The 21st Century Cowboy


“You have to have a certain type of mindset to do this for a living,” says 19-year-old Jess Lockwood, who, after just over a year on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, is currently the top-ranked professional bull rider in the world. “You can’t be the least bit nervous getting on these animals,” he continues. “They’re dangerous and what we do for a living is dangerous, and if you don’t have the right mindset getting on them, it can kill you.”

At five feet five inches, Lockwood has the physique of a particularly buff jockey. He weighs 130 pounds; the bulls he rides, like BC Circular Insanity, on whom Lockwood received his highest score of the season in Sacramento, are about 1,500 pounds. During the week, the Volbory, Montana native works on his parents’ ranch back home, taking care of their cows and horses, cutting the grass, and baling hay. On the weekends, however, he flies across the country to compete in PBR events. The rodeos themselves are like circuses: roaring cheers from crowds of thousands; loud rap music blasted over speakers; commercial breaks promoting tractors, tools, and jerky; audience games; and even rodeo clowns, who both keep the bulls away from fallen riders and help MC the event.

A rider’s goal is to stay on a bucking bull for eight seconds, one hand on a rope tied around its girth, the other free in the air. You can’t touch the bull with your free hand, and if the bull doesn’t kick with enough gusto, your score is marked down and you’re given the option of a re-ride. If you fall off before the eight seconds are up, or violate any of the rules, you automatically get zero points. “[I like] the thrill and the adrenaline it gives you,” says Lockwood. “You know that you just rode a bull that is 10 times your size and he was trying everything he could do to buck you off and throw you on the ground, but you stayed on top of him and you conquered him.”

Even the best bull riders tumble before their eight seconds are up. Part of the sport’s appeal is its unpredictability—the chaos of man versus beast. It can be a lucrative sport, too; at the PBR Monster Energy Buck Off in Madison Square Garden, Lockwood took home $117,183 in prize money (he came in first). At the Frontier Communications Clash in Sacramento, he earned $39,090 (another first place prize).

I hope I can win some world titles and retire by the age of 27,” Lockwood explains while on his way to the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. “After that, I’m going to work on our ranch. That’s going be my living and that’s what I always wanted to do after I get done bull riding.”

AGE: 19.

HOMETOWN: Volborg, Montana. It’s a post office and one house, and we live down a dirt road about five miles from there. Population of it is maybe 15 people. We had to drive 30, 40 miles into the closest town for school.

THE BEGINNING: I started on sheep and then worked my way up to calves and steers and then little bulls and then big bulls. [I was probably] three years old, four years old. I took a liking to it from the beginning. You aren’t really necessarily good at something from the beginning, but I stuck to it and I just loved it and it all worked out. My family are all in the Western Sports Rodeo professionally as well. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for a living and how I wanted to live my life.

My family wanted me to definitely rodeo—I’m not sure they wanted me to be a bull rider, but ever since I was little, I just took a liking to it and they were very supportive.

STICKS AND STONES AND BROKEN BONES: When I first started riding big bulls, I got my arm stepped on. It busted my arm open and I had 40 stitches in it. I was only 14 at the time and that was the first wreck I had. Then I broke four, five, or six ribs—I can’t remember. I did that and punctured and collapsed my lung when I was 16. When you’re in the sport, you’ve got to be ready for stuff like that to happen because every time you nod your head, it’s liable to.

MEETING THE BULL: I don’t really care a whole lot. When they run in the chute, that’s the only time you need to worry about it. You put your rope on, you nod your head, and you go. I don’t care to look at ’em beforehand; they don’t want nothing to do with you, so I don’t want nothing to do with them until it’s time to go. I have been on the same bull more than once, but it depends. You can choose your bull in the championship round, but all the other rounds it’s randomly drawn together. You can definitely feel it when they bull is not kicking or doing something to buck to the hardest of their ability.

Is it competitive? Against the bulls, yes. Against each other, not so much. We’re all a big family and we cheer each other on, hope each other do well. We don’t want to see one of our buddies get hurt. It’s not us against our friends; it’s us against the bull.

A RIDER’S STATE OF MIND: If I was nervous, I’d pick something else to do for a living because if you’re nervous, bad things are going to happen. There’s a hell of a lot easier jobs to do where it’s not as dangerous. I never feel nerves coming on, honestly. I’m just so excited to be here and compete against these guys, but I always pray before I get on, so that comforts me, and I always call my parents before I get on if they aren’t able to make it to the event. I tell my dad what bull I got and talk to him about it and then tell them I love them and I’ll call them right after the ride. That’s it.

TRAINING: I never get on practice bulls, I just go to the gym and lift a lot of weights and go to a lot of hot yoga and keep my body in shape, really, more than anything. Work on a lot of core strength and balance. If you can keep your body healthy and not get hurt, that’s the best way to do it.

BIGGEST FEARS: I don’t like spiders; I don’t like snakes. We’re going to go to Disneyland here, but I am terrified of rides, so I won’t go on any rides, I’ll just take in Disneyland any other way possible. I’ve never been, so I just want to see what it’s all about and check out some of the shops, buy some merchandise.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS: I got to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to open that. The opportunities that come along with this sport are just incredible.