Photo by Andy Watson
With the sinking summer sun disappearing from the sky, the sound of blaring brass horns cut through the clamor of chatting spectators; an ocean of wide-brimmed cowboy hats line the stands to watch the spectacle about to take place.
The sound of hooves clanking in trailers behind you startles you, as the smell of freshly stirred earth wafts past your nose and stimulates your senses. Speakers blare the melody of John Wayne’s 1972 classic, “The Cowboys,” spurring your soul as the once bare arena is now filled with men and women straddling horses that hug the fence line signaling the start of a grand performance.
If you are from the South, chances are you are familiar with the scene. A rodeo, to most, is an all-too-familiar event that many folks choose to attend, whether they are a fan or not. Some may have even dreamed of being the cowboys who are conquering the bulls, until realizing that the ride is rather complicated and the danger is as real as the tonnage atop the hooves.
Maybe you’d rather stay on the ground where you are safe and leave it to the professionals.
One professional has been riding bulls for over 20 years and describes his sport simply: “We work eight seconds at a time. That’s it.”
Sean Willingham, professional bull rider, was 14-years-old when he first became interested in horses and the rodeo. That small spark of interest quickly turned into a burning love affair with riding bulls.
“Growing up, my family had a horse at home who we worked to train, so we could compete in roping events. I quickly learned that roping was not up my ally, which is when I started to watch bull riding,” explains Willingham.
“I distinctly remember when I fell in love with bull riding. My family took me to the rodeo here in Summerville, Ga., which is one of the biggest things that happens in this town. When the bull riding started, they made this huge deal about it, which caught my attention,” he recalls. “Nobody rode the bull that night for eight seconds, that I can remember. And that’s what triggered me. I thought, hey! I can do that! It couldn’t be that bad.”
After about a month of pestering to let him on a bull, the parents of the still 14-year-old boy finally caved and let Willingham mount a bull and give the animal a ride. Little did they know, this would be a passion he would have for rest of his life.
“When I hopped on my first bull, I was instantly proven wrong. Riding a bull is very hard to do, but I was bound and determined to stick it out until I was able to ride a bull for eight seconds,” says Willingham.
It wasn’t until his eighth ride or so that he was able to stay on for eight seconds. This feat led him to start entertaining the thought of entering himself as a contestant in every local high school and amateur rodeo that was in driving distance of his hometown. However, once Willingham began to figure out that there was money to be made at these events, that is when this hobby became a career.
“Back then, I didn’t know anything about professional bull riding. I was just a country kid who loved playing sports. I had no clue what I was getting myself into, where it could take me or how big this sport actually was. It definitely was not as big or mainstream as it is today, for sure,” says Willingham when looking back at the beginnings of his career.
Once he gained enough experience, Willingham joined the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Association, an organization that showcases the best bull riders in the world on the backs of the best bulls in world.
Willingham competed in his first major rodeo was when he was just 16 years old, and as of 2019, he has been with the PBR for 23 years.
“I bought my credentials for the Professional Rodeos Cowboys Association and the Professional Bull Riders Association the day I turned 18. By that time, I had been riding bulls for three years. So when I was able to sign with PBR, my dream had come true.”
Although he gets paid, Willingham doesn’t call rodeo a job. He just enjoys what he does.
“I have been fortunate enough that what I love to do pays the bills,” he says with a smile.
As can be expected, he stays busy. Riding with the PBR means competing in around 28 televised events, along with 10 or 15 rides during the summer.
“On a good year, I am gone 42 to 45 weeks out of the year,” says Willingham.
“During the first week in January, we start off at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and then we ride every weekend, except Easter, until May. We are off starting in May, but then we start back up again in August, riding every weekend again until we finish off the tour in Las Vegas, Nevada in November for the World Finals.”
During his “off-season” he also rides in minor league series events where bull riders can gather points that eventually add up and go towards their World Finals total.
Oftentimes, for those who have been to multiple rodeos the scoring system may still be difficult to grasp.
Bull riding is a judged sport where four individuals rate the bulls from one to 50 points, and then mark the riders from one to 50 points for a combined total of 100 points, depending on their ride. According to Willingham, there has only ever been one score to hit 100 points in the history of bull riding.
“No matter what, we have to ride the bull for eight seconds. Anything after eight seconds is not necessarily helpful, because we are only judged on the eight seconds we stay on the bull,” explains Willingham. “You have to ride the bull with one hand tied in to a rope and one hand in the air. You cannot touch the bull, the ground, the fence or yourself during the eight seconds or it is a disqualified ride. So, not only do you have to go and ride well, but sometimes riders can get lucky, depending on what bull they are given to ride and how difficult the animal is to ride.”
Willingham’s highest score riding bulls is 93 points, which he achieved in 2000. He also boasts around sixteen 90-point rides throughout his career.
“If you can get in the 90’s that means you have ridden one of the best bulls in the world. Mid 80’s is about average.”
When asked why he has continued on this journey for so long, his answer is simple. “You know, it’s not the money or the notoriety, it’s the challenge that riding throws at you every single time you jump on a bull. No matter how many times you have ridden, you get on another bull and he is going to challenge you just as much as the first one you rode. That’s what I love the most and what keeps me coming back,” says Willingham.
With all of the rodeo events Willingham travels to, it is amazing that he finds time to practice.
This leads to another question that the cowboy addresses with a confident grin.
Just how do riders go about practicing bull riding?
“The best way to do it is to actually just get on the bull,” Willingham laughs. “That is by far the best kind of practice anyone can do. However, when you do that, you are risking a lot because the risk is just as high and dangerous as it would be when you are competing.
“That’s how I was taught when I was learning how to ride. The more bulls I got on, the better I was going to ride. In times past, I was getting on anywhere from 10 to 12 bulls a week.”
In between practice bulls and going to amateur rodeos, he was getting a lot of training. Now, he tends to take it easy during his much anticipated off time.
“Now that I am older and going into my 23rd year of riding bulls, I don’t practice as much as I used to. My practice now will be entering a smaller, local rodeo with a little less caliber bulls than what I am used to every week riding in the PBR,” says Willingham. “I do this because I figure if I am going to practice, I might as well have the chance to win something.”
“I have broken my neck before, cracked my skull, broken my ankle and my wrist twice. And there were a couple of meniscus tears, broken collarbones, broken ribs, fingers and toes, too. What haven’t I broken would be a better question!” laughs Willingham.
Just recently he suffered a pretty serious accident that resulted in a clean break of his tibia, putting the cowboy in surgery the next day to mend his broken leg with four screws. And in 2014, he broke his neck. On the brink of retirement, he decided to come back because he couldn’t imagine a life without bull riding.
“The majority of the reason I kept coming back, and continue to keep coming back, is simply for the love of the sport. In bull riding, you don’t see that many people my age still working at this level of competition,” says Willingham.
Not only is every ride an adrenaline rush, but every weekend is a new exciting opportunity. In fact, according to his current schedule he will make his way through Kansas City, Missouri; Tacoma, Washington; Sioux Falls, South Dakota and more destinations across the country when he is well. When asked where his favorite place to raise him arm for eight seconds is, there is no hesitation. His favorite place to ride is Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“Since we first started going to Madison Square Garden about eight years ago, that has by far been the most amazing arena I have gotten to ride in. Plus, the people from New York aren’t familiar with the sport of rodeo or bull riding, so their crowd is always very engaged which makes it even better,” he says.
“There are quite a few of moments that have been ones to remember. But I think one that stands out would have to be winning our Premier Series events in Atlanta in 2014,” recalls Willingham. “We don’t come to Atlanta often, and it is probably one of the hardest places to perform. Not many people win their home state events, and I know it was one of the most challenging things for me in my career. My first child, Lani Michael, had just been born 14 days before this event. Being a brand new dad, I didn’t know what I was doing. There were definitely lots of sleepless nights, but I walked away winning that event. That has been one of my proudest moments.”
He never misses a chance to brag on his two children, Lani Micheal (5) and Conlee (2), who just love to watch their dad dance with the bulls.
Recently, Lani traveled with him to St. Louis, Missouri and, as Sean describes it, “she got more YouTube views and social media ticks that I ever have in my entire career. I love being able to take them with me and show them what I have grown up doing my entire life,” says Willingham. “My wife, Kayla, is a school teacher at Trion, and she is the best mother and wife that I could have ever asked for. To let me go every weekend, and at least three to four days a week, to do what I love, and enjoy and pursue my dreams takes a strong woman. I am very thankful for them, and how they stand behind me and support me the way they do.”
Bull riding, to Sean Willingham, is life.
Before finishing the interview, Willingham closes out his piece singing the words, “Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”
As the crowd dies down and the lights turn low, you leave the arena speechless, the fading traces of adrenaline still slightly coursing through your veins and the bitter taste of excitement tickles your tongue. You realize that this is not the last rodeo you will ever visit. The rest is history.