What does the future hold for bull riding?
You’d think there is nothing but a bright future for the sport, born from the most popular event in rodeo. But there are some that are concerned.
Count world champion and bull riding legend Cody Custer as one of the latter. He believes young cowboys are testing their skills on bulls they have no business trying ride, animals that are a better fit for high school or college cowboys. That’s why he was excited to have a showcase of boys vs. steers be part of the Professional Bull Riders Built Ford Tough Series event in Oklahoma City this weekend.
“What we’re trying to do with our association is match these kids up with bulls that are appropriate for their age and their skill level,” Custer said, referring to the Out West Junior Bull Riding, an organization for developing bull riders in western Oklahoma that has worked in conjunction with the eastern Oklahoma-based JBR.
“I think because the bucking bull industry has grown so much, we have a bunch of people involved that don’t understand the process involved in developing bull riders. What we’re running into is kids that are way overmatched with the animals they’re trying to ride.”
In Oklahoma City, the two Oklahoma associations came together for a steer riding for youngsters 10-13. It’s a way to continue taking youngsters up the bull riding ladder, as it were. From mutton busting to bull riding, the process has missed a few rungs. The JBR and Out West groups will meet each June for a finals that will have an estimated $40,000 in awards and money available for the young contestants.
“With Little League Baseball, there’s a purpose to develop these kids along against kids their age,” Custer said. “The Little League World Series doesn’t bring in the best college teams to play against the top Little League teams, but in bull riding, guys bring in bulls that are way too much for these kids.
“These kids need to develop against livestock that is fit for their age and for their skill level. They get old enough to get on some calves, then they get on these born-to-buck type bulls. The kids that are tough as nails may make it, but in the process, their bodies are taking more damage than they need.”
In the age groups that competed in Oklahoma City, the 10-and-under cowboys wrapped their hands to steers weighing around 450 pounds, with the next level being 550- to 600-pound steers. The oldest group will be tested against 800- to 950-pound steers.
“They’re pretty big steers, but their not hot bred,” he said, referring to the animals that are bred to perform. “These steers have got good timing, and they help the kids learn to ride the bucking motion.”
Custer has a vested interest in the development of bull riders, not only as one of the game’s greats but also as a father of a young cowboy who wants to play on the biggest stages in the sport: Brett Custer was one of the few young bull riders to score a qualified ride Friday night inside the Ford Center.
“The thing that moves me toward it is I’ve got a 13-year-old boy who thinks he wants to be a star bull rider,” Cody Custer said. “I want to give him the best opportunity to do it, and I think steer riding is the way to go at his age.”
Even the greatest names in the sport return to the fundamentals of bull riding, things they learned when they were youngsters and kept referring to when they won world titles. So teenagers and pre-teens who skip a process in their athletic development might be missing a major part in their potential.
A good example is a professional baseball team, which conducts fielding and batting practice prior to almost every game. In that process, each player reverts to his fundamentals to prepare to play at an elite level. Batting practice is about timing and rhythm, not hitting a 98-mph fastball or a mind-bending changeup.
“The only thing you learn from hitting the ground all the time is that you won’t like it,” Custer said.
Putting the youngsters on steers – as compared to “hot” young bulls – slows down the situation and allows them to get a firm grasp on bull riding’s basics. It’s something Custer hopes all bull riders have, no matter their skill level.
“I hope they’re going to see my mentality isn’t just trying to take care of my little boy, which part of it is, but it’s also about caring for the sport of bull riding,” he said. “The Lord showed me a couple years ago that I could reach these younger guys, so that’s where my focus is and has been.
“I don’t think we have a very big pool of great bull riders, and I’m concerned about bull riding’s future. It’s important to me that we develop bull riders by allowing them to go through the process to reach greatness.”