"I have a Ph.D. in my mom," 13-year-old Ryen Reich said with a
giggle. It's more like an M.D.; Ryen was sitting in the waiting
room of the Kingfisher (Okla.) Hospital on June 23 as her
33-year-old mother, Polly, the only female bullrider currently
on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, was
getting 60 stitches in her scalp. The gash was the result of a
hoof to the head that Polly took after tumbling over the front
of a bull earlier in the evening.
In the two years Polly has been training in rodeo schools and on
the minor league circuit, she has suffered a separated shoulder,
two concussions, six ankle fractures, a broken wrist, a broken
hand, five broken ribs, a lacerated lung and a broken tibia that
subsequently became infected. All these accidents have turned
Ryen into her mother's primary-care physician.
This night's injury--a cut so deep it exposed part of Polly's
skull--marked a grotesque finish to her pro debut at the
Kingfisher Rodeo. When the event began two days earlier, the
5'7", 120-pound Reich was hailed as a fearless woman entering a
man's domain, attempting the rodeo equivalent of playing middle
linebacker in the NFL. Despite her slim chance of placing high
enough to win any money, Reich was the main attraction, the last
rider in the sport's glamour event.
Three years ago Reich had never seen a rodeo. She was less
likely to wear a pair of Wranglers than a cowboy is to slip on
Armani trousers under his chaps. She was a divorcee living with
her daughter in one of Chicago's affluent northern suburbs,
where she ran a pet-grooming business. Reich had just broken up
with her boyfriend of six years when her best friend persuaded
her to go see a rodeo 45 miles away in Wauconda, Ill., just to
get out of the house.
September 3, 1995
"At first I thought it would be all hillbillies and I wouldn't
have fun," says Reich. But she was immediately intrigued by the
bullriding. "When I left, all I could think about was getting
someone to teach me."
One of the featured riders that night was Larry Moseley, an
African-American who lived in Wauconda at the time and had
helped break rodeo's color barrier in the '70s. Who better to
train a woman who hoped to crack the sport's gender barrier?
"Larry's a stern man, difficult to approach," Reich says. "When
I finally got the guts to ask him, he looked at me and said,
'Fine, but if at any time you're wasting my time, it's over.'"
The first day she trained with Moseley, Polly worked on
balancing drills. The second day she rode a barrel, which was
tethered to the walls of a barn by four springs. "It was like
going through hell," she says of being thrashed about by the
machine. "But it was such a challenge that I kept going back,
five days a week."
She trained under Moseley for two years before they parted ways
in May 1994 because of their conflicting schedules. Through a
sponsor Reich then met Lyle Sankey, a two-time national champion
bullrider who runs three-day rodeo schools 45 times a year, all
over the U.S. His students watch cowboys in action on film and
in the ring and try to perfect their particular roughstock
events: saddle-bronc, bareback or bullriding. Sankey quickly
became Reich's rodeo guru, and she his prize student. "She was,
and is, on a mission," Sankey says. "It wasn't a question of
asking herself if this was something she wanted to do. She said,
'This is what I want, and this is how I'm going to do it.'"
Indeed, Reich is a cowboy junkie who gets a buzz just from the
smells of a rodeo. As she drove toward her motel in Okarche,
Okla., the day before her pro debut, a truck hauling a trailer
full of horses passed her car, filling the air with the scent of
horse hair. Ryen rolled up her window, but Polly rolled down her
own to inhale the sweet stench. "I smell something like this and
my brain gets all scrambled, and I just can't wait to get on a
bull," she said.
In April 1993 Reich shut down her pet-grooming business, and a
year later she and Ryen moved to Huntsville, Ark., where Polly's
parents had relocated when they retired. After touring local
rodeos with Ryen throughout the summer of '94, sleeping in the
cab of their pickup and subsisting on 69-cent hamburgers, Polly
secured David James Fashions as a sponsor, a western-wear
company that covered all the Reichs' travel expenses until last
week, when the firm dropped her.
Keenly aware of her commercial value in such rodeo hotbeds as
Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, Polly has had a helmet and face
mask made to protect her full set of teeth. "Her marketing value
is directly related to her pretty smile," Sankey says. "She
better take care of it."
Polly hasn't won a penny in nine PRCA events and still has to
support herself and Ryen with freelance pet grooming, but she is
a popular rodeo attraction. Before the Kingfisher Rodeo, the
Kingfisher Times and Free Press and the daily paper in nearby
Enid ran full-page stories about Polly. "I've had so many people
calling me to find out when the lady bullrider is going," said
rodeo organizer Bernice Cross, "that my husband said I should
just answer the phone, 'Polly hotline.'"
As Reich entered the arena on the night of her first PRCA ride,
she was wound tighter than a rope. The free spirit who had
tattooed her derriere with a bucking horse bordered by the words
ride 'em cowboy and had decorated her right hip with a
horseshoe, turned stone-faced in the hours before her attempt.
"I have to begin concentrating," she said. "If you don't, you
increase your chances of getting hurt."
Ryen, meanwhile, stuck closer to her mom than a newborn calf.
For as long as she can remember, it's been just the two of them.
Ryen seems to love spending her summers traveling the circuit,
but it's gut-wrenching for her to watch her mother mount a bull.
In February, when Polly lacerated her lung and broke five ribs
at a rodeo in Mountain Home, Ark., her heart stopped in the
ambulance on the way to the hospital. She was revived within
seconds, but the accident made both mother and daughter rethink
Polly's career choice. "When I saw Ryen in the hospital, I asked
her if she wanted me to stop," Polly says. "She decided that
since it was my error, and not something uncontrollable, that
caused the accident, she could handle it."
Since 1984, 17 PRCA cowboys have died while performing, three of
them last year. Bullriders suffer 43% of the injuries that occur
on the circuit; they range from groin pulls to concussions. Al
though the odds are against Polly's dying in the ring, she says
Ryen would be well provided for. It is written in Polly's will
that her brother Butch, a 37-year-old athletic director for the
Broomfield, Colo., park district, would become Ryen's guardian.
"People may think what I do is irresponsible," Polly says. "But
if anything happened to me, Butch would take care of Ryen as
well as or better than most parents take care of their kids."
After Polly had a talk with the Kingfisher Rodeo clowns--"She
likes to get to know them, since they may save her life," Ryen
says--she began psyching herself up. She studied the bulls,
tugged on her rope and stretched her fragile ligaments. Watching
the other riders perform from the corner of the corral, she
nervously popped her bubble gum. She bobbed, weaved and rocked
back and forth, simulating the movements she would make on the
Eleven cowboys rode before her. She and Ryen watched the first
four, then Polly whispered in her daughter's ear, "Let's go say
a prayer." They receded into the darkness and bowed their heads
in a silent vigil for riders, animals and Mom. One by one the
other contestants got bucked off. With the introduction of each
new cowboy, a Spanish-guitar recording was played. The music
started and then stopped so quickly that the rodeo began to seem
like a round of musical chairs. By the time Reich mounted her
bull, only three riders had gone the full eight seconds required
to place in the money.
The chute opened, and Ryen let out a bloodcurdling scream to
cheer on her mother. One second. A violent back kick by the
bull. Two Seconds. A dizzying 360-degree spin. Three seconds. A
buck straight out of the spin with so much torque that it took
the bull sideways. Four seconds. Polly's legs came loose, and
her right hand began to slip out of the saddle rope. Five
seconds. She slid down the side of the bull, then fell
underneath its hooves. She was stepped on four times before the
bull was finally distracted by a clown. On her hands and knees,
Polly scampered like a field mouse toward a safe spot along the
arena wall and then stood with her arms in the air to indicate
that, miraculously, she was O.K.
Before she could wipe the dust off, fans surrounded their newest
hero, asking for autographs and advice. Polly, meanwhile, was
unfazed by her brutal fall. "Man, I ate a dirt sandwich on that
one," she said. "I've really got to brush my teeth." But the
sweetness of the moment, like rodeo rides themselves, was
There were no fans at the hospital the next night while Ryen
sifted through her mom's bag, looking for a medical insurance
card. X-rays revealed that Polly had nothing more than a deep
scalp laceration. Ryen held a piece of gauze to Polly's sutured
wound. Then rodeo's newest face and her daughter spent yet
another night in a hospital, sharing a room for two.