It has the highest rate of injury of any rodeo sport and accounts for about half of all traumatic injuries to rodeo contestants. It’s not a matter of if you get hurt, but when.
But those stats don’t stop SaVannah Tallent, 21, from pursuing a career in bull riding. “There’s just something about bucking horses that stirs up my soul,” she says. “I can’t ignore it.”
The North Carolina native has dreamed of riding bulls since age 5, but faced firm pushback from her community, who didn’t believe it was an appropriate sport for girls. And though she still hasn’t stayed on a bull for a full eight seconds – the required time for professional riders – she’s well on her way.
Below, Tallent discusses the required garb, the importance of self-esteem, and the scariest part of being charged at head-on. And no, it’s nothing like riding a mechanical bull.
Hometown: I don’t have one. I was born in North Carolina, but grew up on cattle ranches across Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
Graduated from: Majored in biology/chemistry at Tulsa Community College in Tulsa, Okla., but never finished.
In the industry for: Mentally, since age 5. Physically, just over a year.
Previous jobs: Ranch hand, cowhand, horse buster
How your aspiration began: When I was 5, my older brother, then 6 ½, rode a Holstein calf for the first time. I wanted to try, and [the ranch hands] told me I couldn’t because I was a girl. From then on, I watched bull riding on TV every chance I got and begged to go to rodeos.
How you made it a reality: I didn’t know a soul who rode bulls, which made things more difficult to get started. When my family moved from Georgia to Oklahoma, I attended a one-day clinic called the Monster Bull, where I rode for the first time. An ex-bull rider I met there, Jocelyn Martin, helped me get more involved.
Time required to stay on bull: 8 seconds.
Your record: I haven’t made it to 8 yet, but I’m practicing.
How do you “win”? Two judges score the bull and rider separately. The bull is scored on how well he bucks, on a scale of 1 to 25. The rider is scored on how well he rides, also on a scale of 1 to 25. Those scores are added for the final score.
Bull-riding attire: In addition to normal jeans and Western shirts, we’re required to wear a protective vest, protective mouthpiece, riding gloves, and boots with bull-riding spurs. I also choose to wear a helmet.
How do you prepare for a ride? I stretch out my rope and knot it. Then, with someone spotting me, I’ll coax my way on top of the bull and set my rope atop the bull’s shoulders. I’ll tighten it up and wrap the tail of the rope around my hand, get into position, and put my free hand in the air. At your nod, they open the gate and the bull comes out. After eight seconds, the buzzer goes off.
Do you feel intimidated as a female in the sport? Bull riding is definitely male-dominated, but the sport isn’t man against man; it’s man against bull. That bull doesn’t care if you’re male, female, or a monkey – he’s still going to buck just as hard.
Are the bulls trained? Yes. They’re trained to buck, just as dogs are trained to sit.
Has one ever charged you? On the ranch and in the arena! Cows will do it, too. Bullfighters are in the pen to distract the bull while you’re getting off – basically, to save your life.
Best part of your job: That moment right before you nod your head for the ride to begin.
What’s going through your head at that moment? I picture the movements in my head, but I stay pretty still and quiet. I’ve never been one to get psyched up.
Most important quality in a bull rider: A can-do attitude. It’s part physical and part mental.
Does it resemble riding a mechanical bull? No! A mechanical bull doesn’t have the forward movement like a real bull does. And you never get stepped on by a machine.
Are the bulls treated cruelly? Just like there are bad dog owners, there can be bad stock contractors. But to most contractors, the bulls are their babies – their pride and joys. You can walk right up and pet some bulls, although I would not recommend that.
Long-term goals: To ride bulls, saddle broncs, and do bareback riding. There’s just something about bucking horses that stirs up my soul – I can’t ignore it. I hope to have quite a few titles under my belt, and to be teaching and helping other girls who want to ride.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. This profession doesn’t necessarily require a college degree. Instead, it takes years of experience you can’t get in a building or online somewhere. Start practicing by making a rodeo bull dummy to perfect your form.
2. Join an association, even if you’re not pursuing bull riding as a career. Two important ones in the industry include Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR) and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
3. Ladies: don’t listen to the nay-sayers. You can do anything as long as you’ve got the heart, the try, and the willingness to put forth the effort. Sometimes, you’ve got to believe in yourself before others can believe in you.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of SaVannah Tallent.
Check out other No Joe Schmo adventurers:
- Jenny Litz saves the rainforest in Ecuador
- Noah Wilson-Rich installs beehives across Massachusetts
- Matt Sacco rules the 40-foot ropes course at Cayuga Nature Center