Bull Riders Are Losing the Arms Race to the Bulls

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Bull riding is one of the ultimate contests of human vs. animal, but recent trends suggest that the animals are getting so good, it isn't much of a contest at all. According to the San Jose Mercury News, genetics and good breeding practices have made the bulls on the Professional Bull Riders circuit so hard to handle, that they're threatening to make the "ride" part of bull riding obsolete.

In the 1980s, the best riders dominated the bulls, routinely staying on the violently bucking animals for the eight seconds required to complete an official ride. Today's bigger and badder bulls (who are reserved for the biggest tournaments and best athletes) have swung the pendulum the other way, making it harder than ever for cowboys to stay on. In 1995, 46 percent of all rides on the pro circuit lasted for eight seconds, according to ProBullStats. This year, that number dropped to 27 percent. Top riders still hold their own, but the tide is slowly pushing against them.

As bullriding became more popular as a spectator sport in the last few decades, it started to become more lucrative for both the riders and owners of the bucking bulls. More money means more and better competition. Better riders means a need for even better bulls to weed out the weaker competitors and keep rodeo fans interested. For years, that meant a better, more exciting product, but in the last couple of years, it seems the rate of improvement for the bulls has far outstripped the improvement of the athletes, leading to a new crop of bulls that are nearly unrideable. The bulls even become celebrities in their own right, with fans scooping up cards and toys that honor their favorite animals. 

Recommended Reading

Just last week, ESPN The Magazine's Wright Thompson profiled the best bull in the world, named Bushwacker. (The story was for their annual "Body Issue." Get it?)  Bushwacker is a 1,700-pound marvel of animal husbandry who has only been "beaten" twice in his entire career. The last time a cowboy was able to stay on his back for the full eight seconds was four years ago. He is bigger, stronger, meaner, and some say "smarter" than the crazy people who climb on his back and try to tame him. And there are a lot more where he came from. He's a hot commodity on the breeding market where his sperm goes for $3,000 per sample, and each "session" can produce enough for about 300 samples.

And that's the problem, of course. It's much easier to breed bigger and badder champion bulls than champion bullriders, who remain disappointingly human. Some of the best bulls have even been cloned, producing duplicate animals with a similar bucking pattern. One former rider says, "There used to be two or three of that caliber in a pen of 30. Now there are 15 to 20." 

If the escalation continues, there will soon be a whole world of Bushwackers and hardly anyone available who can ride them. The trick will be to restore that competitive balance between excitement and difficulty, where the best riders are paired with bulls who are challenging, but not impossible, to conquer. Everyone loves a good fight, but for the fight needs to be fair.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.