Spurs of the Moment: Pro Bull Riding in New York City

Jonathan Zeller

Update (12/19/2016): The 2017 Pro Bull Riders Buck Off at Madison Square Garden Invitational will take place from January 6–8. The article below refers to a previous instance of the event. For 2017 tickets and more information, visit ticketmaster.com.

At first glance, a bull-riding competition at Madison Square Garden seems as out of place as a dairy farm in Grand Central Terminal or an oil well in Times Square. Look closer, though, and it makes perfect sense.

If a New York minute lasts an instant, bull riding might be the City's perfect sport. Every eight-second ride is filled with danger and suspense as a real-life cowboy tries to stay on a 2,000-pound bucking bull. It's a football game and a chess match collapsed into a few blinks of an eye. There's no better fit for a city whose residents impatiently check their watches when the subway doors take an extra moment to shut.

That's why we've lassoed all the facts you need to know about the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) New York Invitational, which brings the sport's top 40 riders—and its most belligerent bulls—to Madison Square Garden.

To show you the literal and figurative ropes of the self-proclaimed "toughest sport on dirt," we've enlisted Ty Murray, King of the Cowboys.

Before delivering a full tutorial, Murray emphasizes bull riding's accessibility compared with, say, football or baseball—sports that newcomers sometimes struggle to follow. "You see an animal that weighs 2,000 pounds and can jump 3 feet in the air and kick straight up and down 10 to 12 feet in the air," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're a man, a woman, 80 years old or 8 years old. It's guaranteed to be exciting and entertaining."

Gymnasts with Spurs
Considering that bull riders try to stay perched for eight seconds on a mean, bucking one-ton animal, you might picture Murray as a burly behemoth with muscles on top of muscles.

You probably wouldn't imagine that the sport's polite ambassador stands 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds.

Yet that's Murray, 40, a retired seven-time all-around rodeo champion and three-time bull-riding champ. His build can teach you plenty about what it takes to ride a rank bull.

"People that don't know the sport," Murray says, "think a crazy cowboy holds on for dear life." That's not so. "It's about movement and countermoves," he continues. "The average bull rider is a lot like the average gymnast. He'll be 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8, anywhere from 135 to 175 pounds. It's not about brute strength—it's about pound-for-pound strength and having enough control of your body." That's why his training regimen included unicycle riding and juggling: to build vital coordination.

Such coordination is rewarded by PBR's scoring system—riders earn 50 of their possible 100 points in a ride (also called an "out") by demonstrating constant control and good body position and receive "style points" for spurring a bull. The rider must stay on the bull and maintain a grip on the attached rope for the ride's duration. If a rider touches the bull or himself during the out, he's disqualified. The bull's performance determines the remaining 50 points.

When asked who to watch for in the invitational, Murray contrasts riders' styles. The defending PBR champion, Kody Lostroh, is a "picture-perfect technician" who always looks at ease on a bull. Guilherme Marchi, the 2008 champ, is a model of consistency. And JB Mauney (pronounced "moony") is known for a "wild, go-for-broke style" that has kept him in PBR's top three for three consecutive years.

Bovine Athletes
Bull-riding aficionados know there's more than one great athlete in a ride. "People think all bulls are mean and all bulls buck, and that's not true," Murray says. "That's like saying, 'I want to put a horse in the Kentucky Derby. I'm going to buy a horse.'" His uncle, for example, bought 500 bulls in pursuit of one who could compete in the PBR circuit. None made the cut.

As noted, bulls—or, as PBR calls them, bovine athletes—account for 50 out of 100 possible points in a ride (any total above 90 points is considered outstanding), a contribution Murray compares with the degree of difficulty for a dive: "You want to draw the bull that's going to get as many points as possible." Bulls receive those points for drop in the front end, kick on the back end, spin and direction changes.

To help the bull kick straight up, a flank strap—a soft rope—is tied between the animal's ribs and hips. Since it's loose enough that the bull believes he can get it off, he'll kick higher—but it's snug enough that he'll keep trying for the whole ride. The bulls are smart, too, explains Murray: "The bulls at this level understand what's going on—they feel your body weight shift eight ounces to the right, they want to jump to the left."

As one might expect, the bulls have as many fans as the riders. Don't be surprised to see rooters wearing belt buckles honoring their favorite bulls or clutching plush likenesses of championship cattle with intimidating names like Code Blue, Bones and Voodoo Child. And why not? With their will, determination and what Murray calls a "love" for bucking off riders, the bulls outshine the in-arena pyrotechnics and thundering rock music as the most explosive thing about the invitational.

Fast and tough, bull riding is just as New York as a street pretzel or a slice of pizza. So if you see a buckaroo strutting down 34th Street in high-heeled cowhide boots, tip your ten-gallon hat—he may be one of the best athletes moseying through the Garden this year.