By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We had a German police officer in here last week," Ratjen says. "We keep some easy ones around for 'em." The next week, Ratjen announces that two Frenchmen may be arriving any moment by cab from Dallas. "I told 'em we don't have cab service in Mansfield, so they might not get back," he says from his perch in the wooden announcer's booth above the four bull chutes. As if cab service would be their biggest hazard. Anyway, the foreigners never show.
For the most part, though, the closest the Kowbell's riders have been to the Continent is a can of Copenhagen. They come from the area's more countrified suburbs such as Grand Prairie or Balch Springs, or from small towns such as Boyd, Springtown, Parker, Aubrey, places where rodeo is a ticket out, a pass to adventure and life on the road.
These days, rodeo's big-dollar destination is bulls.
With corporate sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch and AutoZone and $4.5 million in total prize money for its 24-event season, the Professional Bull Riders Tour, which got its start in 1992, is beginning to get noticed beyond the rodeo world. Fortune recently described the bull-riding-only league as "the next NASCAR." And it has a big-money rival, the Bull Riders Only tour.
Meanwhile, Dallas sports-team investor and media mogul Tom Hicks just paid $10 million for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which no doubt will play up bull-riding, the keep-'em-in-their-seats, fraught-with-danger event that always closes the show. Like NASCAR, it features lots of wrecks. Likewise, its stars are exceedingly polite, down-to-earth, and fan-friendly.
After four decades, though, the Kowbell doesn't seem to be getting anything near its share of success on rodeo night. People tend to attribute its fading present to its location, seven miles off the freeway on a stretch of Business 287 that doesn't appear to be doing much business.
But the little rodeo's bull-riding--45 attempted rides taking up nearly the whole of a recent Saturday-night program, plus the practice nights--is genuine and thrilling, positively worth the $6 adult admission (just four bucks on practice nights). So are the bulls, which have come up through Ratjen's well-regarded bucking-bull-breeding operation. With more than 90 bulls and herds of heifers and calves scattered across five North Texas counties, Ratjen has supplied top-ranked bucking bulls to all the sport's major events, including the PRCA and PBR finals.
On practice bull nights, when the crowd shrinks to a couple of friends and relatives, the Kowbell becomes more the rural equivalent of the big-city boxing gyms--like the famed, long-gone Stillman's Gym in New York--where prospects are worked and groomed.
Here, though, the sweet science is balance. The bells are the clanking cow variety, and the head-butting heavyweights come in tipping the Toledos at nearly a ton.
For the uninitiated, the rules of bull-riding are this: A rider must stay on for eight seconds and not touch the bull with his free hand. If a rider is airborne when the buzzer rings but is still holding some part of the rope, the ride qualifies.
Riders who stay on are scored on a 100-point system, half for the rider and half for the bull, which is graded for speed, power, drop in the front legs, kick in the back legs, direction change, and body roll. Bulls that spin--or "turn in," as it's called--are considered more hazardous and score higher than ones that buck straight up and down.
A bull rider's equipment consists of spurs, chaps, a protective vest, calfskin gloves, and a rope, which is the rider's only solid link to the animal. It's a flat braided manila rope about 1 1/4 inches wide, positioned like a lariat just behind the bull's shoulders. A weighted bell is attached to the rope, allowing it to fall free when the rider comes off. A rider grips the rope through a handhold and single "wrap" of the loose end, which is made sticky with rosin.
"Some guys will take it around the last finger, what they call a suicide wrap, so it doesn't slip," explains Cody Boyd, a 19-year-old aspiring pro who says he's been trying to come back from foot injuries. "I do a regular wrap and twist it. Everybody does something different."
The wrap is strictly for hanging on, not for steering. "I've tried steering these bulls," Boyd says. "It doesn't work."
Once the rider is comfortable with his grip, he calls for the gate, which opens to the side, swinging out from the bull's back end.
Every bucking bull more or less explodes out of the gate, which is where many of the novices immediately part company. It's common for the low-level beginners to do belly flops and face-plants into the terra firma, dumped off like a load of rocks when the bull makes its first pitch out of the chute. A few hang on to the bull's side for a second or two before falling inches from the hammering hooves.
"I don't know what it was. Adrenaline. Fear. Something. But I blacked out my first four times on a bull," recalls 23-year-old Erik Wood, a Parker native who looks like Brad Pitt. "They told me maybe I should try broncs. Five years later, I have my pro card. [Meaning he's won more than $1,000 at PRCA-sanctioned events and is one of 7,178 PRCA cowboys nationwide.] I've heard other bull riders talk about blacking out their first times too. You just have to get past it."