BURBANK, Ohio – Charis Thorsell sinks into a wicker rocker on her parents’ wraparound porch, tucking her guitar with the dolphins on it under her elbow.
She strums slowly at first, pushes to recall the chords, taps her leopard-printed flip flops on the deck.
Her southern drawl explodes into one of her father’s favorite songs.
Truckin’ on down the road
Headed to the next show
Haulin’ to the next event and your body’s feelin’ spent
With a strong blood line
They’ll be buckin’ in no time
Hang on, hang on, this bull can get it on …
Denny and Eileen Thorsell absorb the sights and sounds they’re treated to only so often, when Charis comes from Texas to visit and entertain.
Well they’re bred to buck
And you’re ridin’ to win
At least you’re tryin’ in the spin that you’re in
And the ranker they rock
The more you can’t stop
Bred to buck, born to ride, let’s get it on …
Denny smiles from ear to ear.
His little girl is a female Chris LeDoux of sorts, writing and singing about bulls and flanks and rodeo stars.
Her words reflect his everyday life at Creek Bend Ranch.
* * *
A camouflage-painted Kubota cart zooms across the property, Denny driving with one hand and holding his straw cowboy hat on with the other.
About a dozen bulls roam in the pasture, grazing on feed laid out for them. They barely notice him pull up.
Thorsell points to one; that’s BellDinger, he says. That black and white one there, with the dust on his back, that’s Cowboy Slinger. There’s Mouse, and HatRack, Make Ya Famous, Red Bone and Tater Tot.
From a distance he identifies each colorful bull, and rattles off statistics and family lineages.
The bulls stomp across dusty patches in the pasture, kicking dust and throwing their horned heads toward one another.
“They’re pretty, aren’t they?”
* * *
Rodeo bulls are their own breed, a mutt variety that are mated and matched with only one purpose: to create a bull that will kick and buck its way out of a rodeo chute.
Denny’s son, Shawn, says 90 percent of the breed has Brahman in them somewhere, and just as many carry mixed genetics called Plummer, named after an Oklahoma breeder who promoted the breed.
They’re red or tan, spotted or black and white brindled or any combination of colors. And most of them have horns.
Now, the rodeo stars are their own recognized breed, complete with DNA testing and registration papers issued by the American Bucking Bull Inc.
“There are bulls that don’t have any real breeding behind them – they’re really mutts – but they buck like crazy. If you don’t know their bloodline, how will you know how to make more of them?” Denny says.
And as a breeder, that’s his No. 1 goal: To breed and sell bulls that buck aggressively, ones that will make the pro rodeo circuit and become stars just as much as the cowboys who try for an 8-second ride.
* * *
Denny Thorsell grew up smack dab in the middle of Cleveland, near the city zoo, and credits living there for his love of animals.
“They didn’t have all those fences back then, and we’d go down the hill and right into the zoo,” he said. At age 12 he led ponies in the petting zoo for 25 cents an hour, and the next summer was promoted to head pony boy.
At 14, he bought his own horse. That, he says, was the beginning of his western upbringing.
Thorsell also has memories of accompanying his grandmother to concerts at Severance Hall in the city. While they waited for streetcars, he’d slip into the drugstore and stare at copies of Western Horseman magazine. He yearned to live like the cowboys he saw in the photos.
One issue featured Pine Johnson, a horse trainer at one of the largest ranches in Texas, even today, Thorsell says. That issue made an indelible mark on the young man, and before he was even 16, he’d written a letter to Mr. Johnson asking him for a job.
When he got a reply with an offer, he threatened his parents: Either you allow me to go, or I’m running away.
Denny Thorsell finished his high school coursework by correspondence from Fort Worth, Texas.
* * *
Before Shawn Thorsell was 16 years old, some guys who worked for his father – training cutting horses and managing the cattle they used to practice with – would take him to weekend rodeos.
For months, Denny and his wife, Eileen, were clueless that those men were signing the papers that gave the OK for Shawn to climb atop the bulls and try for an 8-second ride.
The night they found out Shawn was practicing as a rodeo bullrider, he held on until well after the buzzer sounded at the Wellington High School rodeo.
It was his first successful ride.
Eileen was fearful. Denny was excited.
They realized if they were going to support their son’s newest hobby, they needed a chute, and flank straps, and all the gear that goes along with rodeoing.
But mostly, they needed bulls.
Denny and Shawn started their rotation at sale barns all over northeastern Ohio, buying bulls, taking them home to buck for a short while, and then bringing them back to sell.
“If it was a bull, we bought it,” Denny admits.
“But they never lasted. They were worthless for what we were doing. We knew cattle, just not bucking bulls.”
Shawn graduated high school – they rode bulls at his party – and got a scholarship to Oklahoma State to be on its rodeo team.
In the meantime, Denny figured out his herd of Longhorn cattle were good for working cutting horses but less than optimal for bullriding.
He made contacts with some of the rodeo circuit’s top stock contractors and started his second career as a bucking bull breeder.
* * *
Lessons learned with the horse business carried over to the cattle.
“Cheap don’t work. You have to have good genetics,” Denny says. And he wanted the best genetics he could afford.
Over the years, the Thorsells have upgraded a bull at a time, selling their weakest animal and putting the proceeds into buying a better one.
Denny says nowadays they’re at the point they’ve got a strong herd built, and have a tougher time identifying a weak bull to sell.
Their breeding program has yielded bulls that have gone on the Professional Bull Riders tour for the past handful of years. Those bulls’ names – like 3X Gator and Freightliner – are as commonplace in some fans’ vocabulary as the names of the cowboys who ride them, Thorsell said.
But the real focus is the female, Shawn Thorsell says.
“Without a good female, you can’t raise good bulls. The female is 60, 70, 80 percent of what you get,” he says.
* * *
The Thorsells have been in the bucking bull business for just more than 10 years now, and have built a herd of 200 cows, calves and bulls on the ranch here in Ohio and another in Oklahoma.
They say raising cattle like they do is “a great new cottage industry for farmers all over the country.” The catch is having the right equipment to handle them.
“They’re fairly easy to handle in the right facility. When they’re alone they can get aggressive, and you want that, but you want a bull that can stand quiet in the chute and think about what to do next,” Denny says.
What it does next is buck and kick as hard as it can, trying to get that flank strap loosened from its back.
The strap, Shawn explains, doesn’t hurt the bull, but merely gives it a reason to kick.
“It goes along their sides and isn’t tight. It’s just a feel thing and enhances their kick. They want it off,” Shawn says.
Not every bull will buck, and you can’t make one do it if he doesn’t want to, Denny says.
The Thorsells put a dummy rider on each bull in their herd the fall of its yearling year, and make a judgment whether the bull will be developed or culled from the herd based on its reaction.
It gets only one chance.
“We have to see if they get up in the air and kick, that’s all we want to see,” Denny says.
“The higher you go [in the business], the higher your standards. We want our lowest buckers to be better than other breeders’ best.”
However, no bulls are bucked at their maximum potential — 8 seconds worth — until they are at least 3 years old.
“They can break legs, break their backs. You have to manage the risks,” Denny says.
After they prove themselves, the bulls are only bucked once, maybe twice a month.
“They work 16 seconds a month and get treated like a king,” Denny says.
* * *
The rodeo bull industry has evolved quickly in the last decade, Thorsell says. The Professional Bull Riders circuit draws a television audience of 110 million people every year, and the PBR says they draw an amazing 350 million viewers worldwide for the finals event every fall.
The bucking bull industry is forced to keep growing to stay on pace with that demand, Thorsell says.
For every 100 or so bulls that are bred with the hopes of making a rodeo star, only a small number of them are successful enough to ride the circuit, successful enough for their breeders to see their name up in lights.
“The need for bulls is tremendous, especially the ones with the best genetics. But you don’t find them under every rock,” Denny says. “You gotta breed ’em, and that’s why we raise bucking bulls.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Only the most conditioned and healthiest bucking bulls ever make the professional bull riding circuit, and breeders and stock contractors like Denny Thorsell do their best to keep the bulls at their peak. Animal welfare is also a big issue in rodeo circuits, according to the Professional Bull Riders’ Inc.:
The PBR and its members fully understand the value and importance of the bulls used in each PBR competition. Without these outstanding four-legged superstars, neither the PBR nor the sport of bull riding would exist. …The care and treatment of PBR bulls is a top priority to those who govern and/or participate in PBR events.
Q: What makes a bull buck?
A: Genetics is the most prevalent factor in determining a bull’s desire and ability to buck.
Q: What is a flank strap?
A: As its name suggests, a flank strap is a strap that goes around the flank of a bull. Its purpose is to enhance the natural bucking motion of a bull and to encourage the animal to extend its hind legs when trying to get his rider on the ground. The flank strap never covers or goes around a bull’s genitals, and no sharp or foreign objects are ever placed inside the flank strap to agitate the animal. Furthermore, a flank strap cannot be too tight around the bull’s flank or the bull will be too uncomfortable to perform. The flank strap is designed for quick release and is removed immediately after the bull exits the arena.
Q: What is a bull rope?
A: The bull rope is what the bull rider hangs on to throughout the ride. It is wrapped around the chest of the bull directly behind the animal’s front legs. At the bottom of the rope hangs a metal bell designed to give the rope some weight so that it will fall off the bull as soon as the rider is bucked off or dismounts the animal. The bell has smooth, rounded edges and does not harm the bull.
Q: Do the spurs worn by a bull rider cut or scratch a bull?
A: Bull riders’ spurs are required to have dull, loosely locked rowels (the ‘wheel-like’ part of the spur that comes in contact with the animal). The spurs do not cut or scratch a bull’s hide, which is seven times thicker than a human’s skin.
(Source: Professional Bull Riders Inc., www.PBRnow.com)