When I was a young man and excitement was clamoring on my back, whispering in my ear that no ill fortune would befall me and death was clearly something that happened, but to other, less fortunate people, there were no mountains to climb in my home town. There were rock faces, although few and far between, and while people did sometimes climb them, they did so only to save themselves from death or being mauled by a bear, not for recreation. Drag and motorcycle races required a substantial outlay of financial capital. Farm work was certainly dangerous, which was a plus, but hardly thrilling for someone like me. Indeed there were few pursuits available in my region for a young man to work off those raging levels of testosterone that demanded that said young man risk life and limb for the thrill of realizing that one was still alive when the adventure was over.
This was mostly a sleepy little town that woke up once a year for a weekend when the then Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctioned the tri-state rodeo, a fairly grandiose affair by southern Iowa standards. There was always a parade with bands, floats, clowns, fire trucks, a grand marshal or two, and horses…many, many horses. As a child obsessed with animals, any opportunity to get close to something so big and beautiful was an opportunity I was going to take. I loved to see them walking so placidly, so matter-of-factly balancing their whole bulk on four seemingly delicate toes. They came in all sizes, colors and configurations. I studied them with interest from the relative safety of the sidewalk. I was not scared, but rather obedient. I was told to stay out of the street, and so I did.
The rodeo was the real deal, a low-tech affair that seemed to be for the entertainment of the audience to my young eyes, but drew a number of nationally recognizable competitors. Every year, I was there—first as a child with my parents, then as a teenager roaming the grounds and fooling around under the bleachers. When I started making my own money I went to every performance. I knew the rules for all the events, and even recognized a few names of the cowboys. It didn’t seem all that strange to accept the invitation when a few classmates invited me to their bull riding practice, Having watched bull riding practically all my life, I could see the “thrill potential.” I climbed in the chute and onto the back of a bull, bull rope in hand six times and “chickened out” at the last minute. The seventh time, my friends opened the chute before I could “wimp out.” Thus began my brief, four-year bull riding career.
I wasn’t all that good, but I managed to ride a respectable number of bulls. I was quite the novelty as black bull riders were fairly scarce in the Midwest, but that’s another story. Eventually I made the determination that I liked making music too much to risk having my hands mangled by 1600 pounds of pissed off beef. There’s nothing like a little foresight to make you reevaluate your priorities. So it was that I found myself back in the bleachers (as it were) as a spectator instead of a participant. It was while photographing bull riding that I discovered a new, more intriguing aspect to the sport. I had photographed a bull in mid-jump and noticed, in this animal, a remarkable similarity to a whale breaching. There was an exquisitely graceful, curved line of the body through to the head. I promptly forgot about the bull riders and started watching the bulls. While virtually all the saddle and bareback broncs were quite similar in their bucking style, the bulls were all different. I began to see the bulls as athletes with varying abilities and technical prowess. Back then I told myself I was seeing athletic ability, but really I saw them as dancers. Dancers?
Ballet is a beautiful, but unnatural art form. Yes, human beings do it, and some do it exceedingly well, but it requires (or rather selects for) shallow hip sockets, extreme flexibility and long, demanding training. Still, at its most arresting, ballet or any dance can move people to tears or absolutely astonish the mind with the potential of the human body.
V61 could do that. V61 was a Brahma-cross bull with the characteristic Brahma hump at the shoulder blades, a light sandy colored body and dark legs. He was also a great bucking bull at a time before there were great bucking bulls. I had heard about him many times, but saw him only once. This beautiful animal was magnificent, stretching his long muscular body in a steep diagonal to the sky with every kick. His name belied his status. At that time, bulls, even rodeo stock, were just a means to an end. V61 was his brand, so V61 was his name. No personalization, no fan base, just a reputation.
Things are different now. Breeding programs over the years have refined and enhanced the bucking bulls seen in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) association. Bulls worth more the entire annual budget for the Tri-State Rodeo back in my day, now have names, fans, and celebrity owners and investors. Fans and riders can recite their names; Little Yellowjacket, Dr, Proctor, Red Wolf, Chicken on a Chain, Sir Patrick, Kidd Rock, Coyote, California Dreaming, Big Bucks, Werewolf Snuff, Major Payne, and Voodoo Child. There have many great bulls over the years, and people are sure to have their favorites.
I sat up straight up in my chair when saw Belle’s Blue, a beautiful Brahma bull, launch himself seven feet into the air on the first jump out of the chute. Dr. Procter would have all four legs going a different direction AND be doing a belly roll at the same time. Gangly looking with a short neck, he looked like he have been designed by a drunk committee, but boy could he buck. World famous, Bodacious is a legend. People who know nothing about bull riding have heard of Bodacious. He was big, muscular, and an incredible athlete. He was also feared, having smashed two cowboy’s faces to bits as they tried to ride him. He was the macho bull in a macho bull world. He definitely earned his place in the rodeo hall of fame.
Just as balletomanes wax lyrical about one dancer or ballerina, I do admit to having a favorite. He has an inscrutable face, a lean physique, blinding speed, unreal athletic ability and a schizophrenic personality. He is the total package. Riders don’t much care for him because he is too unpredictable. Like most bulls he can have an off day, but even his off days are worth the entire audience stopping their conversations, cowboys crowding the bucking chutes, and hundreds of video camcorders suddenly trained on the arena. A superstar is in the house…and his name is Reindeer Dippin.
Reindeer is a relatively small bull, as bulls go, but he’s built like a greyhound. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He is a natural phenomenon. Google his name to see photos. His face never gives any hint at what lies behind those eyes, but by now everyone knows Reindeer doesn’t like anything close to his head. Get too near the business end of this bull and you’re going to pay a price. He not valued highly by judges or riders because of his tendency to cover a lot of ground on each out, but he is a fan favorite. Remember, it’s all about the bull with me. I don’t really care that often about the rider or the score. It’s like watching Baryshnikov or Rennie Harris dance. I saw him kick so high, he barely caught himself on his nose while exiting the arena at top speed, and this was after the rider was off his back. Absolutely amazing. Just don’t try hitching this Reindeer to Santa’s sleigh.
Reindeer Dippin reminds us that nature can hold surprises, that we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, that the exquisite arch of a leaping danseur noble is answered with the equally exquisite leaps, spins and rolls of an inscrutable white-faced bull. What kind of individual could appreciate both? Well, God and me, for two. Reindeer dancing can move me to tears. In his vitality, exuberance and abandon, the world falls into place, physics makes sense, persistence is rewarded, effort is honored, limitations are faced, expectations are surpassed, spirits are acknowledged, chaos is defined and demonstrated, bullets are dodged, prayers are answered, and hope springs eternal.