THE BULL SCHOOL
Date: Sunday, May 07, 2006
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin e rinn.hutkin @roanoke.com 981-3138
Summary: At David and Dan Gaither's school in Bedford, aspiring rodeo
cowboys learn the art of hanging onto a 2,000 pound beast for dear life
--and prize money.
It is 9 o'clock on Friday night, and school is in session inside David
Gaither's living room.
Cowboy hats hang on the wall and the smell of Marlboros wafts through
the air. Gaither points to his blanket-draped recliner and says he
to sit there one day and watch the boys in this room win big on TV.
Six boys sit on folding chairs or the plaid couch, a cowboy hat on each
head, belt buckles as big as their hands at each skinny waist.
Two days from now, they hope to be bull riders.
Three times each year, the 45-year-old Gaither teaches bull riding
school with his younger brother Dan Gaither -- look-alikes in denim and
The elder Gaither began teaching in the 1980s, hired by a rodeo
They moved the school to their down-the-road Bedford homes in the early
'90s, charging tuition of $300.
Here in the classroom, David's lecture is unrehearsed, sprinkled with
"ain'ts," long tangents and plenty of four-letter words. He speaks with
gravel in his voice, between gulps of iced tea and drags on a
Often, Dan pipes in from his folding chair at the back of the room,
their loud voices wrestling so it's tough to hear much of anything --
except when they repeat the same words.
This is one of the best schools in the country, David tells his
students. His degree comes from life -- three decades of bull riding
starting when he was 14. He qualified for the International Pro Rodeo
Association -- meant for the world's top 15 riders -- not once but 12
His classroom lecture covers a little of everything, from an
that it takes five years to get good at the sport to a stand-up,
squat-down demonstration of how to tape the groin for protection. But
his overall message is this: Bull riding is simple, and it's less about
ability than heart.
He can guarantee that during the next two days these young men will
fear in their gut and a shake in their knees before straddling that
first bull. He promises each one will be sore. He's pretty sure he
even tick every one of them off -- not that he cares -- but he's going
to teach them how to ride and to ride right.
And at the end of it all, when the gate opens with a clang, the bull
charges and they get thrown, they should hop up feeling a high better
than any drink or drug can provide.
And if they feel that way at the end of this dance between a man and a
2,000-pound beast, by the time Sunday comes around, they will ride five
or six times.
And they will look like dang bull riders.
It is 10 o'clock Saturday morning. David Gaither leads a prayer as the
students kneel in just-tilled bullpen dirt under the warm spring sun.
He launches into a brief, shouted history of the devil, of Adam and Eve
and the resurrection -- a cowboy's Cliff Notes to "Paradise Lost."
And when his sermon -- including the declaration that anyone who
disbelieves is a dumb SOB -- comes to an end, everyone bows their heads
"I pray that no harm come to these boys ... or these bulls buckin',"
David calls like an evangelist. "I love ya and I thank ya and in Jesus'
name, all right."
There are as many helpers here as there are students. Most are alumni
who ride at nearby Boonsboro on Friday nights. The indoor rodeo packs
1,200 spectators each week during the winter and turns countless more
away from seeing 30 pros and 10 amateurs fight to hang on for eight
seconds, cash and glory.
Fifteen-year-old Winston Quesenberry, David's nephew and a Boonsboro
amateur star, hops on the first bull to demonstrate: hand on the rope,
free hand in the air, back arched, knees in, toes out and most
important, hips square.
A bull hoof smacks Winston's head when he falls. He's examined by EMTs
from a standby ambulance. It does little to dissuade the school boys.
There is a Marine from Norfolk, 20 years old; a fella who moved south
from Northern Virginia; a 23-year-old commercial worker with a neck
There is Michael Turner, 16, Winston's classmate at Staunton River High
School and a horse-riding buddy; Cody Grogg, a lanky, 18-year-old
There is Judge Charlton, a 31-year-old construction worker from
who came to the school last year. He called in sick the Monday after
because he couldn't move.
One by one, they take a turn, nerves transforming into adrenaline in
seconds between mounting the bull and landing in the dirt. Then, they
what bull riders do: hop right back up again.
They wear plaid shirts unbuttoned to there and Wranglers with round
Copenhagen tins poking through back pockets. They use the bullpen fence
as bleachers, watching from railings with peeling paint in three
different colors. They spit on the ground, shout encouragement, tell
another to rock and roll.
The bulls wear flies on their backs that don't scatter when ropes are
tied around their middles, cowbells clanging. They charge into this
red-dirt arena that's surrounded by grass and peaked hills that block
the horizon, leaving behind a haze of kicked-up dust.
After lunch, the young men gather in Dan Gaither's trailer to watch
videotape of their morning rides.
David mutters that he can't find his glasses, that the VCR remote is
complicated. "I'm a simple man," he mumbles. "Got a simple life ...
simple dog ... simple horse."
He uses the tape to show what each rider did wrong. Winston twisted his
hips, which is why he got bucked. Some guys dropped their free hand,
moving their weight to their pockets. A bull rider carries his weight
the groin, David says, as he and Dan start talking at once.
"That free hand is what keeps you square ..." David begins.
"You'll program that mind so it's second nature to you ..." Dan chimes
And as they continue, their voices jumble.
It is 10 o'clock Sunday morning. Dan is behind the wheel of a
tilling the bullpen soil. The young men linger outside the fence,
one another, "how you feeling," a reference to last night's beer buzz
this morning's neck kinks, sore wrists and side pains.
The ambulance rolls to a stop in the grass, just like the day before.
Only today, it will be needed.
The second rider, 17-year-old C.J. McPhee, a Boonsboro rider and one of
the weekend's helpers, is carried out of the arena, one leg dragging
behind him. The EMTs huddle over the teenager after placing him on a
David wanders over to see what the fuss is about. "What in the hell is
wrong?" he asks in his twang.
The ambulance will take C.J. to the hospital; it could be a broken hip.
C.J. doesn't put up a fight -- and these riders don't go easy.
"Hell," David tells C.J., who lies weak and limp. "I didn't think it
hurt you that bad."
This is a sport where getting hurt is not a question of if, but when.
the first thing a cowboy thinks when he's injured is, "how long will I
be out," he just might be a bull rider.
Grogg, the young welder, is next. When his ride ends, he pulls off his
shirt, exposing a bloody scrape on one bicep, oozing red near a bucking
bull tattoo copied from a belt buckle.
He doesn't wince when the cut is dabbed with peroxide by an EMT.
"I appreciate it," Grogg says. "Y'all ain't going to send a bill?
what I thought."
By lunchtime, Michael Turner has gashed his Wranglers in one leg and
rump. By midafternoon, he has ruined a second pair.
"Broke another pair of pants," he tells Winston, seating himself on the
bull ring fence.
The jeans were a casualty when Michael got stepped on by a bull.
"I ain't never been stepped on," Winston says.
"Well, you got hit in the head, so what's the difference?" Michael jabs
They watch the ring, where wind kicks up rust-red tornadoes and the
are becoming bull riders.
"Hey Judge," Winston calls, leaning to shake hands as Judge moseys
through the ring. "Good job man, good ride."
From his spot on the fence, David Gaither throws both hands in the air
after watching Grogg ride.
"See," he shouts. "When you do right here, you ride four, five jumps!"
Back in the ring, Michael stays on the bull through a series of bucks.
He knocks knuckles with bullfighter Bobby Sims as he limps out of the
arena. Sims' job is to divert the bulls from the dismounted riders, a
rodeo clown without the costume.
Winston stays on the fence all the while, shouting encouragement before
the chute opens each time.
"Ride bulls, now."
At the end of the day, in sunglasses and a Stetson, Judge sits with an
open Budweiser at his side and bag full of ice against his inner thigh,
wishing he could close his eyes and wake up at home tomorrow.
Grogg eases into the chair next to him and crosses his dusty cowboy
Dan Gaither claps his hands as he saunters from the bullpen, ready to
thaw out a steak.
And Michael leans against the fence, still jawing with Winston about
They all have bandages, braces and bags of ice as they stand here under
the late afternoon sun with hat-matted hair and dust-smudged jeans.
will hop into trucks that lumber down the road to Dan Gaither's place,
where they will watch the tape and David Gaither will stick around till
10 o'clock, if that's what the riders want.
It was a good school, David concludes. Everyone learned something, and
no student got hurt. He decides well ahead of time to hand the belt
buckle for "most improved" -- silver and shiny-nickel new in its blue
velvet box -- to Grogg.
They will filter home, the older ones offered a beer for the road as
they go, most planning to meet at Boonsboro on Friday.
They are dang bull riders.