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   Jul 05

Eight seconds between dust and glory for bull riders

Justin Robards gets air on a property near Singleton, NSW. Photo: Tony Walters Professional bull rider Cody Heffernan prepares for another rough ride. Photo: Tony Walters
Nanjing Night Net

Eight seconds hardly seems long enough for Cody Heffernan to demonstrate poise, grace and control.

His 800-kilogram Braford-cross partner certainly seems to begrudge him even those few seconds as he rockets out of the chute bucking and kicking in a determined effort to unseat his rider.

With one arm in the air and the other clutching a rope fastened around the bull’s chest, Heffernan rocks back and forth until he makes a “controlled” fall onto muddy ground, springs up and moves out of harm’s way.

A 25-year-old professional bull rider from Singleton, Heffernan says a good ride passes quickly and feels like a dream.

“If you’re riding them good and you’re at your centre of balance every jump, it doesn’t feel long at all,” he says. “You wish you were on there longer, it feels like a dream.”

Heffernan and his training partner, Justin Robards, spend more time preparing to mount bulls than on their back during a practice session at Heffernan’s brother’s farm in the NSW Hunter Valley.

After carefully cleaning and applying rosin to his bull-rope, which he will grip for those crucial eight seconds, Heffernan stretches and performs an imaginary dance mimicking the rocking motions of a bull ride.

“Generally go through the same motions, that’s about it,” he says. “A few slaps on the face, that’s about it for me.”

In contrast, Robards says: “I usually just try to stay calm, focus on what I’m doing, focus on my breathing.”

Heffernan will compete in the Professional Bull Riders of Australia national finals at Qantas Credit Union Arena, Darling Harbour on July 11.

There are up to 400 male bull riders in Australia, according to PBR Australia’s general manager Glen Young. “They have female competitions in the USA, but none that I am aware of in Australia.”

Both bull and rider are judged during their eight seconds in the ring.

“They score the bull on how hard he bucks, how fast he spins, his degree of difficulty, etc ,” Young says, “and the rider is scored on how he counteracts the moves of the bull.”

Riders are scored out of 100 and will be given two rides at the Sydney event on randomly-selected bulls to qualify for a championship round on the top-ranked bulls.

Eighty points is considered an average score, and 90 is “like getting a century in cricket pretty much,” Robards says.

Both men concede the sport is risky.

“Yeah, it’s pretty dangerous like you get stepped on, ran over,” Robards says. “Probably the most dangerous part of it is being in the shoot because you haven’t got much room to move in there.

Despite those dangers, young children compete by riding calves as demonstrated by Heffernan’s six-year-old and four-year-old nephews. Both boys are held by an adult as the calf they are riding runs out of the shoot and darts around the makeshift arena.

Heffernan had his first experience on the back of a calf at the age of four.

“I think I got hurt and didn’t want to get on again and ran up to the house crying,” he says, “y’know, I managed to get back on as a kid.”

Like other sports involving animals, bull riding is contentious. The PBR’s animal welfare policy states it “is fully committed to ensuring the much-deserved health, safety, and respect of each bull that enters a PBR Arena”.

Statistics compiled by the PBR suggest a bull suffers a minor injury – muscle pull, scratch – every eight events or 786 outs (bull ride attempts), while a “career-ending injury” occurs every 100 events or 9833 outs. Six bulls have been euthanised as a result of injuries since 1996.

The RSPCA is “strongly opposed” to rodeos, according to its website, “because of the potential for significant injury, suffering, distress or even death to the animals involved”.

The RSPCA points to the use of devices such as a flank strap “can cause significant pain and suffering to the animal.”

This is disputed by Young, who says bulls are bred to buck, and do not suffer pain to their genitals.

“The flank rope is more of an annoyance than anything else, and the bulls will kick their hind legs out at the height of their bucking action in an effort to dislodge it.”

Neither Heffernan nor Robards believe the sport is harmful to bulls.

“I think they like doing it,” Heffernan says. “If I was a bull I’d love to do this and rough up a guy and get him on the ground and give him a bit of a hookin’, throw him in the air.”

Heffernan competed in the Last Cowboy Standing event in May in Las Vegas, placing 13th out of 50 riders, which he modestly describes as “not a bad effort. But it was a real good experience”.

It is a long way from a muddy paddock in the Hunter Valley to Las Vegas, but PBR Australia general manager Glen Young says: “Cody is one of our rising stars”.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the next Aussie to step up and make a name for himself on the world scene.”

The PBR Australia National Finals will be held at Qantas Credit Union Arena, Darling Harbour on July 11.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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