Riding the bull market - North Carolina style
Can there possibly be any career more crazy than riding bulls for a living?
If you took a straw poll in mall near you it would probably take you half the day to round up anyone brave enough to jump on 2,800 pounds of bucking bovine, but here I was on Saturday night back in the dirt and the cold, watching the listless bulls butting the bars of their pens and the cowboys clicking their spurs, somewhere way off the beaten track in North Carolina.
One of the cowboys, Josh Faircloth remembered how many years he’d been bull riding.
But he'd lost count of the number of injuries he’s sustained.
As part of the culture of what’s dubbed the “toughest sport on earth” or at least the “toughest sport on dirt,” as it was marketed at the 10th annual River City Bull Bash over the weekend, riders don’t complain much about their injuries.
Instead they swaggered like the cowboys of the old west that they emulate, stared moodily like Clint Eastwood into the middle distance and spat a lot into the dirt.
The bulls didn't need to spit. They looked formidable enough by just being bulls.
Faircloth was one of the competitors at Meyler Farms Arena. Although he didn’t win, he came to the competition with an impressive record in bull riding and has just returned from the Bull Riding World Finals in Las Vegas where he rode Big Tex, one of the top five bulls in the world.
I neglected the tell him the only way I'd get anywhere near Big Tex was if he was on a plate in a restaurant smeared in Worcestershire sauce.
Faircloth, from Randleman in North Carolina, has been riding bulls since he was 14, when he started jumping on the backs of his grandfather’s beef cows on the farm where he grew up.
“My cousin started riding bulls and said ‘Let’s go down there and buck grandpa’s beef cows.’ So we got down there, built a little chute and I thought I liked this,” he said.
Now 21, Faircloth said he still thrives on the excitement of the big event.
“It’s the adrenalin rush. It’s a lot of fun and you never know what will happen next,” he said.
But he said the sport is very dangerous. “I’ve had broken noses, broken ribs, several concussions. Nothing really serious yet — knock on wood. We all know the dangers and we know it can happen any time but I don’t look at is as any different from jumping in your car and going somewhere.”
He believes he’s been concussed about 10 times, but has lost count.
That's nine more times than me and that one time on the rugby field was enough to make me lose count of my fingers.
Although North Carolina is not as commonly associated with bull riding as states such as Texas and Oklahoma, Faircloth said the sport is taking off here. “Really, today North Carolina has many weekly bull ridings. Within an hour-and-half’s drive from my house I can be at a bull riding every night of the week — it’s getting on the map for a lot of good bull riding.”
Although Faircloth has lost count of how many competitions he’s won, he said the sport is too unpredictable to ever be confident.
“You can be at the top of your game one minute and ride the best bull in the world and you still have to do it again. One mistake and you’re bucked off,” he said.
Bull riding isn’t just about the rider. The success of a score depends on the unwillingness of a bull to be ridden. A rider will get a higher score if he stays on the back of a bull that kicks and bucks harder.
To register a score, the rider has to stay on the back of the bull for at least eight seconds, a feat that eluded many riders Saturday night.
“Your bull is half your score. You want a good bull,” said Faircloth. He rated most of the bulls at the event as “even.”
Beau Bowman, a veteran bull rider from Pennsylvania, said the battle against fear is part of the bull riding equation. “It’s definitely a total mental game more than a physical game. The best I have done as far as bull riding, physically I wasn’t able to walk and do a lot of things. I basically didn’t think. It made it so easy.”
Bowman seemed a bit agitated before the event. He told me to seek him out at the end but the cold defeated me and I left before the event ended.
Bull Bash organizer Carey McNeill, who has a long track record as a bull rider, has been bringing the Bull Bash to the Elizabeth City area for a decade now. While it’s a major logistical exercise, he pledged to keep holding the event, the only one of its kind in the area.
“Bull riding is the ultimate man against beast competition,” McNeill said. “It goes back to the old gladiator days.Even though it’s not a team sport, the camaraderie is really outstanding. The guy in first place may be helping another guy who’s got a good chance of beating him.
“These guys don’t get paid unless they win. They ride injured, they ride a lot of times when they shouldn’t ride. It’s a lifestyle more than anything.”
On Friday and Saturday 35 riders from 12 states faced the bulls. Caleb Laws from East Lansing, Michigan won Friday’s event and Will Jennings from Elizabeth City finished in second place.
Saturday’s competition was won by Chad Vanamburg of New York state.
The competition began with Old Glory being paraded around on a horse and the competitors lined up behind trails of burning gasoline as well as the release of one of the most feared bulls in the area, Dismal Swamp Jack, into the arena.
McNeill had hoped for about 5,000 people on Saturday but the actual figure was about 1,500. The event was originally scheduled for August but put back because of bad weather.
As I left the strains of Springsteen's Born in the USA were blasting out.
"Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up."
The lights were flickering in an ambulance where of the competitors who had been dragged half way round the arena by an angry bull ,was being treated.
I went away thinking: "Sod this. I'll take my chance with hairdressing,or septic tank cleaning. Anything except bull riding, really."