Humans are more or less given to irrationality. It is not to say odd-defying behavior hasn’t served a purpose. After all, facing mastodons with sharp sticks, sailing canoes to distant lands or attempting to discover which mushrooms are delicious and which are deadly might not be the sanest of endeavors.

Of course, it is this same impulse that drags the desperate to whirring slot machines, bamboozles the educated into pyramid-shaped corporate structures and inspires cowboys to ride bulls.

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With all of the wide-brimmed hats, big belt buckles and leather boots, it might be tempting to lump professional bull riding with the classic narratives of the old west, but in this story, the cowboy never wins. On a good day, he bails off after eight seconds and runs unscathed to the fence. On a bad day, he’s off in a fraction of a second and feeling the crushing weight of sharp hooves on his chest or, gulp, head. Even while waiting behind metal bars for their rider, a rodeo bull is 2,000 pounds of pure intimidation. They are big muscled creatures bred to buck, and even though some cowboys will manage to stay on for a full 8-second ride, no one really beats the bull.

The bulls at the 68th annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo were no exception. The herd that made an appearance at the rodeo grounds just south of Santa Maria were big, but a few years younger than the nation’s top rodeo bulls. The announcer told the crowd that they were “just babies” and could easily add another 200 to 300 pounds to their girth before they were full grown. Still, the potential for damage was lessened only slightly, if at all. The men who ride these beasts carry the scars of their trade. One can imagine few communities of young men who wear so many knee braces and arm slings. Also, each of them walks with a signature limp or hobble.

The cowboys do what they can to avoid injury. Before the first bulls are led into the shoot, the riders are stretching out. They hop from foot to foot in what looks like a dance (especially with the loudspeakers blaring Lady Gaga in the background), toss their surprisingly nimble legs up on rails like a ballet dancer and thrust their hips toward the sky.

To protect their vital organs, the riders strap on protective vest and some wear caged helmets while others opt only for a cowboy hat. “Bull riders ain’t too smart,” says the announcer as another one acquaints his face with mud.

Controls have been introduced to keep both the riders and bulls safer, but the potential for injury is always present. When riders are injured, all but the severely wounded get the same first-aid: ice and beer. Each time a man stumbles through a gate or leaps a fence with a bruised ankle or split lip, a silver can is shoved into his hand. In this world, beer is both sports drink and medicine. A big man in a pink shirt recounts to one rider’s hard fall to a colleague as they watch the rodeo. “He tried to stand up, but was shaking so hard he fell over.” The man said the rider insisted he was fine. “Usually, you can stand up if you’re OK.”

A true statement and a good illustration of why, even for men who have done this hundreds of time, the walkway next to the shoots where the riders mount the bulls has a tense atmosphere. Bull riding is a sport made of brief moments. The gate opens, the bull spins, it bucks, the rider holds on but his legs flail – then he flies high and thuds on the ground. Each action often lasts less than a second, but those seconds can mean the difference between defeat and injury or victory and money.

When riders go down without a good score or when a bull’s hind leg catches their jaw, the look on their face is neither pain nor anger. Often, it’s something closer to shock or frustration. In rodeo, the money goes to the victors and a busted leg can dry up a rider’s source of income. It’s not an easy life, but its one that’s hard to let go of. Garth Brooks said it best in his song “Rodeo”:

And she’d give half of Texas

Just to change the way he feels

Well she knows his love’s in Tulsa

And she knows he’s gonna go

Well, it ain’t no woman, in flesh and blood

It’s that damned old rodeo.

They place life and limb, not to mention teeth and blood on the line. For what? A couple of bucks and a fancy belt? No, it is more than the desire for wealth, it is the thrill of the hunt, the gut-punch of the let down and adrenaline’s narcotic craving that makes every addict get up and do it again.