off or dismounts after completing his ride. A loud buzzer or whistle announces the completion of an eight second ride.
Throughout the ride, bullfighters, also popularly known as rodeo clowns, stay near the bull in order to aid the rider if necessary. When the ride ends, either intentionally or not, the bullfighters distract the bull to protect the rider from harm.
Many competitions have a format that involves multiple rounds, sometimes called “go-rounds.” Generally, events span two to three nights. The rider is given a chance to ride one bull per night. The total points scored by the end of the event are recorded, and after the first or first two go rounds, the top 20 riders are given a chance to ride one more bull. This final round is called the “short go”. After the end of the short go, the rider with the most total points wins the event.
Points and scoring
The ride is scored from 0–100 points. Both the rider and the bull are awarded points. There are usually two judges, each judge scoring the bull from 0–50 points, and the rider from 0–50 points. The combined point totals from both judges make up the final score for the ride. Scores of zero are quite common as many riders lose control of the animal almost immediately after the bull leaves the bucking chute. Many experienced professionals are able to earn scores of 75 or more. Scores above 80 are considered excellent, and a score in the 90s exceptional.
Judges award points based on several key aspects of the ride. Judges look for constant control and rhythm in the rider in matching his movements with the bull. Points are usually deducted if a rider is constantly off balance. For points actually to be awarded the rider must stay mounted for a minimum of 8 seconds, and he is scored only for actions during those 8 seconds. The ability to control the bull well allows riders to gain extra style points. These are often gained by spurring the animal. A rider is disqualified for touching the bull, the rope, or himself with his free arm.
Bulls have more raw power and a different style of movement from bucking horses. One move particular to bulls is a belly roll or sunfishing, in which the bull is completely off the ground and kicks either his hind feet or all four feet to the side in a twisting, rolling motion. Bulls also are more likely than horses to spin in tight, quick circles, while they are less likely to run or to jump extremely high and “break in two”.
For the bull, judges look at the animal’s overall agility, power and speed; its back end kicks; and its front end drops. In general, if a bull gives a rider a very hard time, more points will be awarded. If a rider fails to stay mounted for at least 8 no score is awarded if a rider scores sufficiently low due to poor bull performance, the judges may offer the rider the option of a re-ride. By taking the option, the rider gives up the score received, waits until all other riders have ridden, and rides again. This can be risky because the rider loses his score and risks being bucked off and receiving no score. A re-ride may also be given if a bull stumbles or runs into the fence or gate.
At first sight, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of equipment used during a bull ride. However, riders use many pieces of equipment both functionally and to ensure maximum safety, both to themselves and to the animals involved.
The primary piece of equipment used is the bull rope. The bull rope is a braided rope of polypropylene, grass, or some combination. A handle is braided into the center of the rope and is usually stiffened with leather. One side of the rope is tied in an adjustable knot that can be changed for the size of bull. The other side of the rope (the tail) is a flat braid and is usually coated with rosin to keep it from sliding through the rider’s hand. A metallic bell is strapped to the knot and hangs directly under the bull throughout the ride. In addition to the sound the bell produces, it also gives the rope some weight, allowing it to fall off the bull once a rider has dismounted.
Chaps are probably the most noticeable piece of bull rider clothing, as their distinctive coloring and patterns add flair to the sport. Usually made of leather, chaps also provide protection for the rider’s legs and thighs.
Bull riders are required to wear a protective vest, most usually wear one made of high impact foam that allows the shock to disperse over a wide area, thereby reducing pain and injury.
To prevent a rope burn, riders must wear a protective glove, usually of leather. This glove must be fastened to the riders hand since the force the animal is able to exert could tear the glove away. The rider often applies rosin to the glove, which allows for additional grip.
Cowboy boots are also worn. The dull spurs help in keeping a rider balanced, and are crucial to the sport as a whole. The bulls are unharmed by the rowels, as their hide is roughly seven times thicker than a human being’s skin. Truly skilled riders will often spur the bull in the hope of achieving extra style points from the judges.
Cowboy hats remain the primary headwear used. While the professional organizations permit protective helmets and masks, some riders continue to believe that this equipment can detrimentally affect balance, and many professionals still avoid wearing them. However, the trend is changing, as more champion riders begin to wear helmets for added safety.
Public health researchers found evidence suggesting that bull riding helmets are protective, when riders wearing one particular type of helmet suffered approximately 50% fewer head and facial injuries. In 2004, at the 1st International Rodeo Research and Clinical Care Conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a group of top rodeo medicine researchers and clinical care providers came to a consensus on the use of helmets declaring that all youth rodeo participants should wear helmets, and that helmets should be recommended for adult bull riders.
For competitors under the age of 18, protective headgear incorporating a helmet and ice hockey style face mask are worn. While optional at the upper levels of the sport, it has become mandatory at younger levels, and riders who use helmets and face masks as youths tend to continue to wearing them as they reach adulthood and turn professional.
The flank strap is a rope made out of cotton which is tied around the bull’s flank. Contrary to popular belief, the flank strap is not tied around the bull’s testicles. This rope is to encourage the bull to use its hind legs more in a bucking motion, as this is a true test of a rider’s skill in maintaining the ride. If it is applied improperly a rider may request to ride again, as the bull will not buck well if the flank strap is too tight. The flank strap is applied by the stock contractor or his designate.
The arenas used in professional bull riding vary. Some are rodeo arenas that are used only for bull riding and other rodeo events. Others are event centers that play host to many different sports. Common to all arenas is a large, open area that gives the bulls, bull riders, and bull fighters plenty of room to maneuver. The area is fenced, usually 6 to 7 feet high, to protect the audience from escaped bulls. There are generally exits on each corner of the arena for riders to get out of the way quickly. Riders can also hop onto the fence to avoid danger. One end of the arena contains the bucking chutes from which the bulls are released. There is also an exit chute where the bulls can exit the arena.