Being a bull rider has never been easy work. In recent years, it has become even more difficult -- and more dangerous. Increasingly powerful and muscular bulls are entering arenas around the world as a result of selective breeding, says pro riding champion Kody Lostroh.
“The breeding programs have exploded over the past few decades,” says Lostroh. “There’s [sic] become so many really good bulls that, as a bull rider, you’re going to get on a lot more good bulls over the course of your career -- and every year that number keeps increasing. That’s partly due to the fact that there’s a lot of money to be won with the bulls.”
Lostroh also raises riding bulls at his home in Ault on the Eastern Plains. By “good bulls,” Lostroh means they buck harder, jump higher, and twist and turn more than their predecessors. Bull riding has been dubbed the most dangerous organized sport in the world. Several professional riders performing at the National Western Stock Show in Denver last week told CPR News they'd agree with that label.
A few statistics serve as some evidence for that assertion. The New Yorker recently found that bull riders are 10 times more likely than football players to be seriously injured. The magazine also cited statistics by sports epidemiologist Dale Butterwick, who found that in the two decades leading up to 2009, 28 riders suffered “life-changing” injuries. During those years, 16 bull riders died.
Lostroh, 29, has been riding since he was a boy. In this sport, he's practically an old-timer -- and he has a long list of injuries to match his years. His back, legs, ribs, eye socket, and cheekbone have all been broken. His pelvic bone has been separated. His shoulder has been dislocated and he’s torn ligaments and tendons in his wrist.
“You’re risking your life every time you do it,” Lostroh says. “Even if you do it perfectly, you can die.”
Lostroh says he can't name a single rider who hasn’t been injured. One rider seems to escape injury more than the others -- two-time Professional Bull Riders (PBR) world champion, Silvano Alves of Brazil.
“I’m happy for him,” Lostroh says. “Other guys seems like they’re always hurting."
PBR’s season is 10 months long, starting in January. At the end of the season, the rider who has amassed the most points wins. The object is straightforward: a rider aims to hang onto to a violently bucking bull for eight seconds. Each ride can give a rider a total of 100 points, 50 of which come from the bull’s performance.
As bull rider Carrson Hiatt of Hennessee, Okla., says, “The bull, that’s your dance partner for the night.”
A perfect 100 is elusive. The sport has only ever documented one. That was in 1991 when Wade Leslie had a perfect ride in a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event in Oregon.
Lostroh says scores into the 90s are less elusive, but still difficult: "It's like hitting a homerun in our sport.”
In 2009, Lostroh, who grew up in Longmont and went to Denver stock shows as a kid, was the world champion PBR rider. When he walked into the ring last week, an announcer introduced him as a home state hero and the crowd cheered wildly.
The haul for a world champion is a $1 million bonus, plus all the rider's regular earnings of the year. PBR posts those earnings and world rankings on its website.
World champs also get something that helps them keep their pants up.
“The belt buckle is the real prize: Lots of gold, very intricate, silver, lots of gems and it says, ‘PBR World Champion’ on it and they wear it,” says Denise Abbott, a spokeswoman for the PBR. “They don’t go anywhere without it. It is their badge of, ‘I’ve made it.’”