By Cleon Rickel
GARNETT, Ks.--What does a good Amish boy growing up in Jamesport, Mo., do?
In Henry Yoder‘s case, he becomes a professional bull-rider.
In Henry Yoder’s case, he becomes the 2008 world champion of the National Federation of Professional Bull-riders.
“Everybody has God-given gifts,” Yoder said. “This is mine and I enjoy doing it.”
Being an Amish bull-rider might appear a bit against the grain, but Yoder said it’s a natural fit for him. Yoder grew up around farm animals on his parents’ farm at Jamesport. When his parents weren’t looking, “my cousins and I would dare each other to try to ride calves and young steers.”
When an uncle tried bull-riding, Yoder decided he would try as well. He’s been on the bull-riding circuit seven years, since he turned 18.
His parents and family were surprised when he made his career choice, he said.
“When I first started, they were a little leery of it,” Yoder said. “But I kept on riding and improving and they could see I could take care of myself.”
Part of bull-riding’s popularity as a spectator sport is that it looks dangerous. Riders grab a rope with one hand, climb aboard and wrap their legs around three-quarters of a ton of muscle and fury. When the gate opens, the bull explodes in a frenzy of spins, short charges and leaps with riders holding on for dear life. The ride lasts only a few seconds, until horse-mounted riders and garishly dressed rodeo clowns race in to drag them from the bulls‘ backs.
The appearance of danger is enhanced by the sight of many of the riders -- Yoder included -- wearing helmets with mesh face-masks, not cowboy hats.
“A lot of riders wear them,” he said. “After I broke my arm I thought about it and said ‘why not’?”
An important part of professional bull-riding is learning to conquer fear and forget about the danger, he said.
“It took me three years to get over the fear,” he said. “But when I could climb up and make the ride without worrying, I improved my level of riding.”
Now, it’s all in a day a day's work; a day that Yoder enjoys.
Although bulls are a wild whirlwind in the rodeo arena, most are docile in their pens, he said.
“I’ll go around the pens and pet most of them.”
Another important part of professional bull-riding is learning to conquer gravity, he said.
Learning to defy gravity is what separates the decent bull-riders from the really good riders, he said.
“Once you make that step, you can move up to that level,” he said.
Yoder is glad to jump astride his home-made bucking bull -- a carpet-and-duct-tape-covered metal tube the size of a 55-gallon oil drum on the end of a teeter-totter arrangement held together by two stout garage-door springs -- to demonstrate.
As a bull bucks head-first, tilting his head low and his hind quarters into the sky, the rider’s natural reaction is to lean back, Yoder explained.
“But if the bull takes off and then suddenly stops, you’re going to go flying over his head,” he said.
Instead, hanging on with his hand wrapped around the girth rope between his legs, the rider has to lean forward with the bull, waiting for the bull to throw him back up, to stay on, Yoder said.
Another important part of professional bull-riding is being physically fit. At 150 pounds,Yoder is lean and lanky but packed with muscle.
He runs two to three miles a day. His friends taught him karate and he practices his moves. In the off-season, he’s also on his home-made bucking bull.
“It’s almost like meditation for me,” Yoder said.
Although pro bull-riding goes year-around, the season cranks up around Memorial Day. Yoder has started the parade of rodeos that will keep him driving from town to town from day to day until late fall.
Yoder now lives in Anderson County, Kansas, 65 miles southwest of Kansas City, near Mount Ida, a tiny unincorporated town with a small school and a small meat processing plant nestled in the middle of a rural Amish and Old German Brethren pocket in east central Kansas. Several of his relatives, also Yoders, live in the neighborhood.
“During the summer, I may get home one or two days a week,” he said. On those days when he gets home, he hurriedly mows his lawn.
Yoder is among the more popular riders on the circuit and he said he enjoys meeting with fans and fellow riders.
“You always have to have a positive impact,” Yoder said. “There are a lot of kids who watch you and you have to make sure you’re a good role model for them.”
Although Yoder is a world champion of the NFBR and champion of other bull-riding groups, he aspires to reach loftier heights.
As a sign of the sport's popularity, there are several bull riding circuits that cover several different regions in the U.S. The NFBR is pro baseball’s equivalent of the Kansas City T-Bones.
“It’s sort of the top of the beginner’s level,” Yoder said.
Yoder said he makes enough on the rodeo circuits to get by but he wants to move up to the Kansas City Royals-level of professional bull-riding, the PBR -- Professional Bull Riders tour: Well-financed sponsorships, big-city arenas, televised events and the million-dollar checks awarded in Las Vegas to the PBR world champion.
He wants to win enough money to buy his own farm free and clear.
To reach the PBR, a bull rider has to pay his dues -- driving from small town to small town chasing rodeos, scraping up enough money for entry fees, shaking hands with countless rodeo queens, riding bulls at every opportunity and collecting a few broken bones along the way. Yoder has paid seven years’ worth of dues.
“It’s my favorite saying,” he said. “You can’t climb a ladder with both hands in your pockets.”