SOUTHERN EXTREME BULL RIDING - ABINGDON, VIRGINIA
Every Tuesday night for several months in the winter, the Washington County Fairgrounds’ largest building is warmed by giant space heaters so that a crowd of hundreds can root for their favorite bull rider. In the front of the building, the crowd sits in the bleachers laughing at the clown who is doing a goofy dance while they wait for the gate to burst open. He chats easily with regulars while throwing down the donated hat in the front that will be “signed” (stomped on) by the upcoming bulls.
In the back of the building, the well-oiled machine comprised of cowboys and locals begins. Bulls are walked through intricate chutes to keep them calm and secure. Eventually, they make their way to the small compartment at the end, just big enough for them to stand. The next man up has been stretching, preparing his personal rope and glove with heated-up rosin. He’s getting in the zone. The usually cocky guys with colorful chaps, wild boots and bull-legged swagger are quiet. They seem to be playing out over and over in their head the perfect eight seconds. Several cowboys stand near for safety reasons. Then, the cowboy slowly lowers down on top of the bull and tightens his rope around the giant beast’s belly. Time slows down and the man nods at the gatekeepers. One man hits the latch. Another man pulls on the lead that has been clipped to the gate so that it flies open. The bull is out, bouncing from his front legs to his back legs, desperately trying to knock the rider off of his back. The rider tries to counter balance and stay upright. If it happens like his vision, he will soon hear a bullhorn and have lasted to the magical eight second mark. And when the horn blows, the rider dismounts and tries to jump free of the spiraling, jumping animal. Then, the bullfighters jump into action and motion in front of the bull — sometimes even tapping their horns — so that the bull will move away from the recently freed rider. Most bulls find the open gate attractive and trot gently back. Sometimes the bulls will not head right in, which is affectionately called “taking a victory lap” — looking for someone or something to bump or chase. The well trained fighters do an intricate dance, the crowd is directed to yell, “go home,” in unison and the cattle dog is called out to nip at his heels.
Other entertainment includes games of skill for the audience and “fan of the night” for the fan who danced and cheered the most. “Mutton Busting” is when young children, who idolize the riders, get their chance to try something similar. They are placed atop a sheep and hang on for dear life while the small animal runs. Some kids fall and immediately burst into tears. A few will jump up and mosey over to the gate to climb over like the big guys. The kid with the highest score will get a crisp ten dollar bill and an itch for adrenaline.
The activities and riding continues for a couple hours. There are triumphs and disappointments and injuries. The night usually ends on a high note with loud music and lots of prizes handed out to the crowd. The cowboys move up and down in ranking from their evenings scores. It all happens again the next Tuesday night.
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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.