The World’s Rankest Bull: Since October of 2009, no professional bull rider has been able to stay on Bushwacker for eight seconds. At a recent P.B.R. event in Pueblo, Colorado, the riders explained why he’s so tough to ride.
By JOE SPRING
Published: July 19, 2011
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Dustin Elliott, a 145-pound professional cowboy, popped into the chute and felt energized by the lights above and the 1,600-pound bull beneath him. He wrapped a rope around his right hand, twisted right to left four times, then bounced up and down three times. The bull, meanwhile, looked casually to the left and waited.
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Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media
Bushwacker stands atop the Professional Bull Riders list of the world’s rankest — or toughest to ride — bulls.
“He’s got a real cool arrogance to himself and then when the gate opens he just explodes,” Shorty Gorham, a bullfighter, said of Bushwacker, who usually bucks most pros in three seconds or so. “But leading up until then you would think he’s just some farm pet that didn’t have an ounce of buck in him.”
Since October 2009, no cowboy has ridden Bushwacker for even eight seconds, the minimum needed to earn a score, and the average is 3.01. In 2010, he jumped, kicked and spun his way to more than $335,000 from American Bucking Bull Inc., which awards prize money to bulls. With an average score of 46.01 out of 50, he stands atop the Professional Bull Riders list of the world’s rankest — or toughest to ride — bulls. But it’s not the numbers that have the cowboys tweaked.
“He’s a smart bull,” the rider Robson Palermo said. “Every time he leaves the chute he got something for you.”
With a relaxed swagger in cramped quarters, hops that should not originate from hooves, and a stable of freakish, syncopated moves that have left riders flummoxed, Bushwacker sometimes appears more ballerina than bovine. In Springfield, Mo., last year, he bucked the rookie of the year, Silvano Alves, headfirst into the dirt, swung rump over muzzle, landed on his right-front foot, and Eskimo-kissed the ground.
Hours before his encounter with Elliott in the United States Air Force Invitational in late May, as the sun rose over his pen in Pueblo, Colo., Bushwacker champed a mix of hay, grain, vitamins and minerals. His trainer, Kent Cox, laid out the feed so the bull would dine at least 12 hours before bucking.
“You can’t eat a big old bowl of spaghetti and go run a marathon,” Cox said.
On days when the bull riding starts at 2 p.m., Cox rises at 2 a.m., ignoring the headaches that have plagued him since he took a horn to the right side of the face while riding a one-ton bull in 1997. The impact shattered his cheekbone, eye socket and nasal cavity. He had five operations to install 13 plates in his head.
A year and a half later, he got back on a bull. He could still ride, but he had lost the desire. He transferred his energy into training bulls.
Cox has had great success with Bushwacker, who took home the single biggest check when he won the $250,000 A.B.B.I. Classic Championship during the Professional Bull Riders finals last October. Money also comes from breeding. Earlier this year, a collector took sperm from Bushwacker. It sells for more than $2,000 a straw. The average bull can fill 150 straws per collection.
To help owners pair potential mates, the A.B.B.I. tracks the lineage of every premier dam and sire and the bucking success of their offspring. And though Bushwacker’s line sounds as if it came from the police blotter in a seedy Southwestern drag, it is rodeo royalty. Diamond’s Ghost sired his mother, Lady Luck. Oscar’s Velvet sired his father, Reindeer Dippin’, an ornery bull who went unridden in the P.B.R. three separate years.
“When Bushwacker was a baby he was mean — he’d hook my horse,” said his co-owner Julio Moreno. “Kent’s got him to where, you know, he could eat of your hand now.”
At noon, Bushwacker lay in his pen. He is caramel, except for the tilted white H on his face, the “1 3 6” scar branded to his left rump and white horns cut off into nubs.
Cox helped two cowboys and a cowgirl herd bulls into a truck. His wife, Gina, watched from a deck behind the pens.
“I call him the bull whisperer,” she said. “He lives, breathes and eats bulls, and if you don’t moo, he doesn’t care about you.”
Gina Cox grew up in a rodeo family in Illinois. On weekends, she helps out as a P.B.R. secretary.
“I consider the finals in Las Vegas our vacation,” she said. “And that’s maybe two hours of sleep every night.”
She laughed and ran her right hand over her left forearm, a $65,000 digital prosthetic. In 2004, she lost the arm in a car wreck.
“That was the one time he never left my side — for two weeks,” she said of her husband. “And probably the only time he was away from the bulls for that long.”
As Cox helped guide four other bulls to the trailer, Bushwacker looked out through the fence.
“You know that bull loves his job,” Gina Cox said. “Because when that trailer leaves and he’s not on it, you can tell he’s upset.”
She worries about her husband. He has had at least 13 concussions and often enters the pens to train the bulls with only two blue heeler cattle dogs at his side. He has been knocked down more than once.
As Cox swung open the gate to Bushwacker’s pen, the bull stood still and twitched his right ear into a cup. Cox walked in. Bushwacker trotted out. Soon he was on the truck and off to the arena.
The haul was a short one, comparatively. Cox drives Bushwacker from his home in Dublin, Tex., to more than a dozen events around the country.
After an hour-and-a-half nap at the hotel, Cox showed up behind the Colorado State Fair Events Center at 7. Pyrotechnics went off inside. Bushwacker waited amid a sea of fencing, swinging tails and tilting horns.
Cox went inside and clanked up steps to the platform behind the chutes. Chaw dripped off a grate that creaked under the weight of paunched contractors and square-jawed cowboys.
Cox flanked the 28th and 29th bulls, steadied riders in the chute by holding their shoulders and drawled with cowboys. The gate slammed open. Clumps of dirt flew up into the scrum of hats.
Shortly after 9 p.m., after more than 40 bulls had gone out, Bushwacker ambled into the chute. Cox stood over his still flank. The opening piano from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blared from the speakers. Elliott finished squirming and nodded vigorously. The gate opened.
Bushwacker short-hopped into the arena. Drool flew out of his mouth and whirled over Elliott’s head. Bushwacker bounded more than two feet into the air, kicked his hind legs up, and drove his front legs into the ground. Instead of waiting for his back legs to touch dirt, as most bulls do, he sprung off his front feet immediately.
This is Bushwacker’s signature move, and it is as effective in its offbeat athleticism as a point guard executing a crossover dribble to ditch a defender. Elliott came forward and lost the weight of his feet underneath him.
Possibly sensing the rider’s weight shift, Bushwacker staccato-hopped to the right. He accelerated into five successive spinning jumps. His tail whipped his own rump with emphatic snaps. Elliott flew to the right and hit the dirt. The clock showed 6.57 seconds.
Bushwacker kicked out of the arena and into the night. He stopped at the last gate and waited for the next truck. Inside, after the last ride of the night, Kent and Gina Cox walked over to Elliott.
“There’s nobody that we’d be prouder to have ride him first,” Gina said. “That’s for dang sure.”
Then Kent Cox put his arm on his wife’s back and left the arena smiling.
“This is what we work all week long to come do, and the results are here,” he said. “He did his job, and, yeah.”