Experience firsthand one of the world’s most dangerous sports at Sankey Rodeo School.
By Niki Jones, Photos courtesy of Niki Jones
There are no timeouts in bull riding. That’s the first thing my instructor, Cody Goodwin, told us on day one of Sankey Rodeo School. I understood the sentiment, but I was still too fresh and excited about what awaited me in the following two days to fully grasp the gravity of it.
I’ve always been enamored of rodeo culture, specifically bull riding, and had watched more than my share of televised Professional Bull Riders events and gone to many local rodeos. When I learned there was a highly regarded traveling rodeo school headed back to Texas, I signed up. I promptly arranged to borrow a brand-new Chevy Silverado (You can’t show up at rodeo school in a sedan!), packed my three pairs of cowboy boots, hoping one of them would be right for the course, and grabbed my stretchiest pair of jeans.
Sankey Rodeo School was founded in 1975 by Lyle Sankey, one of only four men to ever qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in bare back, saddle bronc and bull riding. This is clearly someone who knows his stuff, so that was promising. Other than that, I had no clue what to expect.
My class consisted of 22 bull riders, four junior bull riders and four steer riders (kids as young as 6 years old), and all were male except for me and one 22-year-old returning student (who didn’t end up riding this time around). But these are no weekend warriors; the majority of the students at Sankey Rodeo School have aspirations of becoming professional rodeo athletes, and this was their first step.
The bulk of that first steamy morning was spent on gear. Each student was to have and take care of his or her own set of gear (I borrowed mine from the school), which consisted of a bull rope, rosin, glove, spurs, boot straps, steel bells, helmet, mouthpiece and protective vest. Our first lesson was a breakdown of each item, how it worked and why quality gear is so important from a functionality and safety standpoint.
Once we had a handle on our gear, we started on drills. The first involved sitting high atop the Il Toro, a manually operated bucking-bull simulator that rotates 360 degrees. This is where we learned correct body position, how to engage our inner thigh muscles, where to place our nonriding hand and where to look (straight down at the center of the bull’s shoulders at all times). We also worked on dismounts, which is imperative if you make it to the 8-second whistle. A correct dismount can help save you from getting trampled or hooked by the bull’s horns.
Throughout the day, we learned some more specifics of riding, most importantly riding in the position of “home base”: feet up, spurs in front of the bull rope, knees pressed in, groin muscles engaged, up over the rope, up off your rear end, chest bowed out, shoulders square, weight evenly divided along the center line, non-riding arm parallel and in peripheral vision at all times, chin down, focusing on the area in front of the rope the whole time. It was a lot to take in but all crucial to understand. One wrong move can get you bucked off and seriously injured.
The primary focus on everything at Sankey Rodeo School is safety, right down to the high quality of the bull rope. Riders’ spurs have to have a specific amount of space above the top of our boot heels. Our helmets have to be nearly skull-crushingly snug. Our vests have to cover our kidneys. As confident as I was the instructors at Sankey Rodeo School are among the best in the biz, as the day went on, my anxiety escalated and my apprehension grew by the minute.
To try to keep my mind off the fear, I focused on doing drills. Late in the afternoon, it was time to head to the chutes for some riding. For the most part, it was returning students who opted to ride that first day, while we newbies thought it wise to watch and learn.
With my apprehension mounting to never-before-experienced levels, I realized 1.) these bulls are the real deal, no different from the bulls I’ve seen at bull-riding events, and 2.) when it comes time to buck, each and every one of them is as aggressive as the last. As I watched student after student fly through the air and hit the ground, I wondered how I was going to be able to get in the bucking chute the next morning.
The 12-hour day ended, and I found myself uncharacteristically psyching myself out—hard. As I drove back to the hotel, I sure looked like a cowgirl in the driver’s seat of a lifted Chevy pickup, boots dusty and mud from the arena caked on my jeans, but I sure didn’t feel like one. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to ride a bull. My goal for that night was to get a solid sleep so I’d be sharp and focused in the morning. We were scheduled to arrive at the school at 8 a.m. and start riding by 9 a.m. I got to bed early but wasn’t prepared for the terror that built as the minutes ticked closer to what was quickly becoming one of the most dreaded events of my life. In that dark hotel room, I could feel the sheets rising and falling with my fast-beating heart, and I tossed and turned for hours, worrying about getting in that chute.
As the sun came up and I exhaustedly rolled out of bed, I decided then and there I was going to do it. I needed to replace the fear with the goal. I remembered something Cody told us the day before: “Focus on what you know, not what you feel,” so I mentally went through my notes and visualized the skills we had learned.
As I drove to the school that second morning, I kept going with the positive affirmations: I can do this. I will do this! For an extra dose of positivity, once I arrived, I had a long chat with one of the bronc-rider instructors, Noel Bosco, about overcoming my fear. He imparted a great deal of wisdom and advice that will undoubtedly be useful for the rest of my life. One trait all the instructors at Sankey Rodeo School display is the ability to help students maintain a positive mindset and overcome obstacles.
9 a.m. came fast. One rider after another went hurtling out of the chutes. Then it was my turn. It all happened in a flash. My bull, like the majority of them, was agitated in the bucking chute, and when I lowered myself on his back, he painfully smashed my leg against the metal wall. I bucked up (pun intended) and shook it off. Someone had already attached his flank strap, which causes the bull to buck, and as I got situated, Cody pulled my bull rope tight. I rubbed rosin on the rope to warm it up and make it sticky for maximum grip. I positioned my hand in the leather handle of the bull rope, wrapped my hand with the tail end of the rope, which is designed and ready to release completely as soon as I let go. Finally, with the help of Cody, I positioned myself to home base, took a deep breath and gave a nod.
The bucking-chute door flew open and we were off, my bull bucking immediately. I tried to keep my sight down between the bull’s shoulders, but that’s about all I remember. It went that quickly before I was bucked off. As I hit the dirt, I urgently crawled/ran to the safest exit while the bullfighters distracted the bull, directing him back to the chutes. I did it. I did it!
After the requisite adrenaline dump, I was on an emotional high and felt like I was floating on air. During the video review of my ride, I decided I was going to get back on, this time with the goal of being more aware of my position, specifically holding my non-riding hand up since I had completely forgotten to do so the first time. On that second ride, I did just that—before I was bucked off in about two seconds flat.
One bruised tailbone later, with aching muscles I wasn’t even aware I had, a touch of whiplash and a mess of dirt-caked hair, I was exhausted physically but even more so mentally. I had never been so afraid of anything before, nor had I psychologically worked through anything like that in all my life. I was prouder than I’ve ever been and beyond thankful to the great staff of Sankey Rodeo School that helped get me there.
Lesson Notes (for bull riding and for life)
Ride to the whistle
You’ve got to get tough
Bring your A game
It’s going to hurt
Fight for your life
Match the bull’s intensity