THE RIDER is young, pale, thin-boned, fragile-looking. In a narrow pen, he tightens straps and lowers himself astride the bare back of a brown, 900kg (2,000lb) bull. Its smell, and that of a dozen more behind the stage, is intense. It jolts a black metal gate and the stage vibrates. Even for an observer standing just above, adrenalin flows. Thousands roar as beast and man fly.
They swirl under floodlights, the bull bucks, legs high off the sandy arena floor, until the rider detaches and tumbles upwards, mercifully away from horns and wild hooves, aloft and rotating for an improbably long time. Then he crumples in the dirt. As with seven out of ten such efforts, the rider did not stay on for the eight seconds considered necessary. He collects bruises, but no points.
Bull riding used to be one of seven events in a rodeo. For the past quarter of a century it has also been a spectator sport on its own. Riders tour America’s cities as well as Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Canada. They drew big crowds to shows at Madison Square Garden in New York and at a large arena in Chicago in January. A million television viewers also tune in to see Constant Sorrow, Lethal Larry and other taurines send riders such as Jess Lockwood or Chase Outlaw into the dirt.
The sport is absurdly dangerous, despite the protective gear most riders wear. Mason Lowe, a rider at a Professional Bull Riding (PBR) event in Denver, was stamped on and killed on January 15th. Yet the shows go on. Researchers say 1,440 injuries occur for every 1,000 “exposure hours”, a rate 1.56 times riskier than boxing and 10.3 times worse than in American football. Last July Mr Outlaw broke 30 bones in his face in one ride. At least three riders were killed last year.
What’s the appeal? Riders boast of thrills, money and fame. Mr Lockwood, 21 and already a former world champion, won this month’s events in New York and Chicago. Rather shy, he says he likes the adrenalin rush and has ridden since he was three. The most successful earn $1m a season, though most get far less.
For the crowd, it is the spectacle. Olvia Alstadt, originally from Puerto Rico, was at the Chicago event with her toddler daughter. “I’m a liberal arts professor, but my husband’s family is from Texas and they like to come,” she says. Nelson Willis, who has brought his grand-daughter for the past eight years, relishes the combination of danger and family fun. It is “a tough life, exciting”, he says.
Sean Gleason, who runs PBR, estimates that half of any crowd at a big event like Chicago’s is well versed in the riders’ skills, even if many also want to “see the wreck, the guy flying through the air.” Many of his viewers, he thinks, also enjoy the thrill and crashes of NASCAR racing. Is his sport thus an extreme case of the toxic masculinity which the American Psychological Association warns can harm the mental and physical health of boys and men? “We are masculinity on steroids,” he says, with a chuckle. If you think that’s a problem then “don’t buy a ticket…We are tough guys riding bulls.”