Ford Adkins’ Pro Rodeo School
Part One: Bull Riding
Story Ingrid Edisen

 

Brian Herman makes this 88.75 point ride on the bull I Wanna be Bad to win the first round of the 2004 PBR World Finals. Bryan teamed up with Ford Adkins of Prorodeoschools.com as an instructor for the November school in Yoakum, Texas.

When Ford Adkins was a tyke of seven, riding steers in and around his hometown of Sugarland, Texas, he never dreamed he’d grow up to become a teacher of the rodeo arts. But he did.

Since 2002, Adkins has operated a series of clinics that offer real hands on experience and coaching in bull/steer riding, bareback riding and saddle bronc, all while still managing to still compete on the pro circuit.

His favorite specialty is bareback bronc. His accolades are twice High School State Champion in bareback bronc, at the National High School Finals Rodeo he won the top four National Cowboy Hall of Fame Award. Then he went on to be named Rookie of the Year (’84) in the PRCA (Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association). He’s competed in twenty different circuit finals and rodeo association finals, including the PRCA and Dodge National Circuit Finals. Although he offers his own viewpoint in the schooling sessions, he also brings in other professional competitors to teach aspiring rodeo athletes what it takes to rise to the top.

The locations of the sessions rotate around the state, wherever he can arrange for a stock contractor to meet with him at a given arena on a certain weekend. Centerville, Texas, with its huge indoor arena often serves as his home base, though.
I attended one schooling session taught by himself and Brian Herman, who is a card-carrying member of the PBR (Pro Bull Rider). Held in Yoakum, TX, just after Thanksgiving, the two men first gave an orientation presentation that pulled no punches. Although most of the students were young men either in their late teens or early twenties, one fellow was approximately ten and just as gutsy as his older compatriots. To date, Adkins has had some students who have traveled from the East Coast and New England to attend his clinics.

At the front of the “classroom” which actually was a part of the show barn of the Yoakum City Park, were several implements that most of us would associate with gym class. There was a balance beam, three small platforms of various sizes that looked like vaulting aids, a seesaw type device one could stand on, a balance ball, weight bar and of course a bucking machine, a manual one. And draped about on the rails that lined the building were ropes, vests, helmets, Adkins also had several boxes with him all containing various specialized tools and devices to aid the students, such as hammers, pliers, baling wire. He also had a video monitor set up.

Herman and Adkins spoke candidly about their sport/passion, which can become a way of life for its participants. They stressed that the mental aspect was just as important as being physically fit—but the level of fitness they went on to describe was “ultra fit.” And later, after watching a video of the 2004 bull riding finals held in Las Vegas (with a million dollar purse to the winner, I might add) and learning that one contestant did 2,000 abs a day, perhaps a better way to describe the fitness level is “out of this world,” or as “ultra athletes.” Adkins later noted that the top fifty rodeo riders make roughly a half a million dollars a year nowadays. Both Herman and Adkins looked as trim and strong as any Marine in full training. Neither had an ounce of fat on them. Herman’s neck drops down into a set of muscular shoulders. He is a well-respected pro bull rider often seen on television and a multiple PBR (Pro Bull Rider) winner and has qualified for the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) in Las Vegas. Two years ago he was ranked 46th in the nation, he said, but had started out an even more rigorous physical fitness training program. His ranking bumped to as high as fifth this past year and he finished out ranked at 14th nationwide. Pretty good for a thirty-four year-old that “they said was washed up,” he said with a wry grin. He explained he’d never broken a bone in his sport(!). The students themselves, though younger than the instructors all looked as if they’d played football during their off hours, and not in jest. I got the impression that the students had already done some bull riding on their own. One fellow admitted that he’d been riding bulls for eight or nine years and wanted to “start fresh” and get solid instruction and that was why he was attending the school. (In fact, I believe later when the school moved to actual live bull riding, this same fellow, when he rode his first bull of the day, was bucked off after a few seconds, then bounced up off the ground, air punching and triumphantly whooping that it was the best he’d ever done. He felt triumphant because he was getting a better handle on the whole concept.)

The “teachers” explained that their goal that weekend was to instill basic foundation concepts. Often a rider took a fall

Ford assisting students with rope.

simply because he failed to heed these key items. Herman said that the fancy tricks and moves could come later. One concept was that of “the post.” Adkins explained several times that to fall back onto your pants pockets was anathema to bull riding. A rider needed to sit up, keep his sternum raised and keep his spine erect and maintain a posture over the point where one’s hand was wrapped into the girth rope (the handgrip area being referred to as “the post”). This girth rope reminded me of a vaulter’s surcingle and the riders buy their own ropes for competition. Later, just prior to mounting on a bull, I would see riders apply resin to them to help them get a good grip. They’d have the ropes tied around a rail and apply the resin much like one would see an old fashioned barber sharpening and cleaning his blade on a razor strap. These ropes cost anywhere from $150 to $350, Adkins told me. A rider should allow his pelvis to go with the shoulders of the bull. If the bull twisted and turned and dropped a shoulder, the rider was advised to put some weight on his inside leg and allow his pelvis to dip with the turn, Herman advised. But the free hand of the rider would help compensate for balance challenges. Even how a rider vaulted off a bull was important. You go where your head goes, Adkins counseled. Be aggressive even in your dismount.

Much of riding a bull successfully has to do with muscle memory, Adkins explained. He knows of one competitor who keeps a bucking machine in his living room and simply gets on it freestyle, sans rope, to build his muscle memory.
During the part of the school in which the students were allowed to ride the bucking machine, Herman and Adkins served much as ballet masters-critiquing form and adjusting chests, shoulders and legs.

The two men spent at least half-an-hour helping the students adjust and fine-tune their spurs. Herman described the spurs as acting like one’s shock absorbers and needing to have a bit of play in them. You don’t want your spurs to be rigid, as that’ll cause your feet to bounce off the sides of the bull, he explained. And I also heard Herman tell one student that he needed to have boots with soft tops on them as the creasing that occurred during a ride would dig into the man’s leg.
Both of them noted that helmets are becoming more de rigeur in the sport. Adkins said the state-of-the-art helmet costs $400 and is made of titanium. A bull can step on it without causing injury to the contestant. I was surprised to see later that helmets in this sport included face guards unlike equestrian ones. Vests are already commonly used by pros as they dissipate the force of a bull’s hoof strike.

Adkins read from a large book of notes and quickly ticked off key items-such as the necessity to keep mental focus and to tune out whatever goes on in a rider’s personal life once he gets into the chute to start a ride. Be aggressive, he counseled. He even suggested that should contestants take to the road and travel the rodeo circuit, that they be very selective in who their traveling partners might be. You’re going to end up knowing your traveling partner as well as you know your wife, he warned. It’s best to go with one other person that you can trust implicitly, he said. If you can’t find someone like that, then better to travel alone. Herman and Adkins agreed that once on the circuit, a rider might only be home roughly Sunday through Wednesday and then on the road again each week. In the past year, Adkins still managed to ride in thirty rodeos while maintaining his teaching schedule. Customarily he makes seventy-five rodeos annually.

Herman said a professional rider is thinking all the time about his sport and when not working out, he’s mentally replaying past rides or gearing up for the next set. Both men agreed that a professional would be engaged in the sport either mentally or physically eight to ten hours a day.

After lunch, the class was ushered outside to the sixty-odd head of bulls sequestered in pens. The weather was perfect for the event, sunny and cool. In short order a sidewall of panels was erected so that only half of the arena would be used. Then the fun began. All of the students paid rapt attention to every word and direction Herman and Adkins gave them. The level of entranced focus was incredible.

Also in the ring were two mounted men and two “bull fighters” (as Adkins referred to them) or what is in the parlance, rodeo clowns. These four helpers would divert the bulls away from the rider once the rider had either fallen off or dismounted on his own. The goal would be for an eight-second ride, of course. A few of the students made that quota.
The bull handlers certainly knew their stock. Adkins would make special requests for “easy bulls” and three would be lined up and secured into competition turn out chutes quickly. Then, Herman and Adkins spent a long time showing each student the correct way to get mounted up and strapped in. The youngest student was allowed to ride smaller steers. About three men “manned” the turn out gate and would pull the final rope to open the chute so that the rider/student could begin his run. Everyone knew how to get out of the way of the bull as it cavorted about once it was set free.

Adkins would stand on top of the chute, still coaching from the sidelines, “REACH! REACH!” he’d yell out, reminding the rider of one of the primary rules of bull riding. What he meant by that was that the rider should use his one free hand as a balance aid and not allow it to drop behind his chest or below his waist if he could help it, but rather keep it up in the air, popping forward in direct opposition to each dip that the massive bull would make as it went down with each buck.

One fellow on the sidelines I spoke to had worked for eight years as a professional rodeo clown. He pointed to one cluster of bulls and explained they probably weighed 600-800 pounds each and then turned to select a much larger animal and said it probably hit the scales at about 1100 pounds. He said he had known of some bucking bulls on the circuit that sold for $10,000 to $11,000. (My farrier later told me that he’s even heard of pro bucking bulls going for $50,000 to $60,000.) Although he is now dead, the famous bucking bull Bodacious still commands a very healthy price for frozen straws of his semen, Adkins said.

Adkins told me that bucking stock, both equine and bovine, are nowadays often bred specifically for that. Some of them like to buck, he said simply. The horses might be a bit asocial, he noted, and they had bloodlines for the proclivity to buck.

I looked around and besides the approximately ten man “pit crew” who served as the turn out coaches for each student, a variety of other folks had come to watch the impromptu rodeo-in fact, there were about fifty observers. In real practice, Adkins observed, the saying goes that “it takes five men to ‘buck’ a horse.” Here, he refers to the pit crews found in actual professional rodeos.

After a particularly good ride, we’d all clap in spontaneous agreement. Each student jumped up after hitting the ground, flush with excitement and adrenaline. It didn’t matter if they gotten bucked off or had vaulted off on their own, they were pumped up regardless. I guess bull riding sort of does that to you.

Pro Rodeo Schools and Ford Adkins can be contacted as follows: prorodeoschools.com Ford Adkins; 197 Charbra, Onalaska, TX 77360; (936) 646-4778. His email address is Ford@prorodeoschools.com.

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