seeing daylight

words: phil freeman

photography: nils ericson

The Professional Bull Riders show up once a year to Madison Square Garden and attract massive crowds—it may seem an unlikely draw in New York City, but the thrill of watching rampaging animals bucking stoic cowboys off their backs is easy to understand, even in the middle of Manhattan. Gigantic bulls, barely under control while contained in their cramped chutes, launch across the dirt and leap impossibly high into the air as they try to send their riders flying.

The PBR national tour has been coming to Madison Square Garden for 10 years. Veteran riders like Shane Proctor, J.B. Mauney, and Fabiano Vieira, who’ve been on the circuit for more than a decade, as well as relative newcomers like Paulo Lima, who eventually won the three-day tournament, know how to get the crowd revved up. Their safety gear (many wear helmets, but some still sport cowboy hats) can make them hard to tell apart from a distance, but individual style always comes through, keeping fans rooting for their favorites.

Bull riding seems simple on the surface: stay on or get thrown off. But the rider must stay on for eight seconds, with one hand on the rope and the other in the air, for the ride to qualify. Once that baseline is established, the judges award up to 100 points: half to the rider and half to the bull, despite the fact that the bull may not even know he’s in a contest. Every rider does the same basic moves; it’s how stylishly they’re performed that counts.

PBR riders travel the country from show to show, but bulls are brought in by regional stock contractors, who supply dozens of animals for each event. Some of them have impressive stats of their own, like Air Time, who has bucked off 95 percent of the riders who’ve climbed on his back in his four-year “career.” At an average of 1,500 pounds, the bulls bound and spin in midair, hurling riders away and then jogging around the arena as a cowboy on horseback follows, ready to lasso them if they don’t return to the stalls quickly enough on their own.

Once a rider is bucked off, he’s got to get away from the bull as quickly as possible—the likelihood of being kicked, stomped, or gored is high. That’s where the bullfighters come in. Working in teams of three, they flank the animal in a triangular formation, getting into each bull’s sightline to distract him while the rider climbs the fence to safety. Riders only face two or three bulls per night, but the bullfighters work the entire show.