On the surface bull riding reminds me of free style jazz: that chaotic, dense kind of music heard resonating in the distance on a Saturday night out in Soho. To the untrained ear, nothing but fire, fury and syncopated rhythm, but within the moments of dissonance there is a harmony and a discipline, it is these elements that are shared in bull riding, the rider and bull working together in a chaotic fusion of free expression.
My initial attraction to bull riding came not from the sport itself, but instead an intrigue with the willingness to risk life for 8 seconds of glory. A need to understand the mindset of these riders led to hours spent watching YouTube clips, Chloé Zhao’s films, and ultimately crescendoed to a 24-hour flight and a 6 hour drive to the remote town of Carrieton, South Australia, where I came to witness first hand the world I’d been so captivated by.
Bull riders are not the athletes you know: dusty, sun-beaten and death-defying but equipped with the discipline, rhythm and finesse of a dancer. It’s a strange dance between a bull and its rider – they come from different schools. The bull moves: instinctive, erratic, unpredictable. His rider: measured, practiced, reactive – each movement a calculation worth his life.
These moments look aggressive and primal but beneath the turmoil there is a delicate game of inches being played. It feels like the most dangerous dance on earth, made up of counter moves, reaction times and muscle memory. As the bull takes its first steps the rider tunes into the rhythm of his partner’s 2000lb weight, hanging on with every buck, sliding with every step and delivering a countermove. Fluid actions are born from what looks like a sort of stilted waltz or car crash…I’m not sure which.
Those encircling the arena might mistake this dance for a fight, some kind of high energy battle. Instead it’s a rhythmic dual, each party drawing on their discipline and sportsmanship with a respect for the land on which they dance and the partner with whom they keep in time until one outshines the other.