A Cowboy swigging Evian before jumping on the back of an angry bull is not exactly a stereotype. Neither is a bullrider chatting on a cellular phone as he cinches his shock-absorbing safety vest.
Both sights are common at the clinics taught by the Custer brothers of Wickenburg, Ariz., practitioners of what has come to be known as the new rodeo. Cody, 31, Danny, 29, and JimBob, 27, all well-known figures on the pro rodeo circuit, are converts to the idea that riding bulls and broncs is dangerous enough even with good training and protective gear.
Last year they put their ideas into practice by forming Custer Brothers Way Out West, Inc., which produces bullriding competitions and runs clinics all over the West that emphasize safe riding. "Lots of kids want to ride bulls and don't even think about safety until they're in the chute," says Cody, the 1992 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association's world bullriding champion. "They need instruction from somebody who's lived it, because only a handful of people care if you leave under your own power or on a stretcher."
The Custers have come to their belief in safety the hard way. Four years ago Danny was hit by a bull's horn and suffered fractures of his left cheek and eye socket. He needed surgery to put in plates and pins to hold the bones of his face together. He returned to bullriding competition four months after the injury, but he won't compete without a hard plastic helmet and face mask similar to those worn by hockey players.
In the late 1980s, after Cody saw another cowboy get popped in the bottom of the chin by an angry bull, resulting in about $7,000 worth of dental work, he started using a protective mouthpiece like those worn by football players.
Cody and Jim Bob were also among the first rodeo stars to make leather-covered polyurethane vests part of their everyday gear, in early 1993. Cody began wearing a vest not because of an injury but because he felt he needed more padding. "My insurance deductible is too high not to wear it," he says. The Custers' decision to put safety first drew a few wisecracks from the old-timers, but as far as JimBob is concerned, smart is better than tough.
"Just the other night in Colorado, a bull jerked me down and stepped on my back," says JimBob, a three-time saddle-bronc champion of the PRCA Turquoise Circuit, which encompasses Arizona and New Mexico. "It left a little mark on me is all. If I hadn't been wearing a vest I might be out two weeks. That's two weeks when I could be riding and paying my bills."
But the consequences can be far worse than lost income. An extreme example, and one that started the trend toward safety gear, occurred at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in 1989, when Lane Frost was stomped by a bull and killed. Frost had been a world bullriding champion and the most popular cowboy around.
His traveling partner, Cody Lambert, was so shaken by the tragedy that he designed the safety vests now used by many rodeo cowboys. Frost's story was the subject of the 1994 feature film 8 Seconds, starring Luke Perry as Frost and Stephen Baldwin as Tuff Hedeman, Frost's buddy and fellow rodeo star.
"The movie 8 Seconds really increased the glamour level of the sport," says Cody Custer, who was Perry's stunt double in the film. "But it also increased the number of places where you can pay $15 and just get on a bull, and that's one reason we do these schools."