The life (and work) of a bull rider

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Gone in eight seconds

June 18, 2005

By Ed Odeven

Count to eight. But not too quickly. If you do, you’ll be too fast to simulate the amount of time a bull rider has to brave the elements — a bull’s bucking and spinning, flesh-ripping horns and, oh yeah, 2,000 pounds of danger — for eight seconds.

That’s the duration of a ride, a day’s work.

Above all, this job is an adrenaline rush for a bull rider.

“The easiest way I explain it is a lot of people put something in their arm to get the feeling we get every eight seconds (on the bull),” said Jason Mattox, a bull rider from Wickenburg, Friday evening at the 24th annual Flagstaff Pine Country Pro Rodeo at the Coconino County Fairgrounds. “They’ve got to pay to hurt themselves; whereas (for) us, it’s a particular rush that you can’t compare to nothing.

“It’s like time’s stopped. You don’t notice anything around you and you don’t hear anything. You are just so focused and you are in a zone, you know. It’s hard to explain, but it’s easy to explain.

“You do it once and it gets in your blood. Once you get ridin’ in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.”

Mattox was one of 20 bull riders who competed at the Fort Tuthill arena Friday night.

Another rider, Josh Lozinsky of Marana, has similar feelings about his job.

“I’ve never experienced anything else (like it),” Lozinsky said. “You’ve got a wild animal underneath you. You’re trying your best just to compete with him. It’s one-on-one. It’s really exciting.”

Bulls named Sling Shot, Luck Of The Draw, Hurts So Good and Gotcha were in the field Friday night. They are bulls from the Salt River Rodeo Company, a well-regarded stock contractor.

Or as FPCR vice president of promotions John Davison said: “(They are) the best ones you can use.” They are certified by the Professional Bull Riders and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as first-rate bulls, he added.

Friday, Lozinsky and Mattox were the best riders. Both kept their balance, holding tightly with one arm (two aren’t allowed) to a rope attached to the bull with the crowd roaring with delight as their time aboard Big Poppa and Forty Below, respectively, got closer to eight seconds.

Both made it.

Lozinsky was the winner Friday, finishing with 86 points (a perfect score is 100, which is rare, and the scoring is based on up to 50 points each for the bull and the rider).

Mattox earned an 83.

A rider who doesn’t stay on his bull for eight seconds doesn’t score points or earn a paycheck that day.

Before the competition began, Lozinsky was asked what he thought of Big Poppa.

“I’ve never even seen him before, but they all say he’s one of the really good ones around tonight,” he said.

But did Lozinsky have any idea what to expect once his name was called and he and Big Poppa exited the chute into the arena?

“Your test drive is those first eight seconds you get on him,” Lozinsky said.

When it was over, Lozinsky had plenty of reasons to smile.

“I just kept trying as hard as I could and never quit, and it end up working out,” Lozinsky said. “I’ve had more memorable ones, but I haven’t been able to go lately and it really made me feel good. Made me feel like a winner again.”

“The weekend’s already paid for itself and more,” he added, “If I go to the other ones and unfortunately have a bad day, I’m not going to be in the hole.”

Lozinsky, 23, broke his leg twice last year and has slowly regained his form and strength. This was his third pro rodeo of 2005.

On the other hand, Mattox, a 26-year-old who’s competed professionally for seven years, has had a more hectic schedule. Thursday, he competed in a rodeo in Pleasant Grove, Utah. After traveling all night, he arrived in Flagstaff at 5:30 Friday morning. He departed Flagstaff for Sky Harbor Airport late Friday night, caught a plane to Oregon, where he participated in a rodeo in Roseburg Saturday. Today, he’s in Washington for another bull-riding competition.

This is a typical week for a rodeo cowboy, who typically earn between $20,000 and $100,000 per year, according to Mattox. The season begins in January and ends in October. National and world championship finals are held in December.

“You always try to hit about three or four or five a weekend, from about Wednesday or Thursday to Sunday,” said Mattox, who’s headed to Reno, Nev., next weekend.

Mattox tries to go to 80 to 125 rodeos a year.

“If you stay healthy, you’ll be all right,” he said. “You won’t go to all of them because sometimes you’ll get bulls you don’t want to get on.”

Call it the cowboy’s version of “Fear Factor,” or just plain common sense.

Sometimes, one rider’s fear is another’s challenge. Last weekend, Mattox scored 87 in Riverside, Calif., riding Saratoga — “a bull they don’t like very much.”

He meant his fellow bull riders.

“A lot of guys don’t mess with him, but he took to me pretty good,” Mattox said.

The same was true with Forty Below. Before his turn Friday, Mattox talked about his experienced aboard the bull.

“I’ve been on him before,” he said. “He’s a good bull. I should do very well.”

He was right. An 83 is a respectable score. Mattox’s top score this year is 92, though.

To strive for perfection as a bull rider, Mattox prepares himself for his job like many other athletes — he works out regularly and tries to maintain a healthy diet. He also watches film of his rides.

The reason?

“I like to see what I’m doing wrong,” he said. “Maybe you’re not moving your feet when you’re supposed to or you’re kind of sitting up too high. You learn from watching film, just like with football or baseball and you can pick something up from the other team.”

And remember this: Bulls are predictable.

“Ninety percent of the time they are going to do the same thing they usually do,” Mattox decided.

So what’s the key to becoming an elite-level bull rider?

“We’ve got to keep in shape, mentally and physically, because the stock we’re riding against, the bulls, they are athletes as well,” Lozinksy said. “They are not going to want to give up, they are not going to let up, so we’ve got to go out there and give it 100 percent.”

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