Bull Headed

Josh Wagner tips the scales at 150 pounds. The animals he tries to ride weigh ten times as much. Other than that, they're a lot alike.

AS THE SUMMER SUN SETS OVER the Sherburne County Fairgrounds in Elk River, a distinctive odor wafts through the air. It's the smell of rodeo: a rich combination of charred burger, spilled beer, cigarette smoke, and lots of manure. The latter aroma comes from the stock pens, where dozens of broncos and bulls are crammed in awaiting their turn in the ring. An old cowboy casts an approving eye on one of the more impressive bulls--a Brahma, the classic rodeo breed, admired for its characteristic big humps and big horns--and, satisfied, ambles on with a stiff, bowlegged stride. There's lots of old boys walking like that here; some of them, jokes one rodeo hand, aren't even faking.

In total, a few hundred souls have trekked to this third-tier suburb for the Lions Club-sponsored Midsummer Night's Rodeo. It's a minor-league show, sanctioned by the Minnesota Rodeo Association and set smack in the middle of "Cowboy Christmas," a two-month bonanza of events that stretches from July's small-town Independence Days through August's county fairs. During Cowboy Christmas, Minnesota riders can usually find a show relatively close to home; the bulk of the 70-some participants at Elk River come from nearby towns and suburbs.

For the first two hours, the crowd drinks in the various competitions, served up in typical order: bareback riding, calf roping, saddle-bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, team roping. Polite applause follows each performance. But when the evening's final event is announced, the mood in the arena shifts. The crowd starts to get pumped, focused. All eyes turn to the bucking chutes.

Daniel Corrigan

During the earlier contests, the piped-in musical accompaniment was exactly what one might expect--the easy beat of country two-steppers, maybe a little John Cougar Mellencamp or Junior Brown. Jangly, quick-pickin', red-blooded stuff. But rodeo's most popular and dangerous contest calls for something different; an accent of menace, a touch of nihilism. And so, as the steel-pipe gate is popped open for the first bull and rider, Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blares from the public address system, its "off to never-never land" chorus slicing through the apple-pie atmosphere. Bull riding--by turns comic, harrowing, absurd, and artistic--thrives on contradiction.

In a matter of seconds, a cowboy from Iowa is propelled into midair. He tumbles, arms akimbo, Stetson in orbit, in a low, quick arc like a Frisbee tossed sideways, then lands with a rough thud. The bull turns in a tight circle, dips his horns, and saunters toward the supine man. A muted gasp rises from the bleachers as the cowboy hustles to his feet, snatches his hat from the dirt, and scrambles up a metal fence to safety. Draped over the gate, he looks small and vaguely embarrassed. It was all over so quickly.

"Give this cowboy a round of applause," announcer Davey Kimm warbles over the PA as the rodeo clowns bark and gesture at the bull, driving the distracted beast back into the pen. "Because that's the only pay he's gonna get tonight."

It's a line Kimm has ample opportunity to repeat in this business. Bull riders must remain mounted for a full eight seconds to qualify for judging. On this night, the first ten contestants get bucked before the whistle. "I think these bulls are sick," drawls the head rodeo clown, whose running commentary is amplified via a headset microphone. "Why's that?" asks Kimm. "Because," the clown responds, "they keep throwing up cowboys."

As the competition continues, the clown--a touring professional from Missouri--amuses the crowd with well-practiced shtick. He offers up jokes about "1800-pound wedgies" (a reference to the size of the bigger bulls provided by tonight's stock contractor), observations about the secret ingredients of Viagra ("2 percent aspirin, 2 percent Excedrin and 96 percent Fix-A-Flat," much laughter), and a yarn about mixing up his Preparation H and denture grip ("at least my gums don't itch," more laughter). Rider after rider is planted in the dirt.

By the time the last cowboy of the night is up, only four of the twenty-four contestants have managed to last eight seconds, and the whole thing is beginning to look like an exercise in futility. Some, like the Iowan, got bucked off the bat. Some put forth a game effort but just couldn't make whistle. A few fell into "the well," the dreaded spot a rider winds up in when he gets thrown but remains tangled in the ropes. Most of the performers here are weekend warriors, amateurs who have never ridden in the bigtime rodeos and perform accordingly. Most--but not all.

With his fat silver championship buckle glimmering under the lights, Josh Wagner looks the rodeo cowboy straight out of central casting: square jaw, strong brow, short, tousled blond hair, penetrating green eyes. He is about five-foot-ten, lean and sinewy with thick forearms, and weighs 150 pounds. Like boxers, the best bull riders run on the light side.

At 24 years old, Wagner is a veteran of the hard-traveling national circuit, and, by most estimates, one of Minnesota's top riders. He is also one of the few who manage to extract a living from the sport. "I think there's probably just two of 'em, and they're both living in an apartment in Kimball, Minnesota," Dale Wagner later jokes in reference to the basement dwelling his son shares with fellow performer Chad Koenig. People say a lot of things about bull riders--that they're cocky, crazy, stupid. But nobody says they have it easy.

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