As Sports Become Safer, Bull Riding Doubles Down on Danger
Inside one of the most stubbornly dangerous sports in the world
A cowboy is made in eight seconds. That’s how long you have to stay on a bull for it to count as a “ride.” Any less than that is a failure. On the best rides, eight seconds doesn’t feel like long enough; on the worst, it’s an eternity. But to get to that feeling, that adrenaline rush of power and success and terror, you first have to make it out of the gates, and Koal Livingston didn’t.
It was an overcast September evening in Fairfax, Virginia, the 22nd stop of the Professional Bull Rider’s (PBR) annual world tour. The world’s top bull riders were gathered in the chutes, taping their hands, spitting dip into Styrofoam cups, adjusting Stetsons. There was a million dollars on the line for the weekend, but Livingston, like all good riders, knew his competition wasn’t in Wranglers. The enemy is always the bull. After slapping his chap-covered legs, Livingston hopped over the railing of the chute where his rival, Outlaw, began to wriggle.
Livingston was almost ready to go — vest Velcroed, helmet on, mouthguard in, hand gripped around the rope — when Outlaw started bucking. From where I stood above the chute, I could see him go down and back. Then the spotter lost his grip on Livingston’s protective vest, and all of a sudden the bull bucked forward, catapulting Livingston headfirst into the chute’s metal wall. When the gate opened, the bull bucked out, but Livingston stayed down. The staff rushed to shield his body from the audience’s view, but I could see his limp legs peeking out from the corner of the enclosure. The cowboys nearest him removed their hats as the sports medicine team came out.
Livingston was out cold for almost a minute before he returned to the bright lights of the stadium and rose to his feet. “I absolutely cannot believe this guy is walkin’ out of this arena,” the announcer said as the crowd applauded. At the Fairfax competition that weekend, 10 of the 35 riders were competing with an injury. Before the event ended, four more would be injured. To make it through a full season of bull riding without an injury would be a miracle, one that almost never happens. Sean Willingham, a veteran of…