NEW YORK — Each year, when the bucking bulls arrive at Madison Square Garden, livestock trailers pull into 33rd Street and back up to ramps that lead five floors up to the arena.
The bulls — 50 or so — come for the opening event in the Professional Bull Riders circuit, which this year ran Jan. 4-6. Cowboys on horses, letting loose an occasional whoop or holler, herd them up the ramps. The bulls soon emerge into a kind of animal-athlete locker room, with a dirt floor and strong steel bars arranged horizontally to form stalls.
Some bulls walk calmly into the mazelike corral. Some trot. Some come in hot, trying to charge the workers, who quickly climb the steel bars to get out of the way.
This is only the locker room, of course; the bulls don’t have to bed down at the arena. Once the event is over and the cowboys head to their hotel, the bulls are trucked back to more comfortable quarters in New Jersey for a restful night.
Bull riding is a big business, and a big-time sport, involving both human and animal athletes. For the riders, it’s astonishingly dangerous; in 2018 one rider died at a Professional Bull Riders event in Brazil, and two others died at non-PBR events. The list of injuries on the organization’s site is long and disturbing, dominated by concussions, with the occasional fractured sternum, joint separation or severe facial laceration.
For the past 15 years or so, bucking bulls have been intensively bred like racehorses to make them harder to ride. Breeders use high-tech reproductive techniques and a detailed, computerized registry of 180,000 bulls and cows. Cowboys have continued to be bred the old-fashioned way.
The products of this intensive artificial selection have one job: to buck, spin and kick as hard and unpredictably as they can with a rider on board. If the rider stays on for eight seconds, he is scored for how well he rode, the bull is scored for how hard he was to ride and the scores are combined.
Calves that don’t buck may end up at the slaughterhouse, but for those who do buck, it’s a sweet life, at least according to breeders. Matt Scharping, who owns Phenom Genetics in Minnesota, said, “If you’re born a really good bucking bull it’s like winning the bovine lottery.”
The lucky bulls are carefully fed, gradually exposed to the lights and noise of a rodeo environment to reduce stress and, if they prove successful, retired to lives as semen producers. Some are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The semen can sell for thousands of dollars per straw, about a tenth of a teaspoon.
The end result of all this effort, unsurprisingly, is that the bulls are becoming harder to ride. In earlier times, a rider had a chance to draw an easy bull. Now, all the bulls are hard, as both the riders and breeders will attest. In 1995, cowboys finished their rides 46 percent of the time; in 2012 they managed just 26 percent. Since then, the cowboys seem to have caught on a bit: Their success rate has hovered around 29 percent for the past two years. Still, getting thrown 71 percent of the time means absorbing a lot of pain.
J.B. Mauney, 31, is one of the best riders in the sport. He famously broke a streak by a bull named Bushwhacker, who had thrown riders 40 times in a row. Mauney hit the dirt in eight of those abbreviated rides. That was because he kept choosing Bushwhacker when he had the chance. “It was kind of a pride deal,” he said. On Mauney’s ninth ride, in 2013, he lasted the eight seconds, barely. Bushwhacker was retired in 2014 after 64 “outs,” or times he had entered the arena with a cowboy on his back. He was successfully ridden just twice.
Mauney, who also has bred bulls, said he thinks bulls will only become more difficult to master.
“If they keep breeding better bulls, they’re going to have to start breeding better bull riders,” he said.
Unlike other rodeo events, bull riding does not have its origin in ranch skills. Horses had to be ridden, calves branded, steers roped, but nobody needed anyone, ever, to ride a bull. The unnecessary risk to life and limb is the whole point — like walking a high wire without a net. The event was something of a novelty until the 1950s, when a few star riders emerged.
By the 1980s the event had become popular, and in 1992 it broke off on its own, as the Professional Bull Riders circuit. In 2004, a registry of bucking-bull pedigrees, American Bucking Bull Inc. was founded. It is owned jointly by the bull-riders association and the breeders, and keeps tabs on 180,00 bulls and cows. The registry group also promotes events in which young bulls compete without riders, potentially earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for their breeders.
Among the best of those breeders is H.D. Page, of D&H Cattle, which owns SweetPro’s Bruiser, a three-time world champion bull. Like many other breeders, Page uses every available technique, including artificial insemination, egg collection, in vitro fertilization and the use of sperm selected to produce only bull calves. Bucking bulls have even been cloned and used in competition. But bull cloning met with a backlash about five years ago, framed partly in religious terms. At the time, one breeder in Texas, Scott Accomazzo, said he had been accused of playing God, and his Christianity had been questioned.
The current trend in breeding is to focus on the cows. Bull riding may be the most masculinized of all sports, with its emphasis on danger and power, but champion semen does not guarantee success in the ring.
“There’s certain cow families,” Page said. “The female side of it. That’s key.” Matt Scharping, of Phenom Genetics, agreed: “It’s really all about the cows. I feel like 80 percent of the bucking ability is coming from the mother.”
It’s a conclusion drawn from experience, not scientific research. Scharping said he valued a cow’s bucking-bull pedigree, but also how mothers raise their calves.
Rodeos and bull-riding are often criticized by animal welfare groups, and the bull-riders association is at pains to highlight its rules against the use of cattle prods and other inducements to buck. Jeannette Vaught, a lecturer in Liberal Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, who has written about human-animal interactions, including rodeos, said that she didn’t see direct or obvious cruelty in the treatment of the successful bucking bulls.
“There’s a common misconception that the flank strap is painful,” she said. “It’s not.” The strap, worn around the bull’s abdomen, does cause enough discomfort to prompt the bulls to buck, but seasoned animals, who get used to bucking as soon as the chute opens, don’t even notice it.
And as furious as the animal may seem during its eight seconds in the ring, “the bull is not angry,” Vaught said. “What’s funny is that the bulls themselves are generally very companionable.”
Mauney, and other riders, said it’s the bull’s job to buck and the rider’s job to hang on. No animosity either way. The bulls that Vaught had seen were “very chill,” she said. “But they know their job. After the bucking ends, they are really quite friendly animals. They’re laborers. They’ve been bred to do this work.”