Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When a bullrider barrels out of the chute at the 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, what most fans see is the spectacle of a man trying to hang on to the back of a whirling, snorting tornado with horns.
But to the trained eyes of an NFR judge, the eight-second ride of a wiry cowboy atop a 2,000-pound bucking bull is an extreme sport that has to be scored precisely.
That’s because a half-point difference in scores out of 100 possible points could put a cowboy in or out of the NFR prize money.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these guys,” said Clint Corey, the NFR’s supervisor of pro officials. “If they make a wrong call in the finals and it costs somebody a world championship, that’s pretty big.”
Corey, who was the NFR’s 1991 world champion bareback rider, said the competitors voted for the top 14 judges who will score this year’s events.
The rodeo judges are former competitors who, like Corey, have found a way to stay in their sport through judging. Corey qualified for the NFR 18 times during his bareback riding career.
“After competing so long, I want to be able to give back and still be a part of professional rodeo,” he said.
Unlike NFL referees or baseball umpires, professional rodeo judges have to know the intricacies of seven sports, Corey said.
The NFR features three “rough stock” events — bullriding, bareback riding and saddle bronc riding — and four timed events — tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing.
Each of the seven events features 15 top qualifiers. For team roping, each team consists of two ropers — a header and a heeler — so there are 30 qualifiers in that event.
Every night of the 10-day rodeo, each competitor or team gets to compete against the other 14 in another round of his or her event.
And every night, there will be six prize winners in each event’s round: $18,257 for first place, $14,429 for second, $10,895 for third, $7,656 for fourth, $4,711 for fifth and $2,944 for sixth.
They’ll each go 10 rounds in their event during the 10 days. At the end, those who make the most money get an additional prize: $46,828 for first place, $37,986 for second, $30,036 for third, $22,085 for fourth, $15,901 for fifth, $11,484 for sixth, $7,950 for seventh and $4,417 for eighth.
Because so much money is at stake, fairness is an issue, Corey said. So he picked 28 of the top judges from across the country from which the cowboys chose.
“I wanted it to be as fair as it can be,” he said.
The 14 NFR judges are from Iowa, Missouri, California, Oregon, Texas, Louisiana and Wyoming. Corey said he and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s director of rodeo administration have decided not to release the NFR judges’ names publicly.
Of the 140 judges who officiate PRCA rodeos throughout the year, eight do it full time and are salaried employees of the PRCA. They are all judging at this year’s NFR.
The following are some of the factors judges consider in different events, according to the PRCA:
The judges look for whether the rider is getting the bull to buck and whether the rider gets into a rhythm with the bull. Half of the rider’s points depend on how hard the bull tries to throw him. The other half of his points depend on his skill and form during the eight-second ride.
If a cowboy’s score is affected by equipment failure or a bull that doesn’t buck to performance specifications, the judges may offer the cowboy a clean-slate chance on a different bull, called a reride.
A cowboy’s feet must be above the point of the horse’s shoulders when the horse’s front feet hit the ground. If so, he “marked the horse out.” If not, he “missed him out” and the ride is disqualified.
The rider has to hold on with one hand to a rigging atop a horse’s withers that is secured with a cinch. As the bronc bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, rolling his spurs (which are dulled and don’t break the animal’s skin) up the horse’s shoulders. As the horse descends in the jump, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse’s shoulders in anticipation of the next jump.
A bareback rider is judged on his spurring technique, the degree to which his toes remain turned out while he is spurring and his willingness to take whatever might come during his ride.
Saddle bronc riding
The objective is a smooth, rhythmic ride, but the rider also must “mark out” the horse on the first jump from the chute. If he misses the mark, he gets no score. He has to try to stay in the saddle, holding only a thick rein attached to the horse’s halter. He can’t touch any part of the horse or his own body during the eight-second ride.
Like bareback, judges base scores in part on the horse’s bucking action, the rider’s control and the spurring action.
Two riders try to bring down a steer with ropes in the timed event. The “header” throws the first rope over the animal’s head or horns, and the “heeler” throws a second rope to catch both of the steer’s hind legs. Catching only one leg is a five-second penalty. A “crossfire” penalty is given if the header doesn’t change the direction of the steer before the heeler catches the hind legs.
The competitor, known as a “bulldogger,” has to catch up to a running steer, jump off his horse, grab the steer by the horns and force the steer to the ground as quickly as possible. If the rider leaves the box (the area a horse and rider back into before they make a run), too soon — failing to give the animal enough of a head start — the rider is assessed a 10-second penalty.
The calf gets a head start and the roper starts from the box, throws a looped rope and catches the calf, pulling the rope tight to the horse. The roper then jumps off the horse, runs to the calf and throws it on its side, called “flanking.” He then ties any three legs together with a “pigging string,” a short looped rope that he clenches in his teeth during the run. Finally, he throws up his hands, remounts and rides forward to create slack in the rope.
If the calf kicks free, he receives no time score. If he leaves the box early, he gets a 10-second penalty.
The event features female riders trying to ride around three barrels, set in a triangle, for the fastest time. The run is made in a cloverleaf pattern: first riding to the barrel on the right side, making a tight clockwise circle, then to the barrel on the left, making a counterclockwise circle, then to the third barrel, making a counterclockwise circle, then riding back to the start. Knocking over a barrel is a five-second penalty.