Kim Nelson: Bull By the Horns

The first time I rode a mechanical bull, it was not the stereotypical wet-t-shirt-contest type of college experience; in fact, it was manual. I was on a student camping trip at a ranch in Kingman, Arizona. The weekend involved spending the day horseback riding in the desert and the evenings cooking fry bread around the campfire. On the ranch, there was a ‘bull’ made out of a tin drum, and several cowboys pulled on ropes to simulate the bucking bronco motion. We took turns sitting on it while the ranch hands gently jerked the barrel around beneath us. I don’t think I shouted “Woo!” once.

My next ride wasn’t until 10 years later and on an actual mechanical bull–the kind you see at honky tonk-themed bars. At the time, I was traveling often for work as meetings support for large conferences where attorneys could network and attend continuing legal education panels. The conferences usually included several social events in the evenings, often with some sort of entertainment. At this particular meeting, the Friday night venue was a country & western themed bar with a mechanical bull ring.

While working out of town, it was always a fine line between being sociable and enjoying oneself at the open bar receptions while staying professional and not doing anything to embarrass yourself or your company. An introvert by nature, I relied on a drink or two early in the night to help me feel more comfortable at social events where I only knew my boss and a handful of others; I’d then cut myself off before doing or saying something totally mortifying. Work travel could be fun but always felt a bit lonely to me; I was away from my family and spending long hours as the ‘work version’ of myself, wearing suit jackets or cardigans to cover my tattoos among the older, more conservative attendees.

The day of the country bar reception, I was chatting with the registrar who sat next to me at the sign-in desk. He asked me if I planned to ride the bull; I said probably no, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of an audience. “Don’t wear a tube top,” was his sage advice.

The reception was the closing event of a week-long meeting, so people were cutting loose at the bar. As the crowd warmed up, the bull operator gave a demo of what the bull looked like in motion, spinning and bucking like a tasmanian devil. One of the waitresses hopped on out of boredom or a desire to perform in front of the crowd. Holding onto the rope with one hand, wrist side up, she gripped tightly with her thighs but stayed otherwise loose and relaxed. As the machine rocked back and forth, she kept her balance by countering its actions. Her crimped blond hair flew in every direction but her face remained calm, almost bored, as the machine kicked back and forth beneath her. She could’ve probably had a drink in her free hand and not even spilled a drop of her Bud Light Lime. 

Once everyone had a few drinks in them, interest in the bull began to build. The first person to sign up was one of the younger attorneys. After she climbed aboard, the operator took it easy on her at first, spinning the bull slowly as the rider got her bearings. Gradually, the bucking and rocking increased, until after about a minute in, you could tell that the operator was giving it all to see what it took to unseat the rider. After a combo bucking-spinning move, she tumbled harmlessly onto the inflated ring and jumped up in triumph to the crowd’s cheers. While watching her, I could feel the spark of interest stirring in my belly; I wanted to ride. It looked fun, and I was interested in the challenge of staying aboard copying the waitress’s counterweighting technique. With my heart pounding out of nerves and adrenaline, I made my way over to the operator. He had me sign a waiver and told me to take off my shoes.

I walked unsteadily across the padded ring, then gripped the rope at the pommel of the saddle, throwing my right leg over the bull. The rest of the bar was dark beyond the lights over the ring. I was astride a mechanical bull in front of my boss, our governing committee, and 700 conference attendees, so I figured I might as well go all-out and threw out the devil horns with my free hand. I felt the bull slowly grind into motion. With the first revolution, I thought “oh shit.” This was going to be harder than I thought. Gripping tightly with my jean-clad legs, I readied myself for the first buck. The bull’s head began to rise, so I leaned forward just as the waitress had done. As it rocked, I leaned back towards the rump. The operator increased the speed, so I started to lean more quickly. And I was riding! I managed to find a rhythm to my movement and settled into a nice groove with the bull. I had thrown caution to the wind like a discarded J. Crew cardigan, letting the proverbial tattoos show in front everyone. And I was having the time of my life.

bull.jpgEventually, the operator put into the highest gear. The bull spun in circles while continuing to buck back and forth, like one of those carnival rides that makes you vomit just by looking at it. I tried to stick it out, but I started to feel myself getting tossed around on the saddle. Just a few more seconds later, I tumbled off the side, landing on the soft padding. As I landed, I could feel myself laughing from pure exhilaration. The crowd cheered, and I found my feet and raised my arms in a victorious ‘v.’ I may have even been amped up enough to yell “Woo!.” After putting my shoes back on and heading back into the crowd, my boss found me. “You did great!” she said. “You should’ve told me you were going to ride; I would’ve had my camera ready.” I smiled, but was inwardly glad that was no photographic evidence of me riding a mechanical bull at a work event.

Since then, anytime I have the opportunity, I ride a mechanical bull. Whether it’s at a roller derby after-party, a bachelorette outing in Las Vegas, or a trip with friends to New Orleans, I grab the moment by grabbing the pommel and holding onto that saddle as hard as I can. When there was a short-lived urban rodeo league in Chicago at a country bar on North Ave, I formed a bull-riding team with my now-husband, sister, and friend, called the Buckle Bunnies. If you ever have a chance, I recommend that you throw your self-consciousness out the window and climb up on the bull; I’m sure I’m not the only one in this world that’s ever hidden their freak flag beneath an Ann Taylor Loft suit jacket. Live life as the person on the bull and not watching the sidelines. Even if your boss is watching.

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