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As Josh Wagner drops into the bucking chute--a small rectangular steel cage that gives the snorting, wild-eyed bull little room to move--the rodeo announcer recites his accomplishments: second-ranked rider in the minor-league Minnesota Rodeo Association (MRA), former state high school rodeo champ, and, most impressive, twice the number-16-ranked bull rider in the International Professional Rodeo Association's annual standings. That distinction earned Wagner two titles as the IPRA champion for the five-state Central Region. But the ranking also bears the mark of hard luck, since only the top 15 riders are selected for the national finals in Oklahoma City.
Dale Wagner peers on with keen interest as Josh readies himself for the ride. The elder Wagner works as a plumber, but during rodeo season he spends nearly all his free time on the road, often participating in team-roping competitions with one of his four sons. Right now he just wants a good view of the proceedings, better to soak up the nuances of the ride.
Not that he's worried. "Josh rode 132 bulls one year--never went to the doctor once," he notes. "Josh is a smart rider. He'll bail if he gets in trouble. And he's been on a good roll. I ain't seen him bucked off all summer. "'Course I ain't seen every bull he rode. He could get hurt tonight. Who knows?"
Luck plays no small part in bull riding: The animal's performance is factored into the scoring along with the rider's, and even the most talented cowboys can fail to place if the bull they are assigned is lazy or otherwise unimpressive. As it turns out, Josh Wagner drew good on this night. The bull beneath him is ornery and enormous, vast slabs of striated muscle revealed by each movement as it fidgets in the chute. When the animal explodes into the ring, it is hard to imagine how anyone could remain mounted for any length of time. Or why anyone would try.
But Wagner turns in a textbook performance. He keeps his weight forward to avoid being pitched over the front and pivots off his left hand, which grasps a flat, braided handhold called a bull rope. The bull rope is cinched around the animal's midsection in a slip knot, held taut only by the strength of Wagner's grip. As the bull spins and bucks, the cowbells affixed to another rope--the flank strap--clank away, prompting the bull to kick with its hind legs. (Contrary to popular perception, rodeo insiders say, the flank strap does not hurt the animal, but serves merely as an annoyance to promote bucking.)
Wagner's free hand whips through the air, back and forth with the animal's gyrations. His eyes are locked on the massive head and neck, as if he's concentrating on a puzzle. His thighs squeeze the bull's ribcage. Just before the whistle blows, he adds a final stylistic flourish, kicking his dulled spurs crisply into the tawny gut. He tumbles to the ground in a controlled roll, and tips his hat to the crowd with a done-it-a-thousand-times nonchalance. "Did you see that?" Dale Wagner says with a note of admiration. "Judges like it when the rider spurs. Shows he's in control."
When the score comes in, Josh's ride is worth 75 points out of a possible 100 (a number awarded only once in the history of bull riding, to an obscure and undersized ferrier from Oregon). The showing is good enough for first place, edging out the night's previous top scorer and this year's MRA bull-riding leader, Monty Bruce. In a few weeks, Wagner will receive a $660 check for his eight seconds of trouble. Another successful day at the office.
After the ride, Wagner sops up congratulations from his fellow riders and friends in a courtly aw-shucks manner. He says little about his performance. "You know," he explains, "when I'm riding good, oftentimes, I don't even remember a thing about it. It's like I'm not even thinking. Almost like a trance."
People like Josh Wagner have been riding, or trying to ride, on the backs of bulls for more than 3,000 years. Pictographs on Minoan vases show ancient athletes engaged in an elemental form of these man-versus-beast acrobatics. But modern rodeo, and modern bull riding, has its origins in the 19th-century cattle drives of the American West. Cowboys engaged in "trick" competitions, variously called roundups, stampedes, and cowboy tournaments, designed to show off the skills vital to their trade. Rodeo's popularity grew toward the end of the century, just as cowboy mythology asserted its grip on the popular imagination--and, ironically, just as the advent of railroads eliminated the necessity for long cattle drives.
Unlike bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, or most of the other traditional rodeo events, bull riding has no practical application to the working cowboy. But these days, for the top performers, it is by far the most lucrative event in the sport. The top bull riders in the world rake in winnings that can total as much as a quarter-million a year. The big money is a recent development, spurred by increased television exposure and a resulting surge in popularity.
In the past decade, bull riding has become a staple on TNN and ESPN; stars like Ty Murray (against whom Wagner recently competed in one of Minnesota's biggest rodeos, held in the northwestern suburb of Hamel) have attained celebrity status and sign lucrative endorsement deals, advertising everything from Western wear to pickup trucks. The sport has also begun to break away from traditional rodeo with the formation of a number of exclusive bull-riding associations. The largest, the Professional Bull Riders, grew from an $80,000 touring operation at its inception in 1992 to a $10 million one by 1998.
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