During my years of owning a small ranch in the heart of British Columbia’s Cariboo country, I attended a lot of rodeos. They always troubled my soul. I couldn’t bear seeing animals goaded into being angry or afraid. Any injuries to them infuriated me.
So my favorite event was the bull riding. Bull riding was clearly an uneven match, but the advantage was on the bull’s side. I figured guys were crazy to climb on the backs of these powerful animals and piss them off so they’d buck.
A lot of the bull riders got hurt. At cowboy poetry festivals they wore their scars and old injuries like badges of honour.
One July afternoon at the Williams Lake Stampede, a bull rider’s hand got hung up in the rope. He came off the bull. His hand didn’t. Until the outriders could finally get him loose, that cowboy was tossed around like a rag doll.
It was a terrifying experience to witness. That got me to thinking about the families of bull riders. While the men were getting a rush out of squaring off against a bull, the wives were wondering if this was the rogue bull, the one that would maim or kill the men they loved.
I went right home and wrote this poem, which was published on a CD of the same name and in a book of cowboy poetry, Ride Around Real Slow. I knew I’d gotten it right when a bull rider’s wife posted it on the Internet. She wanted people to read it so they would understand her life.
Her site is no longer online, but the story still gives me shivers. The poem shifts between voices, the bull rider’s and his wife’s.
Here’s a recording of The Bull Rider’s Wife from the album of the same name.
The bull rider’s wife is waiting tonight
For her bull riding man to come home
If it’s his voice she hears when she picks up the phone,
She won’t dance the last waltz alone.
“I pulled a good wild bull today,”
He tells her when he rings.
“I’ll walk away with an 85,
Hell, a 95,” he sings.
“We’ll start our herd, buy land and tools.
I’ll plant your apple tree.
A few more wins, and I’ll head home
You save that waltz for me.”
“Sam’s mad,” she says, “If you’re not back
He’ll fire you in a streak.
A storm came through and flattened hay
You should have baled last week.
Because you didn’t fix the fence
A bull bred Sam’s prize cow.
The boar ate Sam’s wife’s champion hens.
She’s on the warpath now.”
“I’m riding on Bodacious, Hon,”
The rider tells his wife,
“Had a bonus* bull in Calgary;
It’s all part of the life.
So please don’t fret; I’m earning cash
Enough for any bill.
Before too long, I promise you,
Our bank account will fill.”
“Bodacious smashed Tuff Hedeman’s face.”
She says and shakes her head.
“The horn that killed Lane Frost
Just might have skewered you instead.
I’d rather have you herding sheep
Than sitting on a bull
Till whistles blow or flags drop down.
Days here are just as full.”
“The clowns and barrelman are tops,”
The cowboy says to her.
“And Tuff’s back riding good as new.
Don’t be in such a stir.
A few more rides, and I’ll be home.
Tell Sam I’ll fix that fence
And bring the hay in double-quick.
Sweet girl, have confidence.”
“You call me ‘fore you ride,” she says,
“And call me when you’re done.
It’s not the money that I want.
I don’t care if you’ve won.”
She bites her lip and doesn’t talk
About the dream she’s had
Of broken bones and trampled clowns
And kids without a dad.
He says goodbye and clears his mind
And walks out to the chute.
He climbs the fence and glances
At the clowns in hot pursuit.
A bull has tossed his rider,
And the cowboy can’t pull loose.
He’s flapping like a rag doll
While the bull pours on the juice.
She listens to the radio,
Plays softball with the boys.
She irons her scarlet dancing dress
And puts away the toys.
She picks his favorite waltzing tune,
Puts clean sheets on the bed.
She listens for the phone to ring
And tries not to feel dread.
He lifts his leg across the bull,
Breathes deep and dips his hat.
The gate swings wide; the world shrinks to
A primeval combat.
He’s riding on a hellcat.
All his senses are alert.
He’ll stay the eight and win the purse
Or wind up eating dirt.
She glances up; it’s 4:13.
He’s off Bodacious now.
He’s waving to the cheering crowd
Or broken on the ground.
She listens for the phone to ring
And stiffens when she hears.
The rider’s wife knows every call
Might be the one she fears.
*A bonus bull has been ridden fewer than three times. Successful riders earn cash bonuses.