Young cowboys at a bull-riding workshop learn the basics of “ridin’ rank” in the Toughest Sport on Earth.
Clayton Ahlgren has two passions in life: preaching and bull riding. To his way of thinking, you can’t have one without the other: “If you ride bulls you’ll find God out there, whether you want to or not.”
All the broken bones, recovery time, and surgeries he’s sustained during his career haven’t stopped Ahlgren from encouraging young hopefuls in their dreams of one day making it big in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Their youthful enthusiasm and his twin passions are what inspire Ahlgren to share his talents, knowledge, and experience in the arena with a two-day bull-riding clinic at the newly remodeled Grass Range Stockyards & Event Center in Grass Range, Montana.
A typical small cow town in central Montana, Grass Range had about 110 residents at last count. There are three cafes, two churches, two bars, and a modest rodeo arena to frequent. The big city of Billings is almost 100 miles away.
Passing through on Highway 87, it might seem an unlikely place to find the next PBR champion in the making. But it’s actually a perfect setting for bucking some bulls, as I’m about to find out.
A 1977 Grand Marquis pulls down the long dirt drive with a cowboy hat tucked in the windshield. It reminds me of a scene out of the 1994 film 8 Seconds. Behind it follow 12 young men, ages 7 to 30, with a hankering for adrenaline. They all come with the same addiction for thrill-seeking action.
They’ve come to ride.
There’s a brief rundown of the day’s events, a few moments of stretching, and the workshop kicks off. Barrel drills are first on the agenda. The training simulator looks like some kind of medieval seesaw, but its actual purpose is to mimic a bull “dropping from the air.” Riders, straddling the padded steel barrel while someone operates manually from behind, are thrust vertically into the air. One after another, they grapple with the laws of physics in the hopes staying on.
Algren gives pointers throughout, stressing that finding correct placement of feet, arms, and center is essential for a good ride.
Next comes a brief lesson on dismounts. A trusty old ranch horse uncomplainingly accommodates riders as they jump on and off one after another. They walk away with an inseam full of winter hair and a new appreciation for landing on their feet (some aren’t so fortunate).
“If you ride bulls you’ll find God out there, whether you want to or not.”
With each skill Ahlgren coaches them through, you can clearly see confidence building. Warmed up and pumped up, the young riders are now ready for the much-anticipated ride. Even from where I stand with my camera, I sense the uptick in adrenaline and my own pulse quickening.
Bull ropes are pulled out and stretched from the fence in all directions. The smell of rosin seeps out of gear bags. Steers and bulls are carefully selected based on each rider’s skill level. This is without a doubt a dangerous sport a dangerous sport — touted as The Toughest Sport on Earth — but a controlled atmosphere such as this provides a much safer ride, with the possibility of some success. This is a far cry from the “draw,” in which riders are randomly paired with a bull off an events list at the PBR.
Danger and risk come with the territory when you jump on a 2,000-pound animal. This is much-needed experience before hopping on a rank old bull at a rodeo.
Equipped with all the basics, the cowboys receive some final instruction and encouragement behind the chutes. Some take a moment to themselves to mentally prepare; others drop to a knee and say a quick prayer.
One by one they fly from the chutes. Most of the younger boys take an abrupt dive into the freshly grated earth below them. Surprisingly enough, though, it doesn’t deter the little daredevils from having another go at it. Appearing more confident, the older cowboys — some of whom have previous experience and are here to hone their skills before their next rodeo — turn out some decent rides.
Everyone walks away unscathed.
That evening, Ahlgren shows videotapes of each individual ride at the Community Christian Fellowship church. The cowboys use the review to reflect on their day and figure out adjustments they need to make. Some will never make the attempt again. Most are already digging in their pockets for the next entry fee.
For his part, Ahlgren hopes to have more clinics in the future. In the meantime, he’s focused on personal growth and a full recovery so he can hit the rodeo circuit again. Top of mind will be the most important lesson he’s had to learn and now imparts to the next generation of riders coming up the ranks: The bull is always going to win. The idea is to trick him into giving you eight seconds.
Erika Haight is a frequent contributor to C&I. More of her work can be found at her website.