Understanding Why Rodeo Bulls Buck

Explore the myth and the reality of why rodeo bulls buck.

Bull rider on the ground
Evo Danchev / Getty Images

If the media and animal rights extremists are to be believed, bulls buck for two reasons: they're shocked out of the chute with help from an electric cattle prod, or they're bucking madly because of a rope tied around the testicles. As it turns out, neither of these answers are true--but these myths are grounded in reality.

While rodeo bulls are domesticated and handled in order to be shipped, separated, doctored and loaded into the chute or holding pens, they're still essentially wild animals who are unaccustomed to carrying a rider. Since cattle are prey animals, they hold natural instincts to protect themselves from large predators, which typically kill cattle by leaping onto their backs and raking their sides and necks with teeth and claws. Cattle share this instinct with horses. Naturally, when a human being attempts to ride a bull by placing himself in the same location as a predator would kill cattle, the bull reacts as nature intended by bucking, twisting, kicking and rolling in midair to attempt to remove the threat.

However, there are a few manmade additions to this formula to get the most out of both man and bull: the bull rope is tied around the animal's torso just behind his front legs and shoulders to provide an anchoring handle for the rider. A brass bell dangles from the bottom of the rope and makes a clatter as the bull moves about, helping to encourage the animal to greater action.

The most controversial piece of equipment worn by the bull is the flank strap, a cotton belt that is tightened lightly around the bull's flanks just ahead of his hind legs. Because of the placement, and the wild action of the bull when the strap is in place, many spectators and critics of the rodeo falsely assume that the strap is tightened around the bull's testicles to encourage a reaction. In reality, this strap is placed carefully by the stock contractor and acts only as an irritant to encourage hind-end movement. If the strap is too tight, the bull may not buck at all as his movement will be restricted. There's little to be gained by potentially damaging the bull's reproductive system, as most great rodeo bulls will be retired to stud after their competitive years are over. While the flank strap is likely not completely comfortable for the animal to wear, it's not doing physical harm nor is it inflicting pain. If a rider suspects that the flank strap on his bull is too tight and restricting high-scoring bucking, he may request a re-ride--so it's in the stock contractor's best interests to attach the flank strap correctly. 

Cattle prods and other electric stimuli are illegal to use in the chute as ruled by the Professional Bull Riders (PBR.) No professional-level rodeo in the country allows the use of cattle prods to help an animal leave the chute, though some local-level rodeos may not have passed this rule yet. Roughtstock leaves the chute because it is looking for an escape and room to buck and kick, going back to the animals' instincts in removing riders.

It's common to see rough stock stop bucking and kicking the moment a rider is unseated, demonstrating the animals are not reacting to any outside stimuli such as being shocked or a too-tight flank strap. Many of these seasoned animals are as professional as the cowboys who attempt to ride them and understand when their job is over.

In conclusion, the myths that bulls are either electrocuted or have ropes tied around their testicles are both false.