The beast snorts and fidgets in the narrow pen, clattering the steel bars. The hero steadies himself on the back of his vicious charge. The clowns pull open the chute’s gate; beast and rider spill into paddock, the monster flailing to hurl the monkey off its back.

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The livid creature kicks, stamps, throws clods of dirt with its hooves. It froths at the mouth, hurling yards of slobber with each violent shake of its enormous head, and the rider must grasp onto this hulking ton of muscle with only a single hand for eight full seconds — eight seconds in bucking hell — before attaining 15 seconds of immortality. Only then may he allow himself to be vaulted from the back of the brute, rolling away from the furious feet and frightening horns of the frenzied beast, lest he be crushed or gored.

Riding bulls requires a hefty dose of insanity. But dozens of cowboys showed their stuff in the Professional Bull Riders BlueDEF Tour event at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem on April 23.

Modern bull riding, especially in the rodeo format, traces its current aesthetic roots to the American West — contemporary cowboys deck themselves in gingham shirts, ornate leather chaps, blue jeans, spurred boots and the ubiquitous 10-gallon hat. Just a dense, high-impact foam vest and the occasional hockey mask differentiate the modern rider with his romanticized counterpart of bygone times, a necessary accessory in case a stomping bull runs amok.

The romantic vision of the Old West, calcified in the collective consciousness, drew a packed house to the coliseum. The same fascination drives a competitive shooter to rapidly fire repeaters or single-action revolvers in a duel with steel silhouettes, or calls hunters to the Great Plains in search of bison to hang over their mantels. Those curious yearn for America’s libertarian golden age.

But many Anglosphere nations, including Australia, follow bull riding, too. The practice extends further back in human history, beyond even classical Spanish bullfighting. Ancient Minoan Greeks held bull-leaping contests in the same vein, and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh features the killing of the Bull of Heaven. Man’s attempts to vanquish massive cattle dominate human imagination.

Thus, rodeo bull riding carries a certain grandeur despite its rustic roots. It’s an elite sport, its practitioners some of the most capable athletes, its victors heroes.

This inverted elitism shares traditions not only with the Iberian blood sport. Bulls receive clever names just like thoroughbred horses sprinting in derbies from Kentucky to New York: Ur Welcome, Bad Apple, Slim to None, Schizophrenic, Gonzo.

Hart Breaker kicks back dirt, prepping to charge.
Hart Breaker kicks back dirt, prepping to charge.

These bulls are only ostensibly domesticated; they’re as tame as your typical pet leopard. They’re clearly riled once popping out of the chute, and that madness extends after bucking the bastards from their shoulders.

Scratch Off, a bull ridden in the first round, distinguished himself among even the strongest bulls hurling their riders before the eight-second mark. He rounded the bullring, trotting past the roper — a stoic man in black atop a black bronco — and stared down those on the front row. As he strutted past, his earthen cologne of hide, hay and manure wafted; he huffed with each second step, and his glaring eyes, though dumb, projected a pent-up fury more dangerous than intelligence.

Another bull, Hart Breaker, slammed his way out of the post-ride holding pen to the assembled throng’s cheers. He seemed to feed off the audience as he pawed dirt behind him, preparing to charge the roper as the man on horseback twirled his lasso. The crowd ate it up.

The intimidatingly named Nitro Freak didn’t disappoint, either. After tossing off rider Kyle Carson in 2.8 seconds, he ran at the emcee draped in red, white and blue, forcing the poor man to swiftly hop atop the circular platform in the center of the arena.

“Y’all from North Carolina don’t understand,” he’d said earlier. “[Fans] wanna see someone almost die here tonight.”

The crowd got a fearful taste of that morbid thrill in the championship round.

Less than 10 riders held on for those hellish eight seconds to advance, but Australian Nathan Burtenshaw scored a solid 83 points to make the final. Ruff’em Up Tuck tossed Burtenshaw on his back after 6.73 respectable seconds, but the manic animal ignored the bullfighters and thrust his front hooves down on the unfortunate Aussie, the injury indeterminate — maybe a groin jab, maybe a punch to the sternum.

Regardless, the guy wasn’t getting up easy.

After an uneasy silence, he rose, supported by medics, and hobbled out of the ring.

Three riders eclipsed the eight-second mark to earn style points, but only one could earn the night’s $6,300 prize. That honor went to another Australian buckaroo, Beau Willis of Queensland. He dethroned King Buck with a score of 89 even. Seemingly unfazed after his flight from the bull’s back, he rose with a victorious yawp after dusting off his black chaps, smacking his hands together.

Among these elites, he was the best. To laypeople, he’d performed the impossible.

“How many of y’all think you could bull ride?” the emcee asked to affirmative screams. “If you really think you can do this, get in your Prius and go home.”

The crowd chuckled, but had to admit he was right.

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  • Joshua

    Nicholas Kristof: “Some day, will our descendants be mystified by how good and decent people in the early 21st century — that’s us — could have been so oblivious to the unethical treatment of animals? There certainly has been progress. Centuries ago, a European game consisted of nailing a cat to a post and head-butting it to death without getting your eyes scratched out. These days, torturing animals is a crime.” New York Times, JULY 27, 2013