By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Kowbell hardly fits its billing as "the rodeo capitol of the world." On a recent Saturday, when the amateur, small-stakes rodeos are held, about 200 spectators are sprinkled among the 1,500 tattered red seats--or the empty spaces where the seats used to be. Outside, the bulb lighting the hand-lettered Kowbell Indoor Rodeo sign is burned out, and a rich layer of clay dust covers the red-white-and-blue banners above the arena, the vintage farm implements decorating the lobby walls, and the glowing gas heaters scattered among the stands.
Above, some sort of black substance is peeling from the ceiling. The speakers, hard-wired to C&W, sound as if they were yanked from a '62 Ford.
The Kowbell shows every one of its 41 years of hard use. Yet it's the place where some of the nation's top bull riders are made, where they're whiplashed, thrown, trampled, and otherwise initiated into the world's most dangerous sport. It's the place where a young man lowers himself aboard a heaving, pitching 1,800-pound beast for the very first time.
Before the first chute is popped, a posse of upstart bull riders, mostly guys in their teens or early 20s, sizes up the animals arriving from the back barn. The bulls, which occasionally poke a malevolent, blunted horn between the steel rails, form two beefy conga lines, patiently trudging along their trails of snot, piss, and bull shit.
Bull-riding veteran Scott Cunningham points out the biggest problem for beginning riders: "Once the gate opens, you can't tell the bull, 'Hey, take it easy. It's my first time.'"
Cunningham, a 40-year-old farrier from Greenville, has been at the Kowbell this winter tutoring Sammy Feagin, a 16-year-old from Farmersville who rides at the high school level. After climbing on just a few dozen, Sammy is catching on to the fine points of navigating the back of a bucking bull.
A lot of careers don't last nearly that long.
One of Feagin's high school buddies, Russell Doan, endured two or three seconds on his first bull before he went sailing through the night. From behind--the view from the gate--he looked like a white-water kayaker in distress, his head cresting above the bull hide and flying hooves, then disappearing into the nasty troughs.
After he hit the ground and the bull's hoof clipped his knee, he made his way to a quiet spot behind the fence and stretched out in the sand, moaning, "I'm never riding a bull again."
And as this Saturday night will prove, the Russells outnumber the Sammys in the world of entry-level bull-riding. While the Kowbell has launched more than a few bull riders into big-time careers, it's launched far more straight to the floor.
The Kowbell exists for that moment in a would-be bull rider's life when it's time to shut up and do it.
A rider can work up to the moment with calf-riding or steer-riding--rodeo's junior events. Aspiring bull riders can buy a practice device shaped like a barrel or enroll in any number of bull-riding schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and elsewhere in the Rodeo Belt. Advice about life on the back of a bull flows more freely than tobacco juice from the cowboys hanging around the chutes at local rodeo arenas, the tight-framed guys with the broken collarbones and dislocated noses who already have had their introductions to bulls.
But there comes a time to go into the dust storm alone--to tie on for the first ride. Often enough, the time and place for doing this is "practice bull night" at the Kowbell.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8 p.m., the scruffy old barn at the edge of Mansfield's subdivisions becomes a sort of driving range for bull-riding. Ten dollars and a signature on the six-line legal release are all it takes to get on.
Possible destinations include an ascent to the pro ranks: the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association or the Professional Bull Riders Tour, which paid Reed Condor, a 19-year-old from Melvin, Texas, $165,000 for winning the national finals last fall in Las Vegas. The odds here are clearly long, although a number of Kowbell alumni--Donnie Gay, Ronny Kitchens, and Scott Mendes--have made it to the very top of the sport as national champions.
More likely is a trip to the nearest emergency room. Bull-riding is a break-dance of crushed bones, torn ligaments, and cracked skulls. Sooner or later a bull with a name like Short Fuse, Rampage, or Locomotive Breath will be doing the cha-cha on your head.
Other adventurers simply end up addicted to the transcendental challenge of riding creatures as big as subcompact cars, the embrace of danger and uncertainty--although cowboys don't usually put it in those terms. At least two 30-ish riders who showed up at practice bull nights earlier this month declined to give their names for fear that their bosses or wives would find out they're still, as one of the cowboys put it, "out here trying to break my fool neck."
Jack Ratjen, the Kowbell's 69-year-old owner, presides over practice bull night as a pipe-chewing elder statesman in soiled black jeans and a cream-colored hat. He attracts to his out-of-the-way arena high school hotshots, young pros polishing their moves, senior riders 35 years and older, first-timers, and even a European tourist or two looking for the true West. The Euros tend to want two things out of Texas: a chance to shoot a gun and a spin aboard something large and hairy--a trained horse, a bronc, a bull, whatever.