Two hours before he was scheduled to do battle with a 1,900-pound bull named Blurred, Matt Dunsmore was searching for bliss.
A professional bull rider from Elk River, Minn., Dunsmore was competing in the World’s Toughest Rodeo tour stop over the weekend at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. He found a quiet corner tucked underneath the stands, back near where the Zamboni usually is parked for hockey games. There, amid the solitude, he went through his yoga routine.
The yoga was a must, he explained later, because he had missed his Pilates class.
Hold on, pardner. Yoga? Pilates? Where were the cowboys who fill their cheeks with chaws of tobacco the size of baseballs and down whiskey shots as fast as the barkeeper can pour them?
Dunsmore laughed at the image.
“It’s a little different now,” he said of the Old West image that rodeos can’t seem to shake. “We take this seriously as a sport. We’re athletes. I don’t smoke, I watch what I eat, and I work out every day.”
The yoga is for stretching his muscles and helping him focus. The Pilates builds core strength and hones his balance. He also lifts weights to strengthen his grip on the bucking rope. That’s why, at 33, he’s still competing in a sport that is legendary for the beating it puts on competitors’ bodies.
“Sometimes I wish I’d taken up baseball,” joked Dunsmore, who has been riding bulls since he was 13. “But I was no good at any other sports.”
It’s a tough way to make a living — and not just in terms of the physical bashing they take. Yes, they are professional athletes, but unlike, say, a reserve football player who gets paid just for suiting up, theirs is a win-or-go-bust situation.
In the St. Paul rodeo, 12 cowboys qualified to compete in each event — bull riding, bareback riding and saddleback riding. Of the dozen, only the top four won any money. The rest went home with nothing but bruises.
Add that they’re on the road as much as 11 months a year, and the inevitable question arises: Why do it?
“You either love it or you never want to try it,” said Scott Kojetin, a bull rider from Apple Valley who was hanging out behind the chutes after having missed the cut to compete.
“There are only so many spots” in the competition, he explained with a shrug.
Certainly feeling like winners were John and RaeAnn Aus of Granite Falls, Minn., the parents of Tanner Aus, one of the nation’s best bareback riders. The tour’s Minnesota stop is one of the few chances they get to see him compete. Or, for that matter, see him at all.
“There’s a break [in the tour] in mid-May, but beyond that, he’s on the road pretty much nonstop,” said John Aus, who was a rodeo cowboy. (He met RaeAnn at a rodeo.) “He’ll probably stay home Sunday to watch the Super Bowl, but then he’ll have to be on the road to Fort Worth,” the Texas city that’s the next stop on the tour.
Lonissa Jones, Aus’ girlfriend, had driven to the rodeo from her nursing job in Willmar.
“Sometimes he shows up once every couple of weeks; sometimes it’s once every month and a half,” she said. “He comes and goes. I never know when to expect him.”
Aus didn’t disappoint his parents or Jones. He won Friday’s bareback competition.
“I love being back in my home state. I love the atmosphere here,” he said while signing autographs after the rodeo. He added with a grin: “And it’s even better if we win.”
A cowboy fraternity
There’s a tight camaraderie among the cowboys, Aus said. To cut costs, they often travel together. And they help each other prepare, even though it could cost them prize money.
The bulls and bucking horses are provided by various companies that are located all across the country, which reduces the cost of shipping them to the events (the stock used in St. Paul came from Iowa) and lets trainers rotate the animals so they’re not overworked.
“A good bull costs $10,000,” Dunsmore said. “People think we abuse them. Trust me; we don’t.”
The rotating stock means that the cowboys often are dealing with animals they haven’t seen before. And that is where the cowboy fraternity comes into play. For instance, Aus rode two horses during Friday’s rodeo.
“The first one I’d seen before,” he said. “The second one I didn’t know at all, but the other guys had seen him and told me about him. Yes, we’re competing with each other for the money, but we also help each other out.”
Dunsmore was employing a high-tech form of that help.
“There are websites where riders post information about the bulls,” he said. “Of course, you’re still dealing with an animal. So there are no guarantees” about how it’s going to behave.
It was a lesson he was reminded of the hard way Friday night. “The book” on Blurred was that 90 percent of the time, the bull’s first spin out of the gate is to the left. This night, however, it went to the right — and Dunsmore went flying, his night over in two seconds.
Would that make him consider a different line of work?
“I’ll go home and lick my wounds and come back tomorrow,” he vowed. “My philosophy is that if I’m not chasing something, I’m not living.”