Who are the millennial cowboys? They drive pickups, not herds, they get buzzed on Jim Beam and they ride 1300 lb. bulls with names like Locomotive Breath, Hurts So Good, and Freak on a Leash.
"Yeah, I'm a cowboy," drawls Chris Shivers, real slow like.
When Shivers says he's a cowboy, he's not talking about Kid Rock. He has been gored—he's had his collarbone snapped in two, wishbone-style—and he's been trampled flat into he ground more times than Wyle E. Coyote.
No matter how twisted up his body gets, Shivers takes his lumps like Gumby in a ten-gallon hat—he never gets bent out of shape (at least not permanently).
Unlike Gumby, Shivers is from Clint Eastwood stock, a strong-silent type with a make-my -day stare. Bull riding injuries are "just something that you can't control they're going to happen when they happen."
Shivers has a good excuse for being tight lipped: Eight years back, a feisty bull named Hard Copy stabbed a horn through Shivers' mouth, gouging out six of his teeth and forcing him to stop riding for, yes, an entire week.
"When you're good in the standings, you want to keep it that way. You don't want to lay at home and let everybody get ahead of you," says Shivers of his Wolverine-speed recovery time. "I'll hang in for as long as I'm mentally and physically able."
So far, hanging in has been paying off. Bucking the laws of physics with a combination of daredevil philosophy and uncanny balance, Shivers has steered past all the other modern-day cowboys and is the all-time money leader on the pro bull riding circuit—his career earnings recently eclipsed the $3 million dollar mark. Not bad for a 27-year-old cow poke from Jonesville, Louisiana.
As sports go, bull riding itself is certainly a strange beast. Events combine the frills of Smackdown, the spirituality of sumo and the high action and, ahem, gut wrenching spills of NASCAR.
Riders swagger into arenas amid simultaneous blasts of pyro and AC/DC. Bucking bonanzas are preceded by prayers for the safety of the athletes, the audience and the animals alike (a sobering reminder that this sport's mortality rate is nothing to sneeze at).
Nine years ago, Canadian champ Glen Keeley went to cowboy heaven after a bull named Promise Land tossed him and then proceeded to stomp on his chest in a PBR event in Albuquerque. Keeley remarkably was able to walk out of the arena following the incident, but died later that day in the hospital from severe abdominal injuries.
The Thrill of Bull Riding
So what does it feel like to brave a buck-wild bull bent on tossing a pesky load off its back?
"It's the greatest feeling in the world, you're riding on something four times your size and you're in control," Shivers maintains.
That, of course, is based on the assumption that one doesn't become a human piñata.
"If a bull ride goes bad, it's like being in a car wreck—it's something that you can't control." Shivers says. "When a bull wants to stop it will stop; it's not like in football where a whistle blows and then the play stops."
Bull riding does have something in common with grid-iron combat: There are plenty of starts and stops in this blur of a sport where riders are required to stay put on a bull's back for a total of eight seconds—which, to Shivers, surprisingly "feels like eight minutes."
A perfect score in bull riding is 100, with 50 points allocated to the rider and fifty for the bull. Judges rate riders on their ability to stay in control and bulls are rated on how aggressive and kick crazy they are. To keep thing on an even keel, if a rider draws a sedate bull they are awarded a re-ride.
In bullfighting, the illest bulls are called toros bravo, in bull riding they call 'em rank.
Shivers likes rank bulls, all the riders do.
"You don't go to a bull ride to win second or third, you want to go to win first and it takes getting on good bulls to win first" he explains.
Rank bulls burst out of the chute bucking up and down like they just don't care—they are also barely ride-able. But matching moves with bulls and staying on is now almost instinct for Shivers, who has been riding since he was 13 and thinking about it since he was a little critter.
"I practiced on barrels and just about anything that was round and you could sit on," he says.
These days, his muscle memory is so attuned to bovine frequencies that riding for him is like acid reflux for us.
"Shivers style is flawless," says seven time World Champion all-around cowboy, and two time World Champion bull rider, Ty Murray. "He looks as good as you possibly can. Bull riding is like gymnastics or diving in the respect that form is a big part of it and Shivers has impeccable form."
"It's not easy," admits Shivers. "It just doesn't happen. Once you know how to ride bulls you just have to step up to the plate and do it," he explains.
Thinking too much about getting tossed and taking a horn in the ass will get you tossed with said horn in said ass. Successful bull riders can all wussy emotions when they're ready to ride.
"If you're scared, you're not going to make it, " Shivers says, stone cold. "I don't got many fears."
An abbreviated version of my ran in the now defunct Rev magazine in June of 2004