They strap themselves to the backs of 2,000-pound beasts, their only safety net a braided rope securing one hand, a few inches of padding and a guy running around in a clown suit telling bad jokes — all for the glory of riding out the most dangerous eight seconds of sport.
They are bull riders.
A group of men whose dangerous passion makes most us question their sanity.
The job’s occupational hazards include being trampled, gored, tossed into a fence, losing an extremity — and worst of all — humiliation.
Most of the cowboys who took a turn on the back of a bull this weekend at the 128th running of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo faced the latter hazard. Only one rider stayed on long enough to qualify for points.
Bulls bucked off the rest like rag dolls, some within the bucking chute.
So what propels a man to put life and reputation on the line?
It isn’t for the money — though they wished it was. Most barely cover expenses.
It isn’t for lasting fame — although they get the rock star treatment for the few days rodeo lingers in town.
And it isn’t for the deluxe accommodations. Most sleep in their trailers, with their horses and dogs.
Nathan Jones, 29, who retired from the sport, said he loved the competitive aspect — squaring off against other riders, the beast and ultimately, that little voice of reason inside that screams at you to run for the hills.
Jones has never been one to listen to that voice — some call it common sense.
He started competing at an early age in rodeo, becoming New Mexico’s state champion in junior bull riding.
His success spurred him on. Jones said his best ride scored him a 91 out of 100, pretty good in the rodeo circuit.
But Jones’ bull riding days were numbered. An accident that left him with a broken neck dampened the thrill.
The disastrous spill happened after Jones was launched out of a chute at full speed.
But wait, it was not on the back of a bull. Jones thought it a good idea to ride a bicycle out of the back of a pickup traveling at “at least 30 mph.”
A month and half after the accident, Jones noticed tingling in his back every time he bent over. Doctors found he had broken his neck.
Shortly thereafter, Jones put up his chaps, but not because of the spill. He said the thrill was gone and there is “no one with heart anymore” in the sport.
On Saturday night, we found Jones hanging out with Bobby Baize, 33, behind the scenes at the rodeo. Baize was registering for team roping, a sport Jones is trying to break into.
Riding a horse at breakneck speed while twirling a rope overhead passes for a “safe” event in the rodeo world.
“There is no danger in team roping,” Baize said. That is because your horse isn’t trying to buck you and stomp you underfoot. Besides, if it doesn’t go well — you can always blame it on your partner.
Baize started roping first as a hobby. Rodeo was something his dad had done. He now rides the circuit nearly every year.
Besides the sport itself, Baize loves everything about rodeo.
Riders stroll into town when residents are amped up for the day’s events and later are happy to party at night.
The men say the rodeo season lasts year-round, but picks up from January through September. Most ride the circuit until they run out of money.
With the cost of diesel high along with nearly everything else needed to participate in rodeo, Baize said it is getting harder to stay with the sport.
Team roper Chance Kiehne, 21, from Eagar, said he wishes the sport were more recognized and had better payouts. He said even the best cowboy, Trevor Brazil, the Peyton Manning of rodeo, does not take home as much as a professional football player that sits on the bench all season.
“We are professional athletes,” he said. “But we only get paid when we place.”
April Denny, a barrel racer from Willcox, said the cost of the sport is prohibitive. She competes, however, for the love of horses.
She talks about her horse, an 8-year-old gelding named Traveler, like he is a beloved child. This is the horse’s first year in rodeo. For the season, Denny has won $412, although she didn’t take any money home from Payson’s rodeo.
A good start, but not enough to sell the farm. Then again, beats driving your bike out the back of a pickup at 30 miles an hour.