Pain, glory mix Sunday in Bull Bash
September 3, 2017
In one moment New Mexico's Justin Neil was sitting on the back of the bull Toes Out in a bucking chute at Romick Rodeo Arena in downtown Steamboat Springs, gritting his teeth. He wrapped the bull rope tight around his hand and hunkered down, almost ready to give the signal for the gate to drop and his ride in the finals of Sunday’s Rocky Mountain Bull Bash to begin.
His grip tightened as the bull twisted beneath him, shaking in the tight confines and rattling the chute.
Then, seemingly in the next second, Neil was lying on the blue metal scaffolding behind that bucking chute, his friends leaning over him and another fellow bull rider leaning in, waving a cowboy hat as Neil's eyes began to blink open.
“I guess he knocked me out,” Neil said later, relying on the accounts of those friends. “They told me I hit my head on the top of the chute and on his head, and he knocked me out.”
The event moved on to other rides, some spectacular, some wince-inducing, but 15 minutes after he woke up lying behind the chutes, Neil got his chance to ride Toes Out.
It didn’t go well and within a few seconds — well short of the required eight — he was off the bull and into the dirt.
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“Maybe I was a little slow,” Neil admitted. “They told me I shouldn’t get on him, but I didn’t drive nine hours to not try and win.”
To make it in professional bull riding, it takes a lot of skill and quite a bit of toughness, but also plenty of rationalization, and that was all on display as the dirt flew, the bulls bucked and the cowboys limped Sunday at the annual Labor Day event in Steamboat Springs.
This year’s Bull Bash featured as many college and high school riders as experienced pros and many of the riders from all those groups are still trying to figure out the balance between the required skill, the necessary toughness and the acceptable risk.
“If I had a concussion, I’d be throwing up right here,” Neil said, considering his decision to ride after being knocked out. “If you’re good at bull riding, you can make a living, and that’s what a lot of us are trying to do. I think I can do that if I keep at it going down the road.”
For some, the gamble of climbing aboard an angry, 1,500-pound horned beast paid off. Wyatt Austin, a 17-year old high school student from Queen Creek, Arizona, rode his first bull, Mr. Boombastic, then, in the short round finals, his second, Strange Clouds, clinging on as the animal blasted into the air and spun in a tight circle.
The fans roared as Austin brushed the dirt off his chaps and exited the arena.
He was the only one of the night’s 30 cowboys to ride both bulls he faced and he pocketed more than $3,000.
“That’s awesome,” he said, grinning widely under the bright arena lights. “That’s a lot of money for me.”
Others didn’t walk away smiling.
Ryan Prophet came from Rigby, Idaho to ride. He was in Blackfoot, Idaho on Saturday for one competition and plans to board a plane this week to fly to Rochester, New York for another.
He was 17 years old the first time he dislocated his hip bull riding.
He was 25 Sunday when he did it for, he guessed, the 60th time.
“It feels like someone’s sticking a soldering iron on your butt," he said. “I guess I'm getting used to it now."
The injury happened in the first few seconds of his ride and he was on the dirt before his bull was all the way out of the chute. He pulled himself up, limped through a gate to safety and collapsed in agony, burying his head in his hands.
Eventually a friend came over to help.
Prophet stretched across the dirt and looped his arms around the rail of a fence.
He clenched his teeth and his eyes narrowed.
The friend grabbed his left leg by the boot and delivered one hard, clean jerk, ripping the leg back into socket. Prophet screamed and curled into a ball on the ground.
Several minutes later, however, he was back on his feet.
“I’ve had bad hips for a long time,” he said. “It’s just one of those things I deal with.”
He’s been riding for more than a decade and cracked the top 50 in the Professional Bull Riding standings. The crushing pain of a dislocated hip isn't nearly enough to get him to stop now.
“I just love bull riding,” he said. “It’s in your blood. It’s who you are. It’s what I’ve been since I was a little kid.
“It’s a good life.”