Cowboy Noir

Riding horses, sucking dust and planning for the big time

Richard bought Fancy mostly with bull-riding winnings. Bull riders don't have to share the pot with anyone. Cowboys who ride borrowed horses give a quarter of their winnings to the owner. It pays to have your own horse.

So Richard continues to save his bull-riding money. A big splurge for him was buying a modest wristwatch two months ago, to reward himself for putting in a great eight seconds at an Atlanta rodeo. He wears the watch on his left wrist, just above an ever-present rubber band. The strange thing about the rubber band is that, even though he wears it every day, it has no meaning. It's not like he has a special rubber band, either -- when one breaks, he just slaps on another. He started wearing one in junior high for no reason and has kept the tradition ever since.

So far the benefits of riding have outweighed the risks. Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side. Faith's a good thing when you're straddling a Mack truck with horns.

Richard credits his mother with giving him a shot at 
the pros.
Daniel Kramer
Richard credits his mother with giving him a shot at the pros.
Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side.
Daniel Kramer
Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side.
Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side.
Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side.
Harold Minor collects up his calf…
Harold Minor collects up his calf…
…while clown Wayne Rogers dances with a bull.
…while clown Wayne Rogers dances with a bull.

"I haven't been stepped on since Easter Sunday," he says. Then he gets up to knock on a wooden coffee table.

Here's the negotiation between a rider and the bull: The rider gives a 1,700-pound savage, spastic behemoth an eight-second window to throw him off its back and stomp him on the head. In exchange, the rider gets to feel like Superman.

Richard's worst bull- riding experience was back in a high school rodeo, when he was boasting about being the best rider out there. When his bull flew the chute, Richard got hung up in the ropes and slid down the animal's side, so he was parallel to the ground. The bull ripped off Richard's protective vest and shirt and left a hoofprint on his back.

His best experience was about five years ago, at a rodeo on Houston's north side. By the time he got on his bull, he had already won in calf-roping. Eight seconds later, when he jumped off the bull, he knew he'd killed in that event, too. He threw his hat down and did a little dance -- the bull was still running around, but he didn't care. And neither did 16-year-old Demetrie Harrison, who hopped the fence, pulled Richard's hat down over her eyes, and danced toward him as an angry bull thrashed around the ring. Richard and Harrison are still together.

It helps to have her support, as well as his family's. There's often a lot of camaraderie among competitors in a rodeo. But Richard's skin sometimes keeps him out of the loop. He says you get used to it after a while, that sidelong stares are just a part of being black. It's not a shock, like when he was younger.

In those days, he says, "It was like, 'Okay, welcome to the real world.' "

Back at Smitty's Cow Palace, Richard's bull thrashes toward the corner between the chute and an elevated timekeepers' station that blocks the view for those packed into the wooden bleachers.

The next part happens faster than a photo flash. You might think time stops for an eight-second bull ride, like risking your life deserves a cinematic slo-mo, but eight seconds is eight seconds.

"He just stopped," says a wide-eyed woman in the bleachers. Turns out she means the bull. She means that one second the animal's going to kick the moon, and the next second it's frozen. And then a livid Richard stomps into sight, his back to the bull, and throws his dusty gray hat to the ground. Furious about whatever happened in the corner, he seems to forget about the enraged, deadly brute behind him. And that's when the bull snaps out of the spell and charges.

Richard reacts to the crowd's collective gasp, pivoting just in time and booking for the chute while the clowns run interference. The bull busts a U at the fence and aims for the clown, who's either brave enough or dumb enough to retrieve Richard's hat. The blank-faced clown guns it toward the bleachers, the bull's horns bumping him as he hops the fence and nearly squashes a child in the front row.

Atop the timekeepers' station, Smitty announces the scores in his mesmerizing baritone: 68 points for Richard. Seven under Pink Shirt.

Tonight's performance is one Richard would like to forget. But he walked away safe, as did the other riders, and that's all he asks for in the prayer he gives before every ride. He always asks God to let the riders perform to the best of their ability and to let the bulls buck to the best of theirs. For someone so competitive and bent on the pros, it might seem like he'd throw in a little something about wanting to win, as long as he's at it. But he never does.

His explanation sounds like it could be symbolic of something greater than bull riding. Or, like wearing a rubber band for absolutely no reason, maybe it just means what it means.

"It's not a deal of winning or losing," Richard says. "You gotta ride your bull first."

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