Notice the men behind the man.

Image: Daniel Kramer

At the end of this month, when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicks off at NRG Stadium, as they always do, cowboys will try to outlast each other on bucking bulls while avoiding getting gored or stomped or otherwise crushed as audiences cheer them on. And as they always do, other cowboys will try to protect them, putting themselves, too, in harm’s way, albeit to less applause.

It is this second type of cowboy that 24-year-old Branson Kristek of Katy hopes to become, and he’s learning how inside a rodeo ring half an hour north of downtown Houston in New Caney, at the biannual, two-day Sankey Rodeo School. His mother, Mona, looks on from the top row of the grandstand, her smartphone pointed at him as he crouches in anticipation of meeting his first ever bull.

The beast comes out of the chute, its rider lasting about two seconds before slipping off into the dirt. Kristek catches the animal’s attention, shuffles, and slides to its shoulder, directing it away from the rider and back into the pen. The whole thing lasts about eight seconds. He’s unscathed, but Mom?

“I feel like he can take those hits right there,” she says. “But they’re graduating to bigger ones. Come talk to me in a couple minutes.”

For 44 years Professional Bull Riders Ring of Honor inductee Lyle Sankey—one of four western athletes to compete in the national finals for bull riding, bareback riding, and bronc riding—has traveled the country running his school. “It’s interesting to watch, because you have these newbies come in and, you know, it’s a one-weekend deal,” says Sankey, who lives in Branson, Missouri. “But they get in the middle of it, and it’s so fun, and they go, ‘Hey, is there a place for me to get into rodeo?’”

Some of the 57 students have come to New Caney from as far away as Great Britain to join the wannabe pros and thrill-seekers trying their hands at bull and bronc riding and—like Kristek—bullfighting, which is a different job than it used to be. Rodeo clowns and barrel men used to provide both entertainment and bullfighting, or protection for riders. They still do both in some small rodeos, but today bullfighting is typically its own specialized profession.

“No one really notices them because they’re watching the bull and watching the bull rider, but they do a lot and they help that rider once he’s down,” says Kristek, who’s also certified to be a firefighter. “That’s what spoke to me.”

Growing up, Kristek attended Rodeo Houston with his family. While the audience watched the riders, he focused on bullfighting legends like Leon Coffee and Sankey alumnus Cory Wall. He wanted to be like them.

Sankey stresses the teambuilding inherent in bullfighting, in which groups of two or three must work together. He believes his school provides essential lessons to its young students, from the importance of assisting your fellow man to, yes, the best way to face a 1,500-pound bull charging toward you as Mom tries not to watch from the grandstand.

“If you start quittin’, it gets easier every time,” he says. “I think that’s the thing that people can learn in every sport, and we certainly try to apply that here. If you can get through this rodeo school, you really learn to deal with some challenges and some adversity.”

On day one the bullfighters learn the fundamentals, working with a homemade bull-charging simulator—a half-sawed-off bicycle with a stuffed bull’s head mounted on the handlebars. When the bike bull charges, they practice rolling toward its shoulder, because it can’t whip around and change course immediately. On the second day more of the students enter the ring and practice with the real thing. As rider after student rider storms out of the chute—each lasting a few seconds, tops—Kristek and his new friends dance with the bulls.

Some, including Bryce McCutchen, a 17-year-old from Conroe, get hit. “I got hooked today on the inside of my calf. I got kicked this morning, and yesterday I got headbutted in my chin,” he says. “I’m feeling pretty good. A little rough. It’s not the first time I’ve been tackled by a few.”

Kristek’s girlfriend, Marcela Garcia, volunteers that after the first day, her normally shy boyfriend couldn’t stop talking about the experience. Both he and McCutchen say they’re hoping to find jobs at smaller rodeos.

“I’m a little nervous, but it’s Branson,” Garcia says. “His instincts are great, and he’s quick on his feet. He’s the only person I know who would be good at this.”

Though very few bullfighters end up going professional, it’s hard to disagree with her. Maybe we really will see him at NRG one day. 

Sankey Rodeo SchoolNext session, May 25–27. East Montgomery County Fair and Rodeo grounds, New Caney. 

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