By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
"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."
Cunningham, a former PRCA rider who is practicing for a season on the sport's senior tour, says bull-riding is more a matter of guts and concentration than anything else.
Three nights a week for the past several weeks, Cunningham has been making the 185-mile round trip from Greenville to tutor Sammy, a good friend's son and a soft-spoken kid who would ride every night if he didn't have to work at the local grocery store to pay his car insurance.
"I got my start here, and so did Sammy's dad," Cunningham says. "This is home. I grew up here. I've met most of my best friends here."
Sammy has been on only 20 bulls; Cunningham, more than 1,000. After six nights at the Kowbell--with the help of teaching tools such as videotape and Cunningham's experience--Sammy will nearly double his total, with some surprisingly good results.
In chute No. 4 on one practice night, Sammy gets ready to ride a sorrel and white Hereford named Socks. He lifts himself from the catwalk and eases down on the animal. "You don't want to sit on that bull too long. I'd get on up and wait until Billy gets here," urges Cunningham, who's standing on the narrow catwalk that sits just behind the chute.
He's referring to chute boss Billy Ford, who has been at the Kowbell for 39 years. Ford directs traffic and tightens the flank straps--the antagonizing "bucking strap" that is placed just behind the bull's rib cage, not around the genitals, as some people think.
Ford tends to offer a little sage advice and commentary to the riders when it strikes him.
As Sammy dismounts, another cowboy down the way begins slapping himself on the face before he mounts his ride. It's sort of like telling oneself, "Wake up, turkey, and concentrate."
"You'd be stupid not to concentrate," Sammy says.
"I don't think that slapping and stuff does any good," Cunningham pipes in. "Just makes your face hurt."
Eventually, Ford comes over and tightens the flank strap. Sammy climbs on, and he and Cunningham immediately get busy tightening the rope.
"You want it tightened up at the last moment," Cunningham says as he pulls up on the cord, which is cutting hard now into the bull's matted hide.
"Pull it up...easy...slow...just a bit," Sammy commands before making a final adjustment of the wrap around his hand. With his free hand, he punches his grip a few times until it's set.
"OK, now ride this bull, Sammy," Cunningham says in the final seconds. Already breathing rapidly, Sammy squares himself to the bull and gives his signal to the rodeo clowns operating the gate: "Let's go, boys."
Faster than the eye can follow, Socks wheels into the open, heading up and out with enormous power. His back hoof catches the gate, propelling him even farther forward. "That's called hipping," Cunningham says. "If that were a real rank bull, it would throw a guy. You don't expect that."
But Sammy--red chaps flying, hand waving as a counter-balance--stays with him. The bull charges toward the concrete apron at the arena's edge, bucks three times to complete a circle, then heads out back into the arena. Twice Sammy slips off-center, but somehow rights himself, losing his hat along the way.
"Ride, Sammy, ride!" Cunningham yells as the seconds tick down. The eight-second buzzer--the sort one hears at a basketball game--blares, and Sammy dismounts, doing a tuck-and-roll in the dirt as the bull-baiting clowns go to work.
Socks pulls up then lowers his head at a number of human targets, including Sammy, who is scrambling for the chain-link fence at the arena's edge.
The bull stands menacingly just a foot or two from Sammy's hat, then turns the other way and trots out of the area, his performance complete. Not exactly wild beasts, riding bulls are chute-broken, meaning they don't protest much en route to the loading stalls or on the way back to the barn.
"He's tough," Cunningham says of his student. "He's strong enough to recover. I've been mostly working on his head, to get his confidence up."
Cunningham and Billy Ford have both seen signs of Sammy's losing his concentration during his riding. "He's quitting on it," Ford says after one abbreviated ride, maybe five seconds, in which Sammy fails to "cover."
Bull riders are always talking about "try"--something between fearlessness and mental toughness. With each second on the bull's back, the "try" gets harder to sustain.
"He got me into my rope," Sammy says, describing one of the many ways to get off-balance--getting too far forward. "Then I got on my side, and he could have slammed me against the wall."
A week earlier, Russell Doan's three-second bull-riding career ended near that same wall--the spot where he fell and where the "beginner bull" stepped on his knee.
As Russell lay in the dirt, Sammy and Cunningham kidded with a him a bit as they took back the chaps and spurs he'd borrowed and got ready for their own rides.
"I think we've just witnessed the world's shortest bull-riding career," Cunningham said.
Later, on the way home, Doan passed out in Cunningham's pickup, and they took him to the hospital--a story the men tell with characteristic nonchalance.
"He's OK now," Sammy reports. "Hurt some tendons. He has some ice packs and a bandage on it, but he can't walk on it yet."
There isn't much debate about bull-riding's dangers. In the first three and a half years of the Bull Riders Only tour, seven pros were killed.
"The worst I've seen is the guy right in front of me got killed," Cunningham says. "It was the North Side Coliseum in 1981. You knew it was bad. It took them 45 minutes to take him out of the arena. He was blue.
"My buddies wouldn't let me chicken out, so I rode," he recalls of that night. Using the bull-riding term for forfeiting, he adds, "Nobody turned out."
Cunningham himself has been kicked within a few inches of his life. In 1986, on a night when about 1,500 spectators packed the Kowbell, a crossbreed bull named Skunk landed on Cunningham's back, puncturing his lung and spleen and breaking two ribs. Airlifted from the arena, he spent five days in a Fort Worth ICU. Other injuries--a broken nose, a broken collarbone--average out to about one serious brush every 100 bulls. "Every time it makes me want to do it more," he says.
Cunningham had his PRCA card for three years in the early '80s, but never quite got to making a living at it. His best ride was an 84 in Tyler in 1978, when he was 18 years old. The guys with the Wrangler endorsements hit the 90s.
Today, he says, the riders and the bulls are better than ever, and there are more than a few shows of talent at the Kowbell.
One night, a top competitor on the Mexican circuit named Carlos Aguayo rides so fluidly that he appears to be floating above the bull. Another, Ronnie Washington, a 28-year-old former high school football star from Oklahoma, turns back again and again on Speck, a white Brahma crossbreed, bringing shouts of "Cowboy up!" from other riders as he makes the buzzer.
Both are trying to break into the PRCA.
It's a long way up.
There's one big, blunt reason bull-riding has taken over at the Kowbell: the bulls.
"We'd do more bronc riding, but we don't have the stock," says Jack Ratjen, from whom words pour out like a slow drip of Karo syrup. "Bulls. We raise a lot of 'em. It's not easy, and it's a long, drawn-out, expensive deal. But we do have a reputation for putting out some pretty good ones."
A man comfortable with silences, Ratjen bumps his old red F-350 pickup through a pasture west of Midlothian, sharing a few insights into the bucking-bull business. After a minute or two, cattle are trotting alongside the truck, doing kamikaze hits on the front and sides, so convinced are they that Ratjen's about to hand over some feed.
The lowing and mooing get so loud, it nearly drowns out the doo-wop and '50s hits coming from the dashboard radio. Ratjen was a hot rodeo cattle roper in the days when the Everly Brothers' "Bye, Bye Love" was on the charts.
"All of these have some Brahma in 'em," he says of the herd. Brahmas are the ones with the big humped backs. "They have to have a hump to have any looks about 'em. People go to the rodeo, they expect to see Brahmas or part-Brahmas."
As more and more so-called exotic breeds have been used to upgrade beef cattle--Limousin, Simmental, and others that lack either horns or tight skins--there have been fewer good rodeo-bull prospects at Texas cattle auctions, Ratjen says.
That's created more incentive for him to raise bulls specifically for rodeo, using the age-old technique of breeding the best ones and trying to realize improvements.
Still, there is no guarantee a bull will buck under a rider. "Some do, some don't," Ratjen says.
Ratjen and his two grown sons, Jackie and Jimmy, have stepped up their bull-breeding considerably in the past three or four years. Along Highway 287, they have a pasture a mile and a quarter long where dozens of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds graze.
Passing on the hassles of state-of-the-art artificial insemination, Ratjen lets the cattle accomplish his ends the old-fashioned way: arranged dates between sires and heifers.
More than a decade ago, Ratjen acquired a tough black bull named J.R.--after both the family initials and the conniving TV oil baron. "We bucked him for five years, and he was ridden one time. He kind of broke a little bone in his ankle, and we had it operated on. He could still buck people off, but we started using him for a breeding bull," he says.
One of J.R.'s sons--J.R. 6--made it big as the renamed, promo-ready Skoal Diamond. He was killed a few years ago in a trailer accident. Another, J.R. 55, brought the top price of $13,000 at a big bucking-bull sale in Texarkana last year and was renamed Red Silhouette. The last of the J.R. offspring, 75, 76, and 77, are currently being cultivated at the Kowbell, where "we might buck them once or twice a month," Ratjen says.
J.R. died about three years ago at age 20, "pretty old for a bull," Ratjen says.
There exist some common beliefs about bucking-bovine psychology at the Kowbell. One is that the more a bull beats and throws riders, the ranker he seems to grow. "Some of 'em get smarter; they learn to set a guy up. Maybe they go spinning one way, and when the rider is locked in pretty good, they'll switch gears real quick," Ratjen says.
The most posh stop on Ratjen's tour is the Hi View Ranch, owned by the Meadows Foundation. Beyond the private nine-hole golf course, the tennis court, and the skeet-shooting range, some of Ratjen's best heifers lounge on a leased, 3,800-acre hillside pasture.
Among the little herd is the cow, a black and white, that carried Skoal Diamond. Ratjen says a bull-breeding friend plans to artificially inseminate her with sperm from a retired bucking bull named Bodacious, considered the Muhammad Ali of rodeo bulls. A star on the rodeo circuit in the early '90s, the massive 1,800-pound Charolais-Brahma crossbreed has gone to stud in Addielou, Texas, where his sperm reportedly goes for $300 for a tiny straw full.
"We're not big Bodacious fans," says Ratjen, who prefers smaller bulls of around 1,600 pounds, which are more active and less likely to injure themselves while performing. But big bulls are what rodeo stock contractors favor these days, he says. "That's what they want to carry."
In bull-riding, the consummate American sport, bigger is better.
Only two weeks after beginning to practice at the Kowbell, Sammy Feagin turns in a 69 on a Saturday night in early February to beat all but one other rider among 34 competing in the 18-and-under flight.
He wins $30 and gets his name in the morning paper.
The name's misspelled, but it's a start.
Cunningham and Sammy join a couple of spectators at the arena's edge after they ride, and the former pro talks about getting Sammy into one of the top college bull-riding programs, such as Tarleton State's in Stephenville.
"A lot of the top pros are coming out of colleges now," Cunningham says. "You get a lot of riding in at them. You've got to ride a lot of bulls."
Someone asks Sammy what he thinks about bull-riding, whether he hopes to take it someplace. He nods and says, "Yeah, as far as I can go."
"I think everyone who's ever got on a bull thinks about getting that champion's buckle," Cunningham says.
Sammy nods again and turns to watch the show.
Another cowboy is heading out of the chute, clanking and waving on the back of a big one.