Paul Wellman

Every year, the rodeo is a major part of Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara, and this year, with the Professional Bull Rider Challenger Tour hitting Earl Warren Showgrounds on Thursday night, roping and wrangling fans have plenty reasons to cheer. Although not part of PBR’s main tour, which features more than 30 televised events a year, the Challenger Tour, which is promoted in town by Mitch Williams, gives younger riders a chance to make enough money to break into the big leagues.

And whenever the Challenge Tour comes to town, it’s also cause for celebration up in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Bernie Taupin hosts a barbecue and horse cutting competition. Famous for being Elton John’s songwriter, Taupin also raises horses in the valley, and during the afternoon barbecue, he challenges the riders from the Challenge Tour to a cutting competition.

Horse cutting is an equestrian event in the Western riding style, where the rider and horse pick a calf from a small herd and use the horse’s agility and speed to keep the calf from getting back to the herd. The sport evolved from cattle ranches where it was the cutting horse’s job to pick out each calf one by one to vaccinate, castrate, and sort. Eventually competition arose from the best horses and riders in ranch areas.

This year’s event was held on Wednesday, July 30 on the ranch, which is located east of Highway 154 beneath Figueroa Mountain. Both the calves and quarter horses were very quick, and Taupin proved to be a very good rider, easily rising to the competition in the first round. But in the end, Taupin was beaten by PRB’s top-ranked rider Guilherme Marchi from Brazil.

Other riders at the event included Luke Snyder from Raymore, Missouri, who explained that he got into bull riding when he was eight years old and went to rodeo school to learn the basics, from putting on gear to actual riding. Snyder is like many of the top pros, who’ve been riding since they were kids on the ranches where they grew up, learning about the danger of riding large, bucking animals while hanging on for dear life. After eight years of professional riding, Snyder is currently ranked 15th in the world.

It’s a similar story for Travis Briscoe, who’s been a pro for three years and was clearly the youngest of the group at Taupin’s ranch on Wednesday. “I’ve been doing this since I was in diapers,” he explained with a cowboy swagger. Though that may be an exaggeration, bull riding is as much a part of these men’s lives as taking out the trash. Greg Potter, from Rock Hampton, Australia, gleefully remembered being “a bunch of crazy kids jumping on cows” on his family’s farm.

As you might expect, along with the glories of bull riding come many injuries. “Mighty” Mike White is going on his 11th year as a pro. At 31 years old, he’s broken his neck twice, but still climbs up into the chute and on the back of a bucking beast many times larger than he. “Anybody who does it long enough, you’re going to get hurt,” he explained. “If you didn’t love it, you’d definitely quit.”

Of course, many people don’t care about the riders getting hurt – plenty of people don’t like the rodeo because they’re worried about the animals. Many animal lovers picket outside the rodeo – including those who protest on Las Positas Road near the showgrounds during Fiesta in Santa Barbara- and claim that it amounts to animal cruelty. But those involved quickly dispute such claims.

Potter, who’s been out of the circuit recently due to a shoulder injury, has taken to doing public relations for PBR. He said that all the animals involved are worth between $100,000 and $200,000, and are given the best possible care. Each animal is owned by a private contractor, who is responsible for keeping them healthy and able to perform. “If a bull is sore or limping,” explained Potter, “the contractor won’t buck them.” But they will pay up to $15,000 for veterinarian visits, he said.

Promoter Mitch Williams explained that everyone thinks that the flank strap – which is tied around the bull’s flank and holds the genital away from the action – makes them buck. That’s not true, he said, as that would adversely affect the performance of the bull. Instead, Williams explained, the bulls buck because they are bred to.


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