The old-timer who helped found PBR offers simple advice to the prodigy his organization’s insiders call “our LeBron James”: Stay on the bull.
The kid who wants to be the best bull rider ever and the mentor who is helping him get there wait in line for a breakfast buffet at a casino in downtown St. Louis. The kid, Jess Lockwood, talks to the mentor, Cody Lambert, about what he did last night. Lockwood is a young, rich, and handsome cowboy, and he could have raised all kinds of hell. Instead he meticulously studied his rides from this year and the two previous years.
Coming off of his world championship in 2017, Lockwood struggled early in 2018. He had been trying to figure out why he was riding poorly, he tells Lambert — what did his buck-offs have in common? It finally dawned on him: He was getting bucked off on turns “against” his free (right) hand, meaning when the bull turns right. Before this season, that had never been a problem for him. Last night a bull named Cut the Cord threw him off by turning against his free hand, and Lockwood felt like a quarterback who missed a wide-open receiver in the end zone.
“I should have rode him easy,” Lockwood says. “Usually I’d eat up a bull like that.” Instead he found himself in the dirt, and he wanted to know why. He searched YouTube for successful outs in which bulls turned against his free hand. He remembers all of his rides in detail, so finding them wasn’t hard.
In a few minutes, he identified his problem, and now he demonstrates it for Lambert while they wait in line for breakfast. It’s a comical scene if you didn’t already know what they were talking about — or even if you did: Lockwood makes a fist with his left hand, jams it between his legs and moves his hips and shoulders like there’s a bull down there. He keeps his right arm rigid, as if his elbow won’t bend. That’s the wrong way to do it, he says.
Now he pretends to ride the bull again, but this time he flops his right arm around, using it to counterbalance the imaginary movement of the imaginary bull. That’s the right way to do it, he says. He pulls out his phone and finds a video of his ride last September on a bull named Snowball in which he used proper form. Lambert watches the footage intently, moving his eyes from the Lockwood holding the phone to the Lockwood riding a bull on the phone.
All of this takes only a few minutes, just two cowboys talking bull riding. But it’s conversations like that that could turn Lockwood from a precocious young champion into an all-time great bull rider.
The mentor, Lambert, 56, and the kid, Lockwood, 21, met when Lockwood was 18 and ready to launch his career on the PBR tour. He moved from his family’s 10,000-acre ranch in Montana to Lambert’s 200-acre ranch in Texas so he could soak up the collective wisdom of Lambert and other cowboys who live nearby, such as Justin McBride, J.W. Hart, and Ross Coleman. For the first few years of his career, until he bought his own ranch in Montana where he lives today, Lockwood lived and worked on Lambert’s ranch like any other ranch hand.
The Lambert-Lockwood relationship sounds like a cliché — the old man and the kid, the teacher and the pupil, the grizzled veteran who has seen it all and the fresh-faced youngster who wants it all. But there is power in the bond between them.
Lambert takes zero credit for any of Lockwood’s success and says most of what they talk about simply reinforces what Lockwood already knows. Bull riding is not complicated, and neither are Lambert’s instructions. Lockwood smiles when asked to repeat Lambert’s most-given advice: “Hold yourself accountable, and it all starts and ends with your riding.”
Lambert, who helped found PBR 25 years ago and now works as its livestock director, recognized Lockwood’s physical gifts immediately. He soon learned that Lockwood had uncommon maturity and drive as well. “You have to give every ounce that you have, 100 percent, and then come up with a little bit more, to get it done,” Lambert says. “At 20, very few guys are that driven, that determined.”
Lockwood is. PBR insiders call him bull riding’s LeBron James, and while he says he’s not there yet, he thinks he can get there. Already the youngest champion in PBR’s history, he wants to win more championships than anybody. The current record is three, held by Adriano Moraes, who won in 1994, 2001, and 2006, and Silvano Alves, who took the gold buckle and million-dollar bonus in 2011, 2012, and 2014. “He’s a world champion and still not near as good as he’s going to be,” Lambert says. “That’s a weird place to be.”
Weird, but great. At least that’s how Lockwood sees it. He spent his first two seasons trying to prove he belonged — was he good enough and tough enough? Now that he has won a championship, he has washed himself of those nerves. He competed this season with more freedom, as if he’s creating a living-color reputation for himself in addition to compiling black-and-white stats. For example, in his first two seasons, he viewed picking bulls as a business decision: He chose whichever bull gave him the best chance to win. He still does that, but he also occasionally picks the rankest bull: To be the best, he has to ride the best.
Breakfast is over. It’s almost time for Lockwood to go ride, and to try to apply what he learned about his free arm. But first, Lambert finds a photo on his phone. It is from 1982 or so, and it shows a bull in the middle of a nasty buck and Lambert holding on for dear life. Lambert points out his free arm. It’s as stiff as Lockwood’s was last night.
The mentor struggled with the same issue as the kid. It’s a “been-there moment” that Lockwood drinks in like ice-cold water on a hot day. Few people in the world have been in that kind of position. Fewer still are willing to share their experiences about it with Lockwood.
For all the changes in bull riding in recent years — more money, more fame, and the resulting pressure, among them — the basic premise remains the same: Stay on the bull. And the way to do it remains the same, too: Get back to the center. As much as anything, those simple facts connect the kid who wants to be the best bull rider ever and the mentor who is helping him get there.
One other thing about Lambert’s photo: It’s in black-and-white.
From the October 2018 issue. Photography: (TOP) Jess Lockwood is presented the PBR World Champion buckle by mentor Cody Lambert at the 2017 Built Ford Tough series PBR World Finals. Photograph by Andy Watson, courtesy Bull Stock Media. (MIDDLE) Lambert with Cooper Davis and Lockwood during the 2017 PBR World Finals. Photograph by Matt Breneman, courtesy Bull Stock Media. (BOTTOM) Photograph by Andy Watson, courtesy Bull Stock Media.