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.

Daniel Corrigan

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.

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.

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.

Reasons for the growth aren't hard to figure. Despite its pastoral origins, bull riding has much in common with the extreme sports ESPN has successfully marketed in recent years--the over-the-top kinetics, the rapid pace, the sense that everything can fall apart in an instant. In that regard it feels very nearly modern, a funny thing for a game that is forever casting its eye back in time.

Yet, at its core, bull riding's appeal seems to have remained much the same as it was a century ago. In the 1947 classic Man, Beast, Dust, rodeo buff Clifford Westermeier made the point as well as anyone before or since: "The bull-riding contest offers the spectator a thrill based on the expectation of seeing a contestant thrown, gored, and tossed on the horns of an ugly humpback bull," he wrote. "[Fans] are not anxious to have anything happen, but if it does, they want to see it!"

These days rodeo announcers invariably offer pronouncements about the physical perils of bull riding, often characterizing it as the world's most dangerous sport. They might be right, judging by what hard data are available: According to a study by the Oklahoma Department of Health, bull riding accounted for a full five percent of the spinal-cord injuries sustained in that state between 1992 and 1995. And a 15-year survey conducted for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (one of the oldest and largest rodeo organizations in the nation) found that bull riders suffer more injuries than all other rodeo contestants combined.

Considering the nature of the sport, that's not surprising, says Dave Lammers, a trainer with the Texas-based Justin Sportsmedicine Program, which specializes in dealing with rodeo injuries. With the help of modern breeding techniques, rodeo bulls have gotten bigger in recent years; some weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and are strong enough to lift the front end of a car on their horns. "These are big, aggressive male animals, some of them hunters," says Lammers. "They go after a downed man, a gate man, a clown, anybody in their way."

Most bull-riding injuries are relatively minor--torn groins, broken bones, and the like. But, Lammers adds, not all riders are that lucky. In 1989, world champion Lane Frost, one of the sport's first modern stars, was fatally gored by a bull named Taking Care of Business at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming; just two years ago another champion, Jerome Davis, was paralyzed in a bull-riding accident. In Minnesota there have been deaths as well, incidents no one much relishes talking about but everyone recalls. A young guy got killed in Grand Rapids in '83. A few years back, a novice died during a practice run in Lakeville. And last year a rodeo clown just about died after a run-in with a bull at a show up in the northwestern Minnesota hamlet of Gonvick. "It's not a question of whether or not you're gonna get hurt," says rodeo announcer Billy Don Cash. "It's when and how bad."

But while fatalities in the ring have spelled public-relations disaster for other sports (most notably boxing), in bull riding they merely seem to enhance the myth. Frost's story--made into the tearjerker bio-pic Eight Seconds, starring teen idol Luke Perry--is often cited as one of the factors behind the surging interest in the sport, a growth backers liken to the rise of NASCAR.

Bull riding seems to engender a curious ambivalence among both fans and participants. The hazards are acknowledged, even celebrated; they are also rationalized, shoved aside, willfully disbelieved. Josh Wagner saw a rider die back in 1993 at the national high school championships in Gillette, Wyoming. It's not a memory he cares to revisit. "I haven't thought about that in a long time," he says. "Yeah, it freaked me out. But you have to do your damnedest not to think about it. You just can't. If you do, you're sunk."

His father offers more detail on the incident. "I can remember it like it was yesterday," Dale Wagner says. "Kid got bucked forward. Top of the bull's head hit the kid's head. I was in the bleachers and I looked at him with a pair of binoculars. He never moved. He had blood coming out of his nose and out of his ears. Anytime you see blood coming out of the ears, that's a bad sign." But the elder Wagner hurries to add that the death was "freakish"--and he bristles at media depictions of rodeo that focus on what he terms "the wrecks." "I've seen more deaths on the highway than I have at the rodeo," he says. "I guess a lot of us just think that when the good Lord is gonna take us, it don't matter much what you're doing."

Whatever the actuarial merits of that argument, it is widely accepted in the rodeo world. One Minnesota cowboy, Mike Kohlnhofer, makes the case with singular conviction. In 1985 the Lakeville native was among the top bull riders in the area--a onetime state high school "all-around cowboy" champ who had prospered on the college and semipro rodeo circuits. Then, at a rodeo in Lansing, Michigan, Kohlnhofer dropped into the chute for the last time.

"It was just an average ride," he recalls. "When the whistle blew, I went to get off and that bull gave me the hardest buck of my life. That sort of thing had happened dozens of times, but this time I must have landed at just the right angle." At first Kohlnhofer suffered complete paralysis. After months of therapy, he regained the use of his arms, but not his legs.

"Accidents happen," concludes Kohlnhofer, who now runs a hog-farming operation with his brother near Lake City. For the most part he works in the office, though he can operate a specially modified tractor. "It didn't change my feelings about the sport," he says. "I've got two daughters, and if they wanted to rodeo, I'd let them."

Wagner similarly shrugs at questions about injuries he has suffered over the years. "When I was 16, I got my head crushed," he says flatly. "Put me in the hospital for a few days, but it didn't slow me up. I was riding again in two weeks." For a spell he tried wearing a helmet--an increasingly common practice in rodeo, though still rare at the highest levels. Wagner didn't like it. Thought it interfered with his balance. He says he's willing to put up with a few "shaving scars," the facial cuts riders receive from the business end of a bull's horn. He points out his only one, a little crescent nearly concealed by his left eyebrow, with a touch of pride.

Like nearly all contemporary rodeo cowboys, however, Wagner now wears a special vest lined with impact-absorbing Kevlar. "First night I wore it, I got double-barreled," he says. "Both feet right in the back. Didn't break anything." Other than that, protective gear is limited to chaps and mouth guards. (As for the obvious question, says Wagner's roommate Chad Koenig, "I bet I've been asked about that a thousand times. You don't need a cup. I can count on one hand the number of times I've nutted myself.")

Perhaps the most important safeguard in the ring, says Wagner, are other people--the clowns and "bullfighters," whose job it is to distract the animals after a rider is thrown. "You don't have a good bullfighter," he observes, "you're dead."

 

Wagner started in rodeo at the age of eight--in the Little League-style Little Britches program, where aspiring cowboys try their luck on steers and are instructed in the fundamentals of the sport. Over the years, Wagner attended the occasional bull-riding clinics as well, putting in time on mechanical bulls ("good for beginners," he says) to hone his skills.

"Bulls just always seemed to fit Josh," says Dale Wagner, whose own involvement in rodeo began at the relatively advanced age of 23. Back then he took a stab at bull riding, but, after a series of hard falls, chose to concentrate on roping competitions instead.

Not so Josh. "I just always knew this is what I wanted to do," he says. "The hardest part was convincing my dad to let me try." He rode his first bull at 12--"didn't buck worth a shit"--and soon he was rodeoing his way to the 1993 state high school championship.

Wagner describes himself as an average athlete in his other pursuits, wrestling and baseball. But physical skill, he notes, is only part of what makes a good rider. "It's a weird deal," he observes. "Sometimes there's guys that are real athletic and they just ain't worth shit on a bull."

Wagner first met Chad Koenig when they both were making appearances at rural Minnesota high schools to promote rodeo. "I seen him and I really didn't like him," Wagner recalls with a wry smile. Koenig, who won the state high school bull-riding competition the year after Wagner, agrees: "We started out hating each other." But the Minnesota rodeo universe is a small one, with no more than 50 to 60 shows a year. Over time the faces grow familiar, and Wagner and Koenig soon became traveling partners and friends.

These days the pair share a basement apartment a few blocks from downtown Kimball, a town of 690 just beyond the sprawling northwestern edge of the metro area. They moved here a few months ago, but the house is familiar to Wagner; it's where he and his three brothers lived before their parents divorced, moved away, and began renting the place out. Yeah, it's a little weird to be back in his childhood bedroom, Wagner allows, but the amenities are great: a barn and pasture, where he keeps his prized palomino Charlie, and plenty of space for traveling rodeo buddies to crash.

The apartment itself is classic bachelor pad. Cinderblock walls, low ceilings, a big L-shaped couch. Plastic pop bottles for ashtrays. No phone. A refrigerator stocked with sports drinks and a case of beer. The entertainment center in the living room holds one of the few concessions to décor: three neat rows of the oversized, ornate victors' belt buckles and trophies Wagner and Koenig have accumulated in the course of their careers. They take pride in the fact that they've managed to carve out a living without, as Wagner says, "nine-to-fivin' it"--though both have worked stints of straight labor, framing houses and the like.

Now, they just pick up the occasional side gig to tide themselves over in lean times. "When I get thrown a lot or I'm not riding well, sometimes I'll take time off and shoe horses for a couple of days," Wagner explains. He also supplements his income by working as a "pickup man" for the stock contractors. Pickup men ride alongside the contestants during bareback and saddle-bronc competitions, assisting cowboys in their dismounts and then corralling the loose animals. It can be tough work, Wagner says, but the hundred bucks or so for a night's work helps defray his costs.

Those costs add up. Wagner figures he spends at least $640 a year just on athletic tape to wrap the bum elbow he got at a rodeo down in North Carolina a few years back. The arm--the one he uses to hold on to the rope while riding--still pops out of joint from time to time, he explains, but mostly the tape does the job.

There are other expenses. Gas for the muffler-less '87 Celebrity. Diner tabs. And entry fees. Bull riders on the Upper Midwest circuit shell out anywhere from $45 to $250 for the opportunity to participate in a rodeo, in essence betting their money against that of their fellow riders--an old-school arrangement that heightens the hard-luck spectacle of a cowboy in defeat. Prizes typically range from $500 to $2,000, depending on how much money the stock contractors add to the pot. A rider on a winning streak can build up a nest egg in a hurry; losers go broke fast, and sometimes a long way from home. Stories about stranded cowboys abound on the circuit--one Minnesota kid, it is said, ran out of gas in Iowa awhile back, so he stole into a farmer's field, picked field corn, and sold it to some suckers as sweet corn. But Wagner says he's always managed to stay afloat.

In his busiest year, 1996, he figures he pulled in maybe 25 grand from rodeo. That was back when he was humping hard on the national circuit, putting 40,000 miles on his truck and entering every IPRA event he could find between North Carolina and Arizona, in hopes of making the national finals. He had a chance, too.

"Josh, in my opinion, is one of the three best riders in the state," says Billy Don Cash, a traveling rodeo announcer from Arkansas who has watched Wagner's career over the years and flops at the Kimball apartment on Minnesota visits. "These guys are for real. They live it. To finish 16th in the world, you've got to go to a lot of rodeos--and that takes a toll."

Wagner insists that his current, more low-key approach to the sport is mostly a result of travel ennui, not the heartbreak of missing out on the nationals. Nowadays his goals are to stay close to home and enter rodeos where the money, and his odds, are good. "Last year I had a three-week run where I won, oh, $1,900, $1,700, $1,300," he says, rattling off the numbers with satisfaction.

"When you cut through the shit," he adds, "I'm here to not get hurt and to make money. That's what it comes down to."

Wagner and Koenig concede that other things keep drawing them to the life, though what those are, they can't quite say. They like the camaraderie and enjoy the after-show bar trips, even if they don't party as much as they did before reaching the mature age of 24. Eventually, stumped for a rationale, Koenig resorts to a quote from an old cowboy friend: "For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't understand, no explanation is possible.

"This is living the way you dream of," he adds. "I couldn't see doing anything different."

 

Like most bull riders, Wagner talks about his accomplishments in a taciturn mélange of confidence and modesty that echoes the old rodeo truism: "Never was a bull that couldn't be rode, never was a cowboy that couldn't be throwed." He doesn't keep diligent records of his exploits much anymore, though back in '96 he filled his notebooks with details of the season--mileage, prizes, capsule reviews of the bulls he rode: "One-horn piece of shit"; "good bull"; "piece of shit brindle." These days, he guesses, he fails to finish the ride maybe 35 to 40 percent of the time. But that number comes to him only after a long pause--and, he is quick to add, "I like to think I can ride any bull, anywhere."

On a mid-August night in Farmington, about 25 miles south of St. Paul, Wagner is about to put that credo to the test once again. The stock contractor hired him for pickup, but he has also plunked down the entry fees for the team-roping competitions (with brother Jordan and dad Dale) and the bull riding. The pickup side of the evening goes smoothly enough, but the Wagner team craps out in the roping competition. Then, just as the eight contestants line up for the main event, a large thunderhead appears in the western sky.

Koenig, in his second rodeo since he got hurt at a show in Hinckley, puts in a strong performance, taking a wild bull named Double Trouble to the whistle and racking up a 74-point ride--good enough to place. Wagner is the final rider of the night, looking to beat the top score, a 77.

As the first raindrops fall, he lowers himself into the bucking chute. A tornado has touched down about 17 miles to the southwest and is heading this way, but that hazard isn't much on Wagner's mind. The bull he has drawn, according to the announcer, is one of the best in stock contractor Joe Simon's herd--a beast that last year bucked some of the top cowboys on the Professional Bull Riders tour. When the gate is popped open, the animal charges out a few yards and spins in a tight circle, nearly plowing into the fence at the arena's edge.

Wagner begins to list. For a moment he hangs out over the edge, like a sailor trying to keep a boat from tipping in a squall. He remains there, clinging white-knuckled, for what seems like forever. Time has a way of expanding in rodeo; eight seconds can be excruciating, the difference between physical ruin and a beautiful payday. If he's lucky, or smart, or tough, a cowboy can stave off the end long enough to have a crack at a winner's pot. But that is less a victory than stylish defeat.

Finally, Wagner loses his balance and drops to the ground. The bull, distracted perhaps by the ominous weather, makes no effort to run him down, so Wagner collects himself casually, brushes off his chaps, and climbs over the fence. Missed the whistle by a couple of beats. No score.

Afterward, he reflects on his ride. What went wrong? He smiles, shakes his head. "Just didn't stay on long enough, I guess," he says, unstrapping his spurs. No cussing. No head-shaking. He doesn't even look especially disappointed. Perhaps that's because bull riding, as much as any sport, is about failure as much as success, about getting bucked, thrown, and kicked. And, as Josh Wagner knows, there's always another bull, another rodeo, down the road.

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