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The short, well-built cowboy with the Howdy Doody smile is doing the talking, words pouring out like milk from an overturned pail. Don Gay, 28, could have been a teacher, a preacher or a salesman had he not become the bull rider who has won seven world championships in the past eight years, and the image of the cowboy as a taciturn loner is only one of many stereotypes he destroys. He is teaching now at his two-day bull-riding school in Mesquite, Texas, his hometown, and 20 students shyly edge closer so as not to miss a word.
"Jim Shoulders used to say that all there is to bull riding is to put one leg on each side of the bull and make an ugly face for eight seconds," Gay tells them. "It's no more complicated than that. All you want to think about is squeeze and pull, squeeze and pull. Squeeze with your legs and pull on that rope."
Some of the words that follow are lost in the racket of the bulls, waiting, angry, in their chutes. The bells suspended from the bull ropes around their girths clang ominously. One bull kicks the wooden gate behind it with awful power; another slams its horns against the iron pipes of the chute as it tries to turn around. These are, primarily, young bulls, unaccustomed to being run in and out of the bucking chutes, and their nervousness is contagious.
It's shared by many of the young cowboys, who've never been on a full-grown bull before; their faces are taut with a combination of fear and transparent bravado. One face, only 17 years old, is freckled; one is hard; one is pockmarked: one is not taut, but jowly and loose with nothing but fear. The cowboys have come from as far away as Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. Some are high school champions; some are just starting out and have been told by their parents that if they're going to be so god-awful stupid as to ride bulls, they're damn well going to learn how to ride from the very best; at least one is here because he's not making any money rodeoing back home, and if there is one man who can teach him how to make some money riding bulls, it's Donnie Gay.
Gay climbs into one of the chutes and gently kneels on a black bull's back, supporting himself with a hand on either side. "Let him know you're coming first, then raise your butt up and ease yourself on him," he says. "They're real nervous. They're as scared as you are. If you accidentally spur him inside the chute, he'll jump and kick inside." For a moment the group hopes that Gay will go ahead and ride this one, but Gay, who rides more than 200 bulls a year at rodeos, makes it a rule not to put on any exhibitions, not even for his own school.
Gay hoists himself out of the chute and selects a student with some riding experience to go first. This rider, the one with the hard face, gets on a black bull as Gay has shown him, sitting far back toward the rump so that he has room to work with his rigging. He heats up the rosin on the bull rope by running his hand up and down the braided hemp, then lays his left hand against the bull's broad back, palm up. He's wearing a leather glove tied at the wrist with a thong, the palm caked with rosin, and the bull rope is tightened around his hand by one of the cowboys standing above the chute. When the rope is nearly as tight as the rider can bear, he makes a fist around the wrap, tucking his fingertips into the fist with his free hand, and pounds the fist closed.
"After you get your wrap, hold on to that chute gate with your free hand; that's your escape," Gay tells him. The cowboy doesn't need to be told. Escape is very much on everyone's mind, including the bull's; the animal is furiously slamming its weight against the side of the chute. His breathing sounds like a working bellows.
Everything is set, and the cowboy moves up over the bull so he's nearly sitting on his hand. He pulls his hat down. "O.K.!" he yells. The bull, startled by the sound of the cowboy's voice, looks back. As a result, when the gate on one side of the bull swings open, the bull sort of backs out, nearly scraping the rider off against the gatepost. The cowboy stays with it until Gay yells at him to bail out, which he does properly by jumping off "into" his hand—to the left for a rider holding the rope with his left hand. This prevents the hand from getting hung up in the bull rope—the greatest fear for a bull rider, because unlike a bucking horse, a bull will attack a man if given a chance. The cowboy returns to the group, hoping for praise, but Gay merely tells him, "Don't say 'O.K.' in there. Just nod when you're ready to ride."
Much of what Gay tells the students this first morning is concerned with safety, tricks to stay out of trouble and tricks to escape when, inevitably, you have to. That in itself is worth 10 times the $200 the students have paid to be here. For example: Never jump off a bull that has come to a halt; he'll turn around and gore you before you hit the ground. If you do hang up in the bull rope, stay on your feet and as close to the bull as you can get; if you try to pull away, the bull will jerk you off your feet and try to trample you.