Bareback riding, like all rough stock events, is renowned for the danger. Riders accept this as an inherent part of their job and fans flock in droves for the vicarious adrenaline rush.

But, there exists more to the sport than potentially imminent peril including, tenacity, brotherhood and beauty.

"It’s poetry in motion," said Tim O’Connell, 25, Zwingle, Iowa. When it’s performed

correctly with the horse and rider giving their entire effort to the performance, "it’s a really pretty thing," he said. As reigning World Champion in bareback riding, O’Connell has a keen understanding of what is required to create the perfect dance between man and equine.

The ideal ride requires that riders have their feet and body in perfect alignment, otherwise they risk either losing points and/or being bucked off. A worst case scenario is getting "hung up," which means a rider falls off with his hand trapped in the rigging. One such occurrence is what caused O’Connell to break his hand, which resulted in nerve damage. He’s also endured a high ankle sprain and torn his collar bone off the sternum, which healed out of alignment. "You just have to deal with the aches and pains," he said.

Because the sport takes an incredible toll on the body is one reason why bareback riding isn’t for everyone, he said. At present, he estimates that there are only 82 riders in the world.

"We are the underdog every time," he said. "But, I have a passion for riding bucking horses — it’s a feeling that you can’t describe."

O’Connell trains both inside and out of the arena to ensure that he has the best advantage possible. On the rare occasions that he returns home, he works with a personal trainer to help ensure he is in peak condition both physically and mentally.

Casey Colletti, 31, Pueblo, Colo., takes a similar approach, though his workouts were inspired to help strengthen his body after a debilitating injury due to repetitious bareback riding. He knew something was awry when he was unable to lift his left arm above chest level.

The diagnosis from the MRI his wife encouraged him to get was partial paralysis due to a bruised and stretched spinal chord. Even though he was working with one of the top spine and neck specialists in the country, the doctor said there was nothing to do but rest and wait —  Colletti would either heal or be paralyzed from the neck down. A year-and-a-half later, Colletti returned to the rodeo, even with herniated discs in his spine.

"I was pretty nervous getting on the horse again," he said. But, he loves what he does, so he’s willing to take the risk.

He estimated that the Dodge City Rodeo was his 8th or 9th rodeo of the season, whereas, he would have already attended 60 to 70 when he was healthy. Competing in the Wednesday night bareback riding competition he scored 71.1.

With a minimum of $20,000 at stake for the Dodge City bareback riding event, competitors do all they can to ensure a high score; but, given that they have little to no control over the animal, they simply have to hope their horse performs well. An optimal performance entails high jumps at least 2 to 3 feet off the ground with the horses front legs curled under.

While these tenacious competitors ride to win, above all, they are a brotherhood and do what they can to assist fellow riders when needed. O’Connell proved this on Wednesday when, after his ride, he jumped to the aid of fellow competitor, Luke Creasy, whose horse wasn’t cooperating.

"Being in the chute is the most dangerous part of the ride," he said. "I would want somebody to do the same for me."

O'Connell scored 86.5 and will be one of the returning competitors on Sunday night.

 

To contact the writer email eburke@dodgeglobe.com.