Welcome to our new Being Texan video series, in which we’ll explore the dreams and realities of Texans from all walks of life, from the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, the Trans-Pecos to the Piney Woods.
It may not look like it to the casual observer, but bull riding is a sort of dance. A good ride appears as one fluid motion of a rider in sync with a bucking ton of hoof, hide, and horn. It’s a lightning-fast choreography that’s as dangerous as it is beautiful.
The basics of the sport are simple: hang on with one hand, keep the other hand free, and try to stay on for eight seconds. But actually doing all three, well, that ain’t so easy. Professional bull riders have to train both their bodies and minds to excel at this injury-prone sport. Like other top athletes, many of the best start young.
Director Chris Beier spent time at LBR Stock in Tomball, where the mission is to train the next crop of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. “All our kids here are first-generation,” says Larry Wilkins, president of LBR Stock. “They don’t have the advantage of some of the other kids who, great-grandmothers, great-great-granddads, all of them were rodeo people.” By starting their student athletes at an early age, Wilkins and LBR Stock coach and owner JC Wilkins hope that they can provide a foundation that might lead to college scholarships or even a career in rodeo. But three of their students—Jayden Henderson, 11; JJ Hunter, 8; and Jamarion Henderson, 9—wanted more than the adrenaline offered by running barrels on horseback. They dreamed of riding bulls.
Texas, of course, has a long legacy of great bull riders: Don Gay, Tuff Hedeman, Ty Murray, and “the Jackie Robinson of Rodeo,” Myrtis Dightman, to name just a few. And now these aspiring bull riders have another Texan to idolize: Baytown’s Ezekiel Mitchell. Mitchell is one of the rising stars of the sport. He’s currently ranked eleventh in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) world standings and has raked in more than $68,000 this year.
Mitchell, one of the only Black competitors in PBR, knows better than anyone that practicing to ride a real-life bucking Brahman isn’t as simple as airing up a pigskin and tossing it through a tire. He grew up learning to ride on a homemade mechanical bull he rigged up with a car suspension until he eventually found some steers to use for practice. Earlier this year, three of the LBR Stock cowboys went to watch Mitchell compete at a PBR event in Fort Worth. Mitchell gave the boys a tutorial on a mechanical bull at the Dickies Arena, and when he learned that the would-be cowboys didn’t have any livestock to ride, he made some calls.
Thanks to Mitchell and some Houston-area stock contractors, all three pint-size cowboys were able to make their inaugural rides on flesh-and-blood steers. They weren’t exactly bulls, and none of the boys quite made it to eight, but they learned perhaps the most important lesson in rodeo: you get bucked off, you always get back on. Bull riding is a tough dance to learn.
Director Chris Beier is a filmmaker who’s crafted documentaries for Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Google, and, of course, Texas Monthly. Thank you to our friends at Tecovas for sponsoring the series.
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