American bull riding has been called "the most dangerous eight seconds in sports." To receive a score, the rider must stay atop the bull for eight seconds with the use of one hand on a rope tied behind the bull's forelegs; touching the bull or themselves with the free hand, or failing to reach the eight-second mark, results in a no-score ride. In most bull riding circuits, four judges mark scores for the rider and the bull. Two judges score the rider based on their ability up to 25 points each for up to a total of 50 points. The other two judges score the bull on his bucking performance for up to 25 points each for a total of up to 50 points. Thus, the ride is scored up to 100 points. Most professional riders score between the mid-70s and high 80s.
Outside of the United States, bull riding traditions with varying rules and histories also exist in Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand with the majority of them following similar rules, especially with the Professional Bull Riders organization.
The taming of bulls has ancient roots in contests dating as far back as Minoan culture. Bull riding itself has its direct roots in Mexican contests of equestrian and ranching skills now collectively known as charreada. During the 16th century, a hacienda contest called jaripeo developed. Originally considered a variant of bull fighting, in which riders literally rode a bull to death, the competition evolved into a form where the bull was simply ridden until it stopped bucking. By the mid-19th century, charreada competition was popular on Texas and California cattle ranches where Anglo and Hispanic ranch hands often worked together.
Many early Texas rangers, who had to be expert horse riders and later went on to become ranchers, learned and adapted Hispanic techniques and traditions to ranches in the United States. Many also enjoyed traditional Mexican celebrations, and H. L. Kinney, a rancher, promoter and former Texas Ranger staged what is thought to be the first Anglo-American organized bullfight in the southwest in 1852. This event also included a jaripeo competition and was the subject of newspaper reports from as far away as the New Orleans Daily Delta. However, popular sentiment shifted away from various blood sports and both bullfighting and prize fighting were banned by the Texas legislature in 1891. In the same time period, however, Wild West Shows began to add steer riding to their exhibitions, choosing to use castrated animals because steers were easier to handle and transport than bulls. Additionally, informal rodeos began as competitions between neighboring ranches in the American Old West. The location of the first formal rodeo is debated. Deer Trail, Colorado claims the first rodeo was in 1869, but so does Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1872.
Although steer riding contests existed into the 1920s, the sport did not gain popularity until bulls were returned to the arena and replaced steers as the mount of choice. The first-known rodeo to use brahma bulls was in Columbia, Mississippi, produced in 1935 by Canadian brothers Earl and Weldon Bascom with Jake Lybbert and Waldo Ross. This rodeo was the first to feature a bull riding event at a night rodeo held outdoors under electric lights. A pivotal moment for modern bull riding, and rodeo in general, came with the founding of the Rodeo Cowboy Association (RCA) in 1936, which later became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Through this organization, many hundreds of rodeos are held each year. Since that time, the popularity of all aspects of the rodeo has risen. In addition to the PRCA, which has PRCA ProRodeo with bull riding and the Xtreme Bulls events for bull riding only, there is the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which stages a large number of events in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. For many years the annual PBR World Finals were held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. However, starting in 2016, the Finals are now held at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The PBR's major league tour, currently titled the Unleash the Beast Series, is broadcast on CBS Sports Network, with the primary broadcast network televising selected bonus rounds (known as 15/15 bucking battles). The previous tour name, which ran from 2003 until 2017, was titled the Built Ford Tough Series. From these roots, bull riding as a competitive sport has spread to a number of other nations worldwide.
Each bull has a unique name and number used to help identify it. A sufficient number of bulls, each judged to be of good strength, health, agility, and age, are selected to perform. The rider and bull are matched randomly before the competition, although starting in 2008, some ranked riders are allowed to choose their own bulls from a bull draft for selected rounds in PBR events.
A rider mounts a bull and grips a flat braided rope. After they secure a good grip on the rope, the rider nods to signal they are ready. The bucking chute (a small enclosure which opens from the side) is opened and the bull storms out into the arena. The rider must attempt to stay on the bull for at least eight seconds, while only touching the bull with their riding hand. The other hand must remain free for the duration of the ride. Originally, the rules required a 10-second ride, but that was changed to the current eight seconds.
The bull bucks, rears, kicks, spins, and twists in an effort to throw the rider off. This continues for a number of seconds until the rider is bucked off of the bull or dismounts after completing the ride. A loud buzzer or whistle announces the completion of an eight-second ride.
Throughout the ride, bullfighters, also popularly known as rodeo clowns, stay near the bull to aid the rider if necessary. When the ride ends, either intentionally or not, the bullfighters distract the bull to protect the rider from harm.
Many competitions have a format that involves multiple rounds, sometimes called "go-rounds". Generally, events span two to three nights. The rider is given a chance to ride one bull per night. The total points scored by the end of the event are recorded, and after the first or first two go-rounds, the top 20 riders are given a chance to ride one more bull. This final round is called the "short go". After the end of the short go, the rider with the most total points wins the event.
The ride is scored from 0-100 points. Both the rider and the bull are awarded points. There are usually two judges, each judge scoring the bull from 0-25 points, and the rider from 0-25 points. The combined point totals from both judges make up the final score for the ride. This system was spearheaded by former PRCA president Dale Smith. Scores of zero are quite common, as many riders lose control of the animal almost immediately after the bull leaves the bucking chute. Many experienced professionals are able to earn scores of 75 or more. Scores above 80 are considered excellent, and a score in the 90s exceptional.
Judges award points based on several key aspects of the ride. Judges look for constant control and rhythm in the rider in matching their movements with the bull. Points are usually deducted if a rider is constantly off balance. For points actually to be awarded, the rider must stay mounted for a minimum of 8 seconds, and they are scored only for actions during those 8 seconds. The ability to control the bull well allows riders to gain extra style points. These are often gained by spurring the animal. A rider is disqualified for touching the bull, the rope, or themself with their free arm.
Bulls have more raw power and a different style of movement from bucking horses. One move particular to bulls is a belly roll ("sunfishing"), in which the bull is completely off the ground and kicks either his hind feet or all four feet to the side in a twisting, rolling motion. Bulls also are more likely than horses to spin in tight, quick circles, and are less likely to run or to jump extremely high ("break in two").
For the bull, judges look at the animal's overall agility, power and speed; his back legs kick, and his front end drops. In general, if a bull gives a rider a very hard time, more points will be awarded. If a rider fails to stay mounted for at least 8 seconds, the bull is still awarded a score. The PBR and PRCA record bulls' past scores so that the best bulls can be brought to the finals, ensuring that riders will be given a chance to score highly. Both organizations also award one bull the "Bucking Bull of the Year" award, decided by scores and the number of riders it has bucked off. The award brings prestige to the ranch at which the bull was raised.
If a rider scores sufficiently low due to poor bull performance, the judges may offer the rider the option of a re-ride. By taking the option, the rider gives up the score received, waits until all other riders have ridden, and rides again. This can be risky because the rider loses their score and risks being bucked off and receiving no score. A re-ride may also be given if a bull stumbles or runs into the fence or gate.
Bull riders use many pieces of equipment both functionally and to ensure maximum safety, both to themselves and to the animals involved.
The primary piece of equipment used is the bull rope. The bull rope is a braided rope made of polypropylene, grass, or some combination. A handle is braided into the center of the rope and is usually stiffened with leather. One side of the rope is tied in an adjustable knot that can be changed for the size of bull. The other side of the rope (the tail) is a flat braid and is usually coated with rosin to keep it from sliding through the rider's hand. A metallic bell is strapped to the knot and hangs directly under the bull throughout the ride. In addition to the sound the bell produces, it also gives the rope some weight, allowing it to fall off the bull once a rider has dismounted.
Chaps are probably the most noticeable piece of bull rider clothing, as their distinctive coloring and patterns add flair to the sport. Usually made of leather, chaps also provide protection for the rider's legs and thighs.
Bull riders are required to wear a protective vest, most usually wear one made of high impact foam that allows the shock to disperse over a wide area, thereby reducing pain and injury.
To prevent a rope burn, riders must wear a protective glove, usually of leather. This glove must be fastened to the rider's hand since the force the animal is able to exert could tear the glove away. The rider often applies rosin to the glove, which allows for additional grip.
Cowboy boots are also worn. The dull and loosely locked spurs help keep the rider balanced and is crucial piece of equipment to the sport as a whole. The bulls are unharmed by the rowels, as their hide is roughly seven times thicker than a human being's skin. Truly skilled riders will often spur the bull in the hope of achieving extra style points from the judges.
Cowboy hats remain the primary headwear used. While the professional organizations permit protective helmets and masks, some riders continue to believe that this equipment can detrimentally affect balance, and many professionals still avoid wearing them. However, the trend is changing, as more champion riders begin to wear helmets for added safety.
Public health researchers found evidence suggesting that bull riding helmets are protective, when riders wearing one particular type of helmet suffered approximately 50% fewer head and facial injuries. In 2004, at the 1st International Rodeo Research and Clinical Care Conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a group of top rodeo medicine researchers and clinical care providers came to a consensus on the use of helmets declaring that all youth rodeo participants should wear helmets, and that helmets should be recommended for adult bull riders.
For competitors under the age of 18, protective headgear incorporating a helmet and ice hockey style face mask are worn. While optional at the upper levels of the sport, it has become mandatory at younger levels, and riders who use helmets and face masks as youths tend to continue to wearing them as they reach adulthood and turn professional.
The flank strap is a rope made of a soft cotton rope at least 5/8" in diameter is acceptable as a flank strap and does not require extra padding with sheepskin or neoprene. It is tied around the bull's flank. Contrary to popular belief, the flank strap is not tied around the bull's testicles. This rope is to encourage the bull to use his hind legs more in a bucking motion, as this is a true test of a rider's skill in maintaining the ride. If it is applied improperly a rider may request to ride again, as the bull will not buck well if the flank strap is too tight. The flank strap is applied by the stock contractor or his designate.
The arenas used in professional bull riding vary. Some are rodeo arenas that are used only for bull riding and other rodeo events. Others are event centers that play host to many different sports. Common to all arenas is a large, open area that gives the bulls, bull riders, and bull fighters plenty of room to maneuver. The area is fenced, usually 6 to 7 feet high, to protect the audience from escaped bulls. There are generally exits on each corner of the arena for riders to get out of the way quickly. Riders can also hop onto the fence to avoid danger. One end of the arena contains the bucking chutes from which the bulls are released. There is also an exit chute where the bulls can exit the arena.
In the United States and Canada, most professional bull riders start out riding in high school rodeo or other junior associations. From there, riders may go on the college rodeo circuit or to one of several national or regional semi-pro associations including the Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association (SEBRA), the Southern States Bull Riders Association (SSBR), the International Bull Riders Association (IBR), the Professional Championship Bull Riders Tour (PCB), Bull Riders Canada (BRC), the American Bull Riders Tour (ABT), the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA), the Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA), the United Professional Rodeo Association (UPRA), the Southern Rodeo Association (SRA), the Professional Western Rodeo Association (PWRA), the Canadian Cowboys Association (CCA), among others. Bull riders compete in these organizations as they are climbing the ladder to the professional ranks and to supplement their income.
In Mexico, there are several American-style bull riding organizations. The main ones include PBR Mexico, Cuernos Chuecos (Crooked Horns), Jinete Supremo (Supreme Bull Rider), Danger Bull Riding Company and Bull Masters Championship. La Federacion Mexicana de Rodeo (Mexican Rodeo Federation) is Mexico's top organization that includes all of American Rodeo's standard events, including bull riding. There are also a number of regional associations.
The top bull riders in the world compete on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) circuits. Bull riders can win in excess of $100,000 a year while competing in either of these organizations, and it is not uncommon for riders to compete in both of them.
There are approximately 200 rodeos and bushmen's carnivals held annually across Australia. At most of these events bull riding is one of the featured competitions.
Initially bullocks and steers were used for roughriding events and these were owned by local graziers that lent them for these events. Nowadays bulls are used for the open events and stock contractors supply the various roughriding associations. Contract stock has produced a more uniform range of bucking stock which is also quieter to handle. The competitions are run and scored in a similar style to that used in the United States.
In May 1992 the National Rodeo Council of Australia (NRCA) was formed to promote and further the sport of rodeo and has represented the following associations, which also control bull riding:
There are strict standards for the selection, care and treatment of rodeo livestock, arenas, plus equipment requirements and specifications.
Chainsaw was one of Australia's most famous bucking bulls. Only nine contestants scored on him and he won the Australian national title of Bull of the Year a world record eight times during 1987 to 1994.
Some of Australia's best bull riders travel and compete internationally in Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Some of Australia's leading bull riders conduct bull riding clinics to assist learners and novice riders.
A World Challenge of Professional Bull Riders (PBR) was held on 29 May 2010 at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre (BEC). The 2010 PBR Finals were held over two nights at the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre (AELEC), with five top-ranked professional bull riders from the United States and 25 of Australia's best bull riders contesting the event.
Rodeo is also popular in country regions of New Zealand where approximately 32 rodeos, which include bull riding contests, are held each summer.
There is debate between animal rights/welfare organizations and bull riding enthusiasts over many aspects of the sport. One source of controversy is the flank strap. The flank strap is placed around a bull's flank, just in front of the hind legs, to encourage bucking. Critics say that the flank strap encircles or otherwise binds the genitals of the bull. However, the flank strap is anatomically impossible to place over the testicles. Many point out that the bull's genes are valuable and that there is a strong economic incentive to keep the animal in good reproductive health. Further, particularly in the case of bulls, an animal that is sick and in pain usually will not want to move at all, will not buck as well, and may even lie down in the chute or ring rather than buck.
Critics also claim that electric cattle prods ("hot shots") are used to injure and torture bulls, while supporters of bull riding claim that the cattle prod simply gets the bull out of the chute quickly and is only a moderate irritation due to the thickness of the animal's hide. Cattle prods have not been used in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour for several years. However, in smaller associations, a cattle prod is still sometimes used to ensure that the animal leaves the chute as soon as the rider nods their head. Cattle prods are not allowed by any major association.
Spurs are also a source of controversy, though modern rodeo rules place strict regulations on the type and use of spurs and participants point out that they are a tool commonly used in other non-rodeo equestrian disciplines. Spurs used in bull riding do not have a fixed rowel, nor can they be sharpened. The PBR currently allows only two types of rowels to ensure the safety of the animals.
Bull riding has the highest rate of injury to humans of any rodeo sport. It accounts for approximately 50% of all traumatic injuries to rodeo contestants, and the bullfighters have the highest injury rate of any non-contestant group.