Patriotism and thrills abound at Diamond W Western Wear’s 8th annual Bullriding Championship
Buddy Gulden’s rides were exhilarating right out of the chute. The bulls bucked violently, kicking hind legs high into the air while simultaneously spinning hard in all directions, and Gulden did his best to maintain balance—sometimes being thrown hard to the dirt, other times landing with a gymnast’s grace.
Nobody in the packed Silver Dollar fairgrounds audience knew it, but this bull riding championship was one of the most important in Gulden’s long career. He wanted to win it more than he’d ever wanted to win before, and all because of a little boy.
The Diamond W. Western Wear National Bullriding Championship Finals began Friday, Sept. 20, with spectators facing clear canyons and a low moon set against wisps of purple sky. Patriotic fervor abounded from the start, with members of the armed forces involved in an elaborate formal ceremony to honor World War II veteran and former bull rider Roy Ford. But there was another, equally moving ceremony beforehand when guests Star for a Night Foundation brought homeless and terminally ill children to the spotlight to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
One blond-haired boy, 6-year-old Levi Johnson, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, was so enamored with the cowboys that he wandered the lot afterwards collecting their autographs.
There he came across the 43-year-old Gulden of Browns Valley, Calif., a successful rider who is also an anomaly in the world of bull riding. Most riders retire by age 30, but Gulden has been at it for over 20 years. His very presence at the event, said its founder, Diamond W owner David Halimi, insured that certain young riders would show up.
Gulden gladly gave his autograph to the charming little boy, who had little idea of the effect he had on the seasoned veteran. But others saw it.
“It was one of the most amazing things,” said Halimi. “After Buddy met the boy he was so moved that he said he had never wanted to win a championship so badly in his career as he did tonight—and that if he won, he was going to give the gold buckle to Levi.”
If you want to see what a modern cowboy is like, you need look no further than Chico’s own annual bull riding championship. It’s a non-sanctioned, open pro event that working cowboys across the country attend because it’s got the two things circuit riders look for most: good bulls and good money.
Halimi has watched his competition grow over the last eight years into a busy attraction, one of which the Chico Chamber of Commerce says the city is “very proud.” The event is a non-sanctioned championship so that local riders, both amateur and veterans, can compete against “the big dogs,” as Halimi calls them, without the need for membership in any pro organization. He also emphasized that none of the animals receive any harsh treatment—that they were considered “highly prized bulls” and treated like royalty.
“They’re pampered,” one rider said before the event. “They get treated better than the cowboys do around here.”
When you see the bulls up close, you understand how much nerve it takes to ride one. Just stand near these enormous creatures, each weighing more than a ton, and hear them chortle like exhaust from a bus or the loud crack of steel as they kick the gates, and you’re a believer. If a bull catches you approaching too closely it will likely turn, square off and paw the ground, lowering its head and shooting a hard, direct glare.
This year’s event featured an especially rare participant: 14-year-old Kelsey Anderson, a small-built Pleasant Valley High cheerleader and the only female in the competition. The quietly proud Anderson grew up around animals in 4-H clubs and seemed comfortable in a rodeo setting. She’d ridden steers only once before and was intent on winning her own shiny belt buckle this time out.
The competition was divided into four categories: the little kids rode sheep, the 7- to 10-year-olds rode calves, 16-and-under teens rode steers, and the rest got the bulls. Anderson wanted a win so badly that she’d hop on a steer over 10 times her weight just to show her friends, mostly teenaged boys who have been in the competition, that she could do it.
“Last time in Gridley I didn’t dig in enough with my heels,” she explained. “You have to watch the head and really focus on balance and your legwork.”
Like the other cowboys, Anderson wore a Kevlar vest, which is designed to keep the horns from piercing her skin. If she won, she said, she had someone in mind to shine her buckle.
Cowboys certainly make it look easy, but there’s always the possibility of something going wrong. Usually it happens when a cowboy loses balance and comes off an animal wrong and is then stomped by the bull. Statistics show the most common injuries for bull riders are head concussions, shoulder damage and groin injuries. As in auto racing, death is a risk every time out. Not surprisingly, the organizations and participants involved in bull riding do not publicize these tragedies. But they do occur every year.
These particular Chico cowboys (and girl) were competing for the chance at $10,000 in cash and a handsome, diamond-studded gold belt buckle worth another five grand.
On Friday night the riders drew numbers that corresponded to certain bulls, so nobody knew beforehand which animal he or she would get. Once a rider stayed on for the eight-second minimum for a score, two judges then evaluated the ride by scoring both the rider and the bull (50 points each) on such things as the rider’s form and skill, how much fight was in the bull, and the duration of the ride. If a rider did everything right but had drawn a passive bull, he was issued a re-ride.
Walking outside the pen where groups of dusty cowboys checked their ropes and harnesses, I met Cody McKee, a 31-year-old rider from Grand Terrace, Calif., who had just ridden a bull named Frenchy. McKee was a friendly guy who took valuable time out from preparing for his next go-around to talk about life as a circuit rider.
It’s true that many cowboys grew up around animals and feel at home in this setting, he told me, but most of the riders at an event like this have day jobs. They consult schedules and try to make it to weekend competitions as a means to bring in extra cash, usually an average of a couple hundred bucks.
McKee, who normally works for Old Dominion Freight Line, has a limiting physical disadvantage. His right arm is entirely paralyzed by cerebral palsy. But he doesn’t let it slow him down a bit.
I asked him about some common rumors around bull riding: Do people really use suicide knots, which are tied so as to make it virtually impossible to remove the hand? “Yes they do,” he told me, “sometimes.”
And do organizers actually tie something around a bull’s testicles to make him feistier? “You’re thinking of the flank that is tied more around a bull’s mid-section,” he replied. “They’re very sensitive in that area, so it doesn’t take much. But if a bull doesn’t want to move, there’s nothing in this world a man can do to move him.”
McKee told me that sometimes the rodeos can have a territorial aspect to them, with so many riders coming from different parts of the country. California tends to have its NorCal and SoCal cowboys, who’ve been known to clash at events over issues of pride.
“You best watch what you say back here,” he warned. “Especially if you don’t know somebody.”
McKee hoped he could have enough small wins to get seriously involved with the pro circuit, where he could pursue his ultimate goal.
“I guarantee a world championship,” he said with a dead-serious look. “You can tell people that.”
Both nights of this year’s bull riding championship proved to be great successes, Halimi said later, with Saturday night a complete sellout of 4,500 spectators. Events like Clown Poker, which took spectators and sat them at a poker table in the arena—the last one to run when being charged by a bull was the winner—were extremely popular with fans. Event tempos remained upbeat both nights, with announcers and the clown artists keeping the crowd consistently entertained between rides.
Although Cody McKee didn’t end up winning his event and the young PV cheerleader Kelsey Anderson also missed winning her first buckle in the steer competition, the wily veteran Gulden bucked the odds yet again and walked away overall champ with impressive wins of $500 in the Long Go (qualifying runs) and $6,000 in the Short Go (the finals).
Later, as tears reportedly welled in his eyes, he presented little Levi with the fancy buckle during the final trophy presentation. It was a defining moment of the weekend that sent many involved home with a warm feeling—especially one thrilled little boy who slept that night with his gift. One can only assume the resplendence of that shiny golden buckle found its way into his dreams, a place where real cowboys like Buddy Gulden undoubtedly still roam.