A cowboy swigging Evian before jumping on the back of an angry
bull is not exactly a stereotype. Neither is a bullrider
chatting on a cellular phone as he cinches his shock-absorbing
Both sights are common at the clinics taught by the Custer
brothers of Wickenburg, Ariz., practitioners of what has come to
be known as the new rodeo. Cody, 31, Danny, 29, and JimBob, 27,
all well-known figures on the pro rodeo circuit, are converts to
the idea that riding bulls and broncs is dangerous enough even
with good training and protective gear.
Last year they put their ideas into practice by forming Custer
Brothers Way Out West, Inc., which produces bullriding
competitions and runs clinics all over the West that emphasize
safe riding. "Lots of kids want to ride bulls and don't even
think about safety until they're in the chute," says Cody, the
1992 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association's world bullriding
champion. "They need instruction from somebody who's lived it,
because only a handful of people care if you leave under your
own power or on a stretcher."
The Custers have come to their belief in safety the hard way.
Four years ago Danny was hit by a bull's horn and suffered
fractures of his left cheek and eye socket. He needed surgery to
put in plates and pins to hold the bones of his face together.
He returned to bullriding competition four months after the
injury, but he won't compete without a hard plastic helmet and
face mask similar to those worn by hockey players.
In the late 1980s, after Cody saw another cowboy get popped in
the bottom of the chin by an angry bull, resulting in about
$7,000 worth of dental work, he started using a protective
mouthpiece like those worn by football players.
Cody and JimBob were also among the first rodeo stars to make
leather-covered polyurethane vests part of their everyday gear,
in early 1993. Cody began wearing a vest not because of an
injury but because he felt he needed more padding. "My insurance
deductible is too high not to wear it," he says. The Custers'
decision to put safety first drew a few wisecracks from the
old-timers, but as far as JimBob is concerned, smart is better
"Just the other night in Colorado, a bull jerked me down and
stepped on my back," says JimBob, a three-time saddle-bronc
champion of the PRCA Turquoise Circuit, which encompasses
Arizona and New Mexico. "It left a little mark on me is all. If
I hadn't been wearing a vest I might be out two weeks. That's
two weeks when I could be riding and paying my bills."
But the consequences can be far worse than lost income. An
extreme example, and one that started the trend toward safety
gear, occurred at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in 1989, when
Lane Frost was stomped by a bull and killed. Frost had been a
world bullriding champion and the most popular cowboy around.
His traveling partner, Cody Lambert, was so shaken by the
tragedy that he designed the safety vests now used by many rodeo
cowboys. Frost's story was the subject of the 1994 feature film
8 Seconds, starring Luke Perry as Frost and Stephen Baldwin as
Tuff Hedeman, Frost's buddy and fellow rodeo star.
"The movie 8 Seconds really increased the glamour level of the
sport," says Cody Custer, who was Perry's stunt double in the
film. "But it also increased the number of places where you can
pay $15 and just get on a bull, and that's one reason we do
"It isn't like baseball, where you can buy a glove and go out
and play," says JimBob.
At a recent Way Out West clinic in Phoenix, no student was
allowed to climb on a bull without first showing proof of health
insurance and putting on a vest. And the entire first morning of
the two-day session was taken up with chute procedure: how to
get your hand free of the rope; why it's a bad idea to grab the
fence if the bull runs into it; and, above all, to make sure you
get up and run after the bull throws you. During breaks in the
training the student cowboys gathered around the open door of a
minivan in the arena parking lot to watch instructional
videotapes and replays of Cody's 1992 championship ride.
The Custers' approach includes plenty of attitude coaching. They
believe that staying confident and aggressive is a good way to
avoid injuries. Mike Seng, 18, a recent high school graduate
from Tucson, tries to stay confident by performing mental
exercises such as visualization.
"If I ride a bull 10 times, I might only cover him [stay on at
least eight seconds] five times," says Seng. "But in my mind, I
can cover him all 10 times. When I ride, my subconscious takes
Seng says he learned that technique from his father, Bud, a
retired police detective who specialized in forensic hypnosis, a
means of retrieving repressed information from witnesses. When a
bull named Full Metal Jacket tossed Mike to the dirt after about
seven seconds during the Custers' clinic, the teenager grabbed
his straw hat and scampered away unhurt, and his dad sighed in
"It's not like watching your son play Little League," said Bud.
"But I have high regard for the Custers' instruction. They make
sure everyone understands that a 1,500-pound bull can do some
The goal of the Custers' preride instruction is to instill
respect for the animal. And just to be sure, the brothers begin
every training session with a prayer asking for "safety for
every man and beast here today." But they know that angry bulls
aren't always good listeners.
"Hey, some guys get in the chute, let go of the rope and say, 'I
just don't want to do it,'" says JimBob. "They've made a career
decision. Others ride one time and say, 'That's it, never
again.' I admire that. This is a real fun sport, but not
everybody gets hooked on it."
Leo W. Banks is a Tucson freelancer who says even wearing a suit
of armor, he wouldn't get on a bull.