The sun is setting in Bradenton, Florida, as eight men in cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats climb out of Super Shuttle vans and enthusiastically shake hands with the sports training staff of IMG Academy. This kind of sidewalk reception is commonplace at IMG; in addition to running a boarding school and year-round camps for student athletes, the academy regularly hosts up to 150 training intensives for professional teams and athletes from all over the world (that client list includes the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals, and New York’s soccer team the Red Bulls). But as this group of guys walk toward the building, a huddle of Under Armour–clad football players look on with curiosity, perhaps wondering what kind of sport you play in starched blue jeans.
The answer? Bull riding. The sport has grown exponentially since the founding of Professional Bull Riders (PBR) in 1992; in the last 20 years, annual attendance at live events has gone from some 300,000 to more than three million, and the organization has reported a 7 percent increase in its fan base in the last year alone. The bulls are bigger and stronger, thanks to improved diets and breeding practices, and PBR has attracted big-name sponsors like Ford, Wrangler, and Monster Energy Drinks. Yet, the overall performance of the riders — their ability to artfully counterbalance a bull’s bucks, kicks, and turns while holding on for the requisite eight seconds — has plateaued. Compare today’s rides with footage from the ’90s, and the most noticeable differences are the outdated TNN graphics.
Most bull riders hone their craft on family farms, starting as young as six years old, and, if possible, traveling to youth camps hosted by private ranchers. They learn on the job, watching tapes of rides gone wrong and getting on practice bulls between competitions. But despite the uniformity of their dress and the easy shorthand that comes with traveling the same event circuit for 10 months out of the year, the riders aren’t a team. If they follow a training regimen, it looks a lot like the average desk jockey’s gym schedule: a mix of free weights and cardio, plus the occasional bootcamp-style workout or yoga class offered at the nearest studio. They don’t answer to a coach or attend team practice. They are, for all intents and purposes, lone cowboys.
The week at IMG’s sports camp aims to change that. It’s an experiment in applying an established training paradigm to a sport that’s defined only by its wild unpredictability. The training is also, potentially, a blueprint; the city of Pueblo, Colorado, home to PBR headquarters, recently announced plans to build an 18,000-square-foot training center specifically for bull riders, and of all levels, from youth to professional. The idea: give sports-specific training to talented riders early in their careers, and before they’ve developed bad habits.
The riders in this pioneer group, all at various stages of their careers, are among the most decorated and celebrated in the PBR. Jess Lockwood and Keyshawn Whitehorse, both 19 years old, are the youngest of this bunch. While Whitehorse has quietly climbed the ranks, Lockwood made a splash shortly after his PBR debut, earning the award for 2016 Rookie of the Year. Kaique Pacheco, a third-generation bull rider, began riding in Brazil at age 12. In May 2017, at 22 years old, he walked away with first place at The Last Cowboy Standing competition in Las Vegas, securing his second-place world ranking. Ryan Dirteater, a.k.a. “The Cherokee Kid,” won the World Finals in 2016 and is currently ranked 20th in the world. Brazilian native Silvano Alves has earned three World Championships, and, at age 29, is gunning for another. And Rubens “Biceps” Barbosa, a Brazilian known for his physical toughness and Popeye-like arms, is the veteran of the group at 33 years old. Each rider is at IMG — with no bulls in sight — on a voluntary basis, agreeing to not only fully participate in the nascent program, but also provide feedback for the next iteration.
They’re accompanied by Cody Lambert, PBR co-founder and livestock director, and two-time world champ and broadcast commentator Justin McBride, who, since retiring 10 years ago at 28, has taken on a mentorship role for up-and-coming riders. Prior to the training, Lambert and McBride consulted with the IMG staff, who had no prior experience working with bull riders and only a basic understanding of the sport. Over a series of conference calls, Lambert and McBride shared their thoughts on each athlete — their weaknesses and injuries, as well as their unique strengths — and weighed in on what the riders need from a training program, as well as what they don’t.
McBride explains, for example, that the guys don’t need to put on more muscle. Most riders are strong but naturally slim — between 130 to 150 pounds, and no taller than 5’8” — because less body weight and a smaller frame are easier to control on a bucking bull. Injury prevention and recovery is huge, and perhaps more so than in any other sport. Bull riders suffer injuries at a rate 10.3 times greater than football players, found a University of Oklahoma College of Medicine study. (Sure enough, among these six riders there’s a history of torn ACLs, cracked ribs, concussions, torn rotator cuffs, hernias, groin injuries, broken legs, broken hips, plus the general wear and tear that comes with being a pro athlete.) The guys also need to be fast and reactive so they can counteract the bull’s movements and quickly dodge a horn or hoof. But because their event is so short, endurance isn’t a priority. “They need everything to work in eight seconds,” says McBride.
The six riders lie face-down in a row at the far end of the soccer field. Over the past 24 hours, they’ve swapped their boots and hats for gym shorts and sneakers, toured IMG’s 500-acre campus, and undergone mobility, strength and injury assessments. At the sound of “Go!” the guys jump to their feet and charge toward a set of orange cones placed 40 feet down the field. They’ve been skipping, lunging, and shuffling between the same cones all morning with good humor, sometimes bumbling through the speed and agility exercises Scott Gadeken, IMG’s head of physical conditioning, has programmed for them. IMG tries to tailor its routines to the unique challenges of each sport, and during an acceleration drill — the guys pop up from a prone position and into an all-out sprint — suddenly the riders look more natural, and move with a sense of urgency. The real-world application of this exercise is not lost on them.
“For them, we don’t really care about max speed,” explains Gadeken. “It’s not like our Combine guys, where we’re going to time them on the 40-yard dash.” If a bull rider is running, he’s been bucked and needs to get away from the bull as quickly as possible. “If we can get five better, more explosive, faster steps, it’s going to keep them safer,” Gadeken says.
Much of the programming takes this preventative approach. Unlike other athletes, bull riders can never hope to be stronger or more powerful than their 2,000-pound competitors. Throughout the week, Gadeken keeps weight training at a moderate intensity and focuses on flexibility and building stability around crucial joints like the knees, hips and, specifically, the shoulders through foam rolling, mobility drills, and dynamic stretching on the fitness center’s vibrating Power Plates. “The force they produce when that arm is whipping around,” he says. “We’re trying to work all those little muscles around the shoulder just to help keep it more stable, to get it stronger.”
Facing off against a one-ton opponent that’s been bred to literally kick your ass takes its toll on the psyche, too. When asked in a round-table discussion what percentage of their sport is mental, the riders agree on 90 percent. “Bull riding is scary. I don’t care what any of them tell ‘ya,” McBride says with a laugh. The fact that every ride the guys take could be their last is undeniable. A rider has to keep his fears in check while doing everything he can to score points: stay centered, counteract the bull’s movements, keep his own movement fluid, and, of course, hang on for at least eight seconds — a feat that even the top-ranked rider in the world accomplishes only 51 percent of the time. “The little things you think behind the chute or even in the locker room, they can alter your ride,” says Whitehorse. “You’ve got to learn how to control them in order to make big things happen.”
Which is why, between workouts, nutrition workshops, and media training, the guys spend time in the “Mind Gym,” a state-of-the art studio filled with screens and light boards that resemble video games, but are designed to train reaction time, peripheral vision, and mental focus. Andrea Wieland, IMG’s head of mental conditioning, works with two guys at a time using something called “HeartMath” technology, which measures stress through heart-rate variability. The guys watch video footage of their rides as Wieland tracks their heart rates and guides them through breathing and visualization techniques. She coaches them on how to mentally “rehearse” their rides and stay present on competition day. Later, when asked about which parts of the program he found to be the most valuable, Dirteater brings up his sessions with Wieland. “It was interesting to find out my numbers,” he says, regarding his heart rate and stress levels before, during, and after a ride. “To know where I’m at when I’m climbing on the back of a bull.”
What do better riders mean to the sport of bull riding? McBride’s answer is more pragmatic than what you might expect from a bona fide cowboy. “If they get better, it means more money for them in the long run,” he says. Better bulls and PBR’s marketing have advanced the sport — now it’s the riders’ turn to evolve. McBride sees untapped potential in all the riders, not just the six participating in the training, and the week at the academy is the first step in providing the guidance that’s often missing as a rider goes from amateur to pro. The Pueblo center, still in the early planning stages, will likely be the next.
Between now and then, it’s still up to the riders to take what they can from the week and apply it to their everyday lives. Most have already planned at least minor tweaks. Lockwood will adjust the nutrient timing of his already healthy diet, which means front-loading fast-burning, energy-boosting simple carbohydrates on event days and before workouts, and saving protein- and fat-heavy meals for recovery. Dirteater, still nagged by a repeatedly torn ACL, plans to invest in a set of NormaTec boots, which look like inflatable ski pants and reduce swelling through dynamic compression. And Whitehorse, whose at-home recovery methods begin and end with the foam roller, plans to seek out additional treatments like cupping, scraping, and massage. But McBride hopes that the biggest shift will be in the riders’ perception of themselves to what Gadeken calls the “24-hour athlete.” “Physically, this group of guys can do pretty much anything you need them to do,” he says, but they need to think of themselves as professional athletes in the weeks between events, not just during their time in the arena. Says McBride, “I think you’ll see that show up in their riding.”
The evolution seems to be underway. “I’ve always known I was a professional athlete,” says Dirteater. He’s stretched out on a table in the IMG recovery room, waiting for his cupping treatment with one of the academy’s athletic trainers. “I feel like I’m a smarter athlete now.”