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‘They Better Start Breeding Cowboys’

Somewhere in America, just about every week of the year, professional bull riders climb onto the backs of 1,500-pounds animal, nod that they are ready and try to hang on when the chute opens and the bulls go off like bombs beneath them.

In this perennial mismatch between massive, unpredictable animals and the (mostly) men who ride them, the bulls’ advantage is only getting bigger, thanks to advances in genetics.

Over the past two decades, breeders have relied on the registry maintained by American Bucking Bull, Inc. to help them identify champion bulls. Because breeders use anywhere from seven to 10 sires with one dam to increase their chance of birthing a champion, they need the registry to tell them whether their bull calf shares DNA with the best buckers.

“Think of it like Maury Povich,” explained Marlissa Gonzalez, the director of the registry. “We’re telling breeders who the father is.”

While Gonzalez and her team can’t isolate specific genes for bucking, kicking and leaping, they can use their database of nearly 400,000 bulls to trace an animal’s lineage back six generations. Because of that data, champion bulls are now scattered across the country like the myriad descendants of Genghis Khan.

“When I started, about 15 years ago, we could only do two generations,” Gonzalez said. “Now, the chances of getting a good bucker are so much higher. The bloodline gives you all the right parts and pieces, from the strengths that come with good legs to the muscular build that helps them buck.”

The improvement in bulls presents a challenge to riders, who are produced the old-fashioned way.

“I’ve been saying for 20 years: They better start breeding cowboys,” said Roddy Coquat, a rider turned judge.

Riders grow up hearing about the death of Lane Frost, whose broken ribs pierced his heart and lungs at an event in Wyoming in 1989. After that, P.B.R., the professional bull riding circuit, mandated the use of protective vests. Many riders now wear helmets, too, though they are not required for anyone born before Oct. 15, 1994. Still, deaths persist. Most recently, Amadeu Campos Silva, a 22-year-old Brazilian rider, died after being stomped by a bull at a 2021 P.B.R. event in Fresno, Calif.

The cold-eyed fury of the bulls and the relative vulnerability of the riders were evident at the North Texas Fair and Rodeo in Denton, Texas, in late August. It took four cowboys to stabilize Junio Quaresima atop one bull. When the chute opened, Quaresima somehow held on through five seconds of bucking, leaping, twisting and kicking, his spine bending like a fishing rod. Then he landed in the dirt and wisely scurried to safety.

The words emblazoned on Quaresima’s vest provided all the commentary that was needed: “I’m crazy.”

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