For this bull riding legend, part of the secret to success is sometimes wanting it more than it hurts.
Photography by Wyman Meinzer
Long before Chris Shivers dared dream of winning millions of dollars riding wild, angry bulls on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuit, he had to actually pay to get on a bull’s back. “I was 13 years old and shelled out 10 hard-earned dollars to climb on a bull in Bastrop, Louisiana,” Shivers recalls. “I can tell you, I wasn’t up there long.”
But the 32-year-old Shivers has never been one to give up on something he wanted, and what he wanted was to be a professional bull rider. And that’s just what he’s been ever since joining the PBR tour at the age of 18. Along the way, he has bagged millions in prize money and two PBR World Championships.
In spite of his accomplishments, to hear Shivers tell it, bull riding is an impossible sport to conquer and you can never have every bull beat. But if prize money and victories are measuring sticks, he has come as close as just about anybody who has ever come flying out of a chute.
At just 5 feet 5 inches tall and 145 pounds, Shivers packs nearly as much dynamite as the bulls he goes up against. An 11-time qualifier for the PBR World Finals, winner of 21 events, and career leader in 90-point bull rides, he was PBR World Champion in 2000 and again in 2003; he was also the first PBR competitor to reach $1 million in career earnings (in 2001), the first to get to $2 million (in 2003), and the first to reach $3 million (in 2006). Now he’s closing in on $4 million. In fact, he once sat down on a bull in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with $1 million at stake. That was his most memorable ride. “It didn’t work out that I won that prize, but it is still my biggest thrill.” But the competition he looks forward to every year is Las Vegas. “That one pays the most money,” he says laughing. “So what’s not to like about it?”
The big arena in Vegas is a long way from where Shivers grew up in Jonesville, Louisiana (population 2,469). As a tyke, he started watching bull riding on TV and got hooked. “I grew up around horses and cows all my life,” Shivers says. “So bull riding and rodeos just were in my blood.”
Fortunately, there were a lot of bull riding competitions around Louisiana, including The Louisiana Bull Riders Only Association, where up-and-comers learn the craft. “At one event they gave away a little Ford truck for the winner. I won that truck, cranked it up, and started going everywhere I could to get on a bull and win a little money.”
Shivers joined the PBR Tour and “a little money” even-tually grew into a lot of money. His first few years he traveled and roomed with his mentor, Bubba Dunn. “I had admired Bubba on TV when he rode, and then we became friends when I turned pro.”
In just his second season, Shivers was PBR Year-End Champion, but it didn’t come easy. In fact, one victory was on a nasty bull named Hard Copy. “I won top prize money, but it sure wasn’t easy money,” he remembers. “Ol’ Hard Copy knocked out a whole row of my teeth, so I don’t know if it was worth it.” Even though Hard Copy put a hurt on him, Shivers says his real nemesis was a bull named Little Yellow Jacket. “That bull cost me a lot of money over the years, but I can’t help but admire him.”
Besides losing teeth, he has had more bumps, bruises, and broken bones than he cares to remember. His worst spill came in 2006 in Honolulu, when he suffered a severely broken leg. By now, he’s well acquainted with what all bull riders know: Hard ground and sharp horns are part and parcel of the sport. “Bull riding is a dangerous sport, but I love it.”
Dangerous is an understatement. When riders climb on those angry bulls inside those narrow chutes, the bulls are usually bucking even before the gates fly open. A rider never knows if that animal will come out frontward, backward, or sideways. Blood, bruises, and broken bones come with the territory. So it goes without saying that a successful rider had better be in good physical shape. “If he’s not, he won’t last long,” Shivers warns. “So the week before an event, I do a lot of prep work — lots of stretching and running, and I work out a good bit. That gives me a competitive edge and helps me avoid some injuries.”
The best way for an aspiring bull rider to learn? “Trial and error — just get up off the ground and keep adjusting your technique. But mostly, it’s about dedication, about wanting it sometimes more than it hurts.”
Beyond technique, Shivers says, it’s a mental game. “I try not to think. I know what I’m supposed to do, so I let reaction take over. You can’t have your mind sidetracking on you. And you must be confident.” The mortal enemies of a bull rider: fear and doubt. A rider has to respect what a bull can do to him, but as Shivers and any other rider worth his salt will tell you, if you’re scared when the chute opens, you might as well turn in your spurs and find a safe job stocking shelves somewhere.
Whatever obvious dangers the riders face, for Shivers, the real heroes of the sport are the so-called rodeo clowns — a term he doesn’t use. Out of respect for what they do, Shivers instead calls them bullfighters, as most riders do. And properly so: “That’s who saves your life — those bullfighters. They’re always in the right spot, and they know how to get a bull’s attention away from you and onto them. Because of that, the bull goes after the bullfighter before he comes after helpless you and hooks you with one of those killer horns.”
Despite the risks, Shivers perseveres — and prevails. What has kept him going through all the aches? “Winning. And doing something not everyone else in the world has the mind to do.” He gets a big rush when that gate flies open and a bull starts bucking like hell to unload the weight off his back. “It’s just you against him for that brass ring.”
Looking back at his nearly 15-year career, Shivers sees how much things have changed. Early on, he drove his little Ford truck from town to town, would show up, ride the bulls, and leave. Now he flies instead of drives and has a lot of responsibilities he didn’t have when he was a young buck. “We have lots of fans to meet and greet, lots of things to sign, lots of places we need to be and things we do for sponsors. Tell you the truth, it’s more like a job now instead of the adventure it was when I was barely more than a wide-eyed kid.”
Not that he isn’t grateful for his good luck and good fortune. Still, more and more these days, he savors being home on his 800-acre ranch in Jonesville, with wife Kylie and sons Christopher (8) and Parker (3). “I love being a rancher, and that’s what I intend to do when I hang it up — just regular old cows and horses, and maybe just a bucking bull or two and some roping steers for fun. I can be content with that simple life — working a ranch, hunting wild hogs, roping steers, and having fun with my friends and family.” He trails off almost dreamily.
As for the nearer future, Shivers plans to retire after another season or two. While he’s at an age that’s still the prime of most athletes’ careers, for the rugged men who have to deal with a wild, crazy, snorting bull that wants nothing more than to buck them off before eight seconds can run on the clock, that’s nearing the time to doff the cowboy hat and wave the arena goodbye.
When that day does come, Shivers says he’ll always cherish his years as a professional bull rider — even with all the hard spills he took. “The PBR has meant everything to me and my family,” he says. “We wouldn’t have much without it.”