stay ridin’

2,000lbs of bull and one determined rider: in conversation with World champion bull rider Jess Lockwood
Sport | 12 November 2019
Above:

Jess Lockwood PBR World Champion by Fabien Kruszelnicki

After winning his second Professional Bull Riders World Championships in Las Vegas, we look back at our interview with Montana cowboy Jess Lockwood, who starred on a limited edition cover for HERO 22. 

An intake of breath, a sharp nod of the head and the chute gate rips open, unleashing 2,000lbs of bull and one determined rider into the the dirt arena. For eight seconds there is only one objective: stay ridin’, with 20,000 eyes fixed on the master of it all – Jess Lockwood – as he jolts and wrestles his way to the finish buzzer. He won the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] World Championship in 2017, and, in January this year, stormed back from a series of injuries to win the first event of 2019, holding a frenzied Madison Square Garden audience transfixed and re-instating his position as World Number One.

A few weeks later in Texas, Lockwood broke his collar bone, but plans to be back on a bull in just five weeks’ time. If that sounds unrealistic, consider it took only three for him to recover from a lacerated liver. It doesn’t get much more cowboy than that.

GALLERY

James West: When did you start with rodeo?
Jess Lockwood: I grew up in a family that rodeoed, and so it was something that I was around from the time I was born. I took a liking to the bull riding part of it when I was two or three years old, I thought it was cool, they were big, scary animals. I started going on little sheep, and little calves, and you work your way up. Once you ride those enough, when you’re maybe six or seven, you start getting on steers and you ride those for a while. Then it’s junior bulls and maybe bigger steers. It’s just stepping stones.

James: Is there a lot of competition at that point, or is it just for fun when you’re a kid?
Jess: Oh yeah! When you’re two or three years old you’re riding little sheep and calves against other kids. It’s pretty much a whole competition from the word go.

James: When you’re that young, how often are you competing? Is it a year-long season?
Jess: It just depends how bad you wanna do it at that age. I mean, if you’re raring to go every single weekend and you’ve got the money to do it… But it’s something we more or less did in the summer. Then, when we got a little older, maybe in fifth or sixth grade, we started going pretty much all the time.

James: Can you practice at home? Do you have a coach at that age, or do you learn from your friends?
Jess: My dad taught me everything I know. You can practise at home, but you don’t compete there, you’ve always got to travel for competitions to go and win yourself some money.

James: So you have to basically stay on the bull for eight seconds?
Jess: Yes. When you’re practicing you try to ride for longer, ten, twelve seconds, just so you don’t get it in your head that when it gets around eight seconds you can kinda relax.

Fabien Kruszelnicki: It must be a lot different from riding a horse.
Jess: I had a pony when I was three or four years old. I learned to ride it, and I’d go gather cows with my dad. So I’ve ridden horses all my life. When I was a baby my parents wrapped me up in a blanket and we went off on a rodeo trail because they were competing, and mom held me on her lap when I was a week old, so that’s when I got on my first horse.

James: So apart from staying on for eight seconds, what are the rules?
Jess: So you’re getting on 2,000 lb bull, and the average bull rider is about 140–145 lbs. There are four judges, each one scores you on how good you ride your bull, and how in control you are, from one to 25. They score the bull the same way, how hard he bucks, how hard he kicks, how showy he is, how good he looks when he’s doing his job. And then they add those together and that’s how you get the score. You have to ride him with one hand and have the other in the air, you can’t touch him with that hand. And you gotta ride him eight seconds.

Fabien: Do you get to choose which bull you ride?
Jess: Nope, it’s randomly computer-drawn for each round. When we get to the last round of the event, called the championship round, then you get to choose your bull – the first guy sitting in the average gets first pick out of fifteen bulls.

James: And do the bulls have different personalities?
Jess: They definitely do, but a lot of them are pretty laid back, they’ve got the best life in the world. They sit around, eat, and exercise a little bit. Sometimes they gotta do the job for two seconds, sometimes they do it for eight, but that’s the maximum. And then they get to go out and breed cows. I wouldn’t complain with a job like that!

“I had a pony when I was three or four years old. I learned to ride it, and I’d go gather cows with my dad.”

James: How often do riders stay on for the full eight seconds?
Jess: If you’re at 50 percent of your bulls, that’s damn good. I’d say about 40 percent is average, depending on who you are. 40 percent is about my average.

James: When did you realise you could do this as a career?
Jess: You know I always planned on doing it, but it was probably in the eighth grade, when I started getting on bigger bulls – not huge bulls, but bigger bulls – and I was riding them very well, I thought, “If I just keep this up, I can really be up there with those guys.”

Fabien: Did you go to a normal school or was there focus on sports?
Jess: It’s pretty rural where I went to school, so literally everyone there either grew up on a ranch or moved to a ranch at some point. No one lived in the city. The place I’m from is a little hick town, it’s 700 people, everyone’s a rancher and half the school rodeoed.

Fabien: Was there a lot of competition between students at school then?
Jess: Not in my job, because I was the only bull rider. But there were a lot of ropers, roping cows and steers and all that stuff. They were all my friends, so we messed with each other like that.

James: So bull riding is one of the activities that is part of rodeo, but PBR [Professional Bull Riders] is only riding bulls. When you were younger, were you doing the other parts of rodeo as well?
Jess: Yeah, growing up I did the others, I roped calves, I roped steers, when I was real little, I ran barrels, ran poles, did everything. When I got into high school, I did those three events. When I have kids, I’m not going to make them do it, but if they say, “Well I wanna high school rodeo,” or, “I wanna rope,” or, “I wanna ride bulls,” I’m gonna say, “Well if we’re going each weekend, you’re going to learn to do these other events.” I think it’s handy for someone to know how to do those as well. Might as well have multiple skills, instead of just one.

Fabien: What do you think makes a cowboy? Do you class yourself as one?
Jess: I saw an interview, I can’t remember who it was, but someone in Vegas on the Wrangler Network was talking about that, and I loved what he said: “I think it’s people that work cattle, on a ranch.”

James: An honest truth.
Jess: Yeah. True cowboys, someone that lives or works out on a ranch, out in the Western lifestyle. Moves and works cattle, rides horses. A lot of guys in the PBR, aren’t cowboys – they’re just bull riders.

Fabien: How did they get into it then?
Jess: I guess they grew up wanting to be a bull rider, and so that’s what they did, but that cowboy mentality is gonna help you out more than if you’re just a bull rider. They don’t know the work that goes into running a ranch, being an actual cowboy. And sometimes they don’t respect the things that come along with it. If you’re a cowboy, you make your living on a ranch. If a cow dies… you’re fucked, I mean, you just lost $1200.

James: So tell me about PBR then. It’s been going 25 years as a sport now.
Jess: Yeah, from before I was born.

James: And in 2017 you won the whole event. How did you go from riding bulls to world champion?
Jess: I mean shoot, that’s how I really got into it, watching it on TV when I was real little, I just loved it. When I was in high school I made it to the national finals for rodeo, which is very prestigious. But for a bull rider, if you’re going to complete, you might as well go where the best are, and that’s the PBR.

James: And do you just apply to take part?
Jess: Yeah, anyone can buy a membership with $420. And then you’ve got to work your way up through the lower-level events and prove that your worthy of being up on this tour.

James: When did you start doing that?
Jess: As soon as I turned eighteen, you need to be eighteen to do this professionally. Before then it’s just amateur rodeo.

James: So you won the world championship in 2017, what happened last year, in 2018?
Jess: Bull riding is just like life – ups and downs. Last year, it went good for the first month, month-and-a-half, and then I got hurt, I had to sit out for a couple of months. I didn’t come back very well. Then in summer, it really picked up again, but then I got hurt again in the fall and had to sit out for another three weeks or so.

Fabien: What was it like, not just to fix yourself physically, but mentally to go back out?
Jess: You’re never too nervous, but sometimes your body’s just hesitant after you get hurt, and your reactions aren’t quite the same. So it takes a little while. I’ve been working out hard, stretching, doing my yoga again. When I first got back on a bull, I could tell I hadn’t been on one in a while. You can lift all the weights, do all the stretching and yoga you want, but… there’s a difference between being in shape, and being in bull ridin’ shape.

“True cowboys, someone that lives or works out on a ranch, out in the Western lifestyle. Moves and works cattle, rides horses. A lot of guys in the PBR, aren’t cowboys – they’re just bull riders.”

James: And do you only get in that shape by riding bulls?
Jess: Yeah, that’s the only way. You use muscles you didn’t even know you had. Things get sore that you didn’t know you could get sore [laughs].

James: And I guess flexibility is also really important, which isn’t always obvious, you might think you just need sheer strength to hold on.
Jess: Yeah, you’re not going to be able to out-muscle a damn bull, so you might as well be more flexible than ‘em and be able to manoeuvre your way on their back instead of trying to muscle your way. You gotta keep yourself loose because you’re never gonna be in the same exact spot the whole time, you shift around.

James: What goes through your mind as you’re in the chute waiting for the gate to open?
Jess: You don’t really think at all. If you get to thinking, that’s when things go bad. Your body knows how to do it at this point, so you might as well just nod your head [to signal you’re ready] as soon as you can, get out of that chute, and just let your body react.

James: What is it that you’re waiting for as a rider to know that you are ready?
Jess: Some of those bulls will lean from side to side, and you can’t get in the position you want. So, if they’re standing square, you’re ready. You just slide up on your rope to get in position and nod your head and go.

James: Is that grease on the rope?
Jess: No, it’s like tree sap, pretty much. That stuff’ll hold onto you more than you’ll hold onto it. It’s called rosin.

James: And whether you make it to eight seconds or not, you need to get out of the way once you’re off the bull. Is that even more dangerous than riding it?
Jess: Well you don’t want to sit out there and give them a chance to run you over, but I’d say when you hit that ground, you’re pretty well safe. Those bullfighters are the best in the world [three bullfighters protect the rider once they are off, and help get the bull back into the pen]. If you get touched by a bull, it’s your fault, because the bullfighters are doing everything they can to help you.

James: I was surprised that most of the bulls just trot happily back to the pen by themselves.
Jess: Yeah, a lot of these bulls are pretty tame, they just wanna do their job and get out of there. They’re not going to put out more effort than they need to. They know if they go back there, they’re just going to get to eat their food faster.

Fabien: When you’re actually on the bull, do you think about anything specific? What goes through your mind?
Jess: You pretty much just look at their hump. You  don’t wanna look at their head because they’ll throw their head while they’re bucking, so if you look at their shoulders, that’s better than closing your eyes. [all laugh]

James: But don’t you just see the ceiling of the stadium all the time if you keep getting thrown back?
Jess: You try not for that to happen either, you try to keep your head down and not let it get moved around. They say that where you’re looking is where you’re gonna go, so if you’re looking right down, you’re gonna stay there.

James: So your plan for 2019 is to do as well as you can, and you already won this first event in New York at Madison Square Garden. Did knowing that you’ve won the world title before change how you thought about this year?
Jess: I mean, I was confident coming in, but there were times last year where I didn’t even want to ride bulls. I was pretty weak-hearted at points and I wasn’t very proud of myself, I was pretty disappointed. So I kicked myself in the ass after the season and decided, if I’m gonna do this, why the hell am I not gonna do it right? So I’m back to that mentality now… this sport’s too gosh damn dangerous to do it just for something to do.

Fabien: What were your injuries last year?
Jess: I tore my groin earlier in the year. And then in the fall I got stepped on, I broke five ribs and punctured and partially collapsed my lung. And lacerated my liver.

Fabien: Wow.
Jess: I had to deal with that for a little while.

Fabien: Could you even move?
Jess: Oh yeah. I got up and walked out of the arena!

Fabien: With broken ribs and everything?!
Jess: Well I laid there for a second… they came over to me and then I could breathe fine, so I got up. It wasn’t too bad, honestly.

Fabien: It sounds bad. [laughs]
Jess: It’s not great by any means, but it didn’t hurt too bad. I walked out of the arena, I walked to the emergency room, sat there, nothing bothered me a whole lot. I started riding bulls three weeks after that. I mean my ribs were still broke… My lung was more or less the main concern, and the liver. The liver healed quick, about a week it took to fix, it just healed on its own. And then the lung, I had one of those things that you blow into to re-inflate it. But I just wrapped my ribs up and I was good to go. Just don’t land on them! Which is hard to do, but if I’m not riding, I’m not getting paid.

Fabien: I wanted to ask you if you think the idea of the cowboy lifestyle, of ranching, is it getting more popular, or is it dying out with the generations?
Jess: It’s getting fucking sad to see, the cowboy breed is dying. There are so many guys these days that just want to ride bulls, they don’t wanna be cowboys.

Fabien: They just want the glamour and not the hard work of life on a ranch?
Jess: Exactly. They don’t know what the hard work of being a cowboy means, and what goes into that kind of lifestyle. But because of that, they’re not gonna have anything to fall back on. They’re gonna have to go work a nine-to-five after they’re done, I get to go ranch for a living.

Fabien: How could somebody who doesn’t have a ranching family get into it today? How do they find someone to help teach them how to rear cattle and all of the other skills you need?
Jess: It’s not too hard to go find a rancher that needs help on his place, maybe a family member died or maybe he’s just having a tough year and he needs some extra help. Then they’d do everything that rancher’s doing, feeding cows in the morning, ride in the afternoons, checking calves and cows…

“My lung was more or less the main concern…I had one of those things that you blow into to re-inflate it. But I just wrapped my ribs up and I was good to go. Just don’t land on them!”

Fabien: You mentioned you were also a wrestler. How did that fit in? Are you still doing it?
Jess: I got invited to hang out with the Olympic wrestling team last year. That was the coolest thing, and actually someone I met there I kept in touch with, he’s coming to the event tonight, so I’m so excited to show him around and whatnot. I started wrestling when I was five, and I quit when I was seventeen so I could focus more on bull riding. But I won an AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] title when I was in the sixth grade – a state title – and then in high school I won a state title in my freshman year wrestling.

Fabien: That’s pretty good going.
Jess: I think it’s been incredibly helpful with bull riding. Any wrestler that’s done rodeo has succeeded, just because they know what hard work will do and where it’ll put you. Last winter I went back and helped coach and it was a blast, I couldn’t make it to all of the sessions because the bull riding season started, but it was fun while I could help.

James: The final thing I wanted to ask about was your merch. I know it’s new so we might as well plug it for you [all laugh].
Jess: I wanted to have my name out there, and I hope it carries on after I’m done riding, so it’s part of the sport still. Hopefully it draws the attention of the more youthful crowd, they can think, “Oh that’s pretty cool, I wonder what this whole bull riding thing is about?”

Fabien: Being so young when you won the world championship at nineteen, how do you feel about being a bit of a poster child for a new generation of bull riders?
Jess: If kids can look up to me – that’s something you dream of when you’re little. But I’m pretty laid back about it all.

Originally published in HERO 22. 

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