The first person approached Wednesday night behind the gates at the Bitterroot Motors Bullorama is on crutches with his foot wrapped in a cast that goes all the way up his lower leg. He's prepped for surgery tomorrow and won't be climbing aboard any bulls tonight.
It's not even clear whether the injury was sustained from an encounter with an angry bull -- his doctor isn't sure. Nonetheless he's standing there next to a couple bleachers beside the ring in a button up shirt, jeans, boots and a white cowboy hat leaning on his crutches. About a hundred yards away is a gathering of cowboys with their eyes turned toward the ground, some of them on one knee as the public address announcer reads a prayer -- a customary and perhaps necessary practice in such a violent sport.
A few minutes after the prayer, the riders will voluntarily climb aboard bulls eager to clear themselves of whichever human is assigned atop them. The cowboys are attempting to gain points in the Touring Pro Division standings and a chance at a national stage.
Rodeo -- and maybe even more acutely, bull riding -- has a certain lure to its fans, but mostly it's competitors. Bull riding is about as vicious and unforgiving as sport gets, just ask the men and women who try to mend the bodies of those attempting to tame these 1,500-pound beasts for 8 seconds while trying to look good, and still and totally in control of what looks like a completely uncontrollable situation.
Riders and fans and those with a general interest in the sport have yet to come to an agreement on what it is that brings everybody back. One man says it's religious. Another says it's the culture and yet another says it's the thrill. Regardless of motive, there they are on a hot midweek night at a small county fairground focused on what appears to be a completely unfair encounter between man and beast.
A little more than an hour into the event, Thad Newell from Gibson, Okla., is packing up his dusty equipment into his dusty suitcase. A top-50 rider on tour, Newell thought his night was over, but ...
"...somebody turned out the bulls," he said.
As important looking men with papers in their hands scrambled about the prep area, one yelled out, "Thad," and Thad looked up and the man asked if he wanted to ride again. With a smile stretching across his face, he responded, "Of course."
There are plenty of reasons why the grandstands were mostly full at the fairground's rodeo arena and plenty more why cowboys traveled to Missoula from Australia and Brazil, but for the riders the leading rationalization is the chance to ride again because with every ride is the opportunity to score points and climb the standings and maybe get to the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas where you can win some real money that could settle your summers for years to come.
The night's event was won by an Australian cowboy named Lachlan Richardson who rode four times and scored on two. His first attempt was an 86 and his second was an 89, the highest score achieved on a hot night.
Richardson was one of handful of riders to score Wednesday. Most of the cowboys' nights ended with them packing up their chaps and helmets and ropes and whatever else they brought with them into their dusty suitcases in frustration. Most of them will pile into a van or a pickup with another couple guys and their things and head on down the road to whichever rodeo is next. It's a trek that'll add certain stress to any vehicle and a few oil changes before it concludes.
Nevada Newman, a cowboy from Melstone who made quite a name for himself as a collegiate bull riding national champion at Montana State, said taming that frustration is as important as staying atop the bull for 8 seconds.
"It won't do you no good if you can't," he said.
The majority of the cowboys will have a few hours to sit in the car and come to grips with their last outing before they climb up on the next bull. The whole summer is blistering with rodeos all over the United States, with some scheduled in Australia and Brazil. Newman, who didn't score at the bullorama, said he was just at two events in Colorado before going to another in Watford City, North Dakota prior to arriving in Missoula.
Cody Ford, who will travel to Sandpoint, Idaho on Friday and then to Newport, Oregon on Saturday before circling back to Eureka on Aug. 29, said he has been in 15 events since mid May and estimated he has traveled 10,000 miles this summer and wouldn't be surprised if his journey took him more than 20,000 before it ended.
"We're just gonna go from here to the next one," Newman said.
Richardson will do that too, but he'll pack a gold buckle from the Missoula bullorama with him for his trip to San Antonio, Texas.
A 22-year old who has been riding since his dad put him atop a calf at the age of 10, Richardson never seemed daunted by the bulls who were so calm in the pens, but unleashed a good bit of fury once they were let out into the ring with a cowboy on their back.
The Aussie sat with his back in a nearly perfectly straight line during his first ride as the bull kicked and spun and thrust madly underneath him. He was awarded with 86 points. His next ride was nearly a carbon copy. It scored the highest total and when it was done Richardson made his way back to his gear and began preparing himself.
Unlike most sports, cowboys at this level don't have a ready made support system. There is no personal trainer or coach or team manager to get them ready for their next turn in the spotlight. Richardson neatly folded his chaps, put away his helmet and began prepping his ropes. With a rosin glove he aggressively pulled down his rope, trying to add whatever he could to give him an edge in his next encounter with the beasts.
As a reporter approached seeking comment on his 89-pointer, Richardson stopped what he was doing and politely asked, "Can you come back later? I'm gonna ride another bull ... I'm gonna ride a few more bulls."