Professional Bull riding is considered to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world. But that didn’t stop Cork man Ian Molan from joining its ranks and competing around the globe, writes Colm O’Connor.
In everyday life it roughly equates to the amount of time you might give to tying your shoelaces, setting the house alarm, or stirring and squeezing a tea bag for your morning cuppa.
But Ian Molan’s world is anything but everyday and mundane. In his life, what happens in those very same eight seconds can determine if he finishes his work day with a pay-cheque or attended to by paramedics.
Count again: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.’
Couldn’t be easier? Now, re-calibrate your perspective. Imagine how slowly those eight seconds must seem when you are holding onto a 2,000lb bull whose chief objective is to buck, bronk, twist, turn — and launch you into the air.
Pull up a chair and welcome to Ian Molan’s world.
Professional bull rider never came up in Ian Molan’s trip to his career guidance teacher in Carrigaline Community School.
His parents owned a farm out the outskirts of the Cork suburb and, like all children growing up in rural Ireland, he was warned to treat bulls with a healthy mixture of
respect and fear.
As a young lad he dabbled in riding ponies, horses and show jumping. The equine experience continued after he left school; he had a spell working on a stud farm in Kildare before heading for Australia as a 19-year-old employed in the yearling sales in New South Wales.
Soon, however, the big city life of Sydney became a little too claustrophobic for the country lad. He wanted out, and in Australia there are no lack of places to go.
“I heard there was some cattle mustering work going so I rang a fella I knew and he got me sorted. It was a bit of a last-minute scramble to pack a bit of gear. The guy said to bring a ‘swag’. I didn’t even know what that was, so I got off the phone with another Australian who explained it was a bedroll. After a six-hour bus journey, I thought that was it; it turns out there was another 200km to go to get to the farm!”
In these parts, there was no hand-holding inductions or tour of the workplace. This was cold water bath reality.
“I was straight into it the next morning, up at 5am on a horse and off we went. I just fell into that lifestyle.”
Hollywood films portray the life of a cowboy as a glamorous existence, but the reality was a world away from the Tinseltown tales of six shooters and whiskey guzzling. Home comforts were in short supply. The days were long and tiring at camps which were remote and arid. The work was physical and tough. Molan couldn’t have been happier.
Some corners of Queensland — and its inhabitants — look like they have been central-casted straight out of the American West.
Pick-up trucks (or utes as they are known in Australia) are the transport of choice. The men wear impressive hats and imposing belt buckles, while country-and-western music seems to be locked on every radio dial.
It is an image and heritage that they are proud of. So much so, that the region’s National Rugby League
franchise side is named the North Queensland Cowboys. The other common denominator with their Stateside stockmen is a love of rodeo, a kind of sporting glue that helped stick a widely dispersed rural society together.
“Rodeos in these rural parts of Australia is their tradition, something that goes back
generations. It is to them what hurling and football is here in rural Ireland,” explained Molan.
“These places are so remote that you could be talking a trip of 200km to the nearest town. Can you imagine having to drive 200km for GAA training? So, instead, rodeos would be on at weekends and you would have people coming from all these rural areas to either watch or compete.
"From the outside looking in, it might seem the craziest thing in the world, but when I show them hurling clips on YouTube they think that that’s insane. Kids in rural Australia grow up with the rodeo. In Ireland, you see kids pucking around with hurleys, in Australia you see small children up on top of young calves, they know no different.”
Molan was intrigued by it. Two bull riders ended up working alongside him for a spell as a means of supplementing earnings from their weekend work on the rodeo circuit. Molan soaked up their stories and tales of the thrills - and spills... of life on the road.
Just how hard can it be, Molan thought? Most people would have left it at that, content to imagine how they would react in a given situation in much the same way that audiences dream about filling the starring role when enthralled by a big-screen blockbuster. Molan’s hardwiring was different.
“One day there was a bull in the yard that they needed to take a rope off of it. I just jumped up on the bull for the laugh. It kept the two professional bull riders quiet for a bit! I went to town to see what the competition was like and then I just wanted to keep going further and further. Then, the more I got into it, the more I heard about titles, finals and money. I was hooked.”
Soon afterwards, he finished up in Queensland and was at a loose end. Instead of heading back to the city life, he decided to explore his options. A rider he had befriended offered to put him up for a few weeks. The only snag was the offer was a couple of thousand miles away. Where others see obstacles, Molan sees opportunities.
“I bought a car and drove down to him in Victoria and went to a rodeo, which he won. Afterwards, he introduced me to a couple of fellas, Ron and Jack Woodall.”
This was to prove Molan’s first lucky break, though he didn’t realise it at the time. It turned out the Woodalls were huge names in the rodeo business; they were stock contractors who organised events, the bulls, the horses, the whole kit and kaboddle. It would be like an aspiring young hurler coming to Ireland and bunking in with Brian Cody or Derek McGrath.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” says Molan of the chance meeting. “They had a little house which they let cowboys stay in and I jumped at the chance to go there.”
Molan didn’t have the most auspicious of starts, breaking his arm on the very first day practising at his new home.
Within weeks, though, he had cut off the cast and was back at the coalface, a willing student for his new employers.
“A few months later, I started competing in the second division at the lower levels, but the key thing was that I was learning a lot. Most of the other guys had been doing it since they were kids. And it wasn’t just about riding, it was all the rules, the regulations, the right gear, the treatment of the animals. It was an entirely different world.”
He quickly rose through the ranks.
“I won the Victorian State title, I was the Australian Rookie Bull riding champion and made the [overall] Australian finals.”
The 2013 Rookie title was a staggering achievement, given that Molan was competing with 10 young riders from across Australia, many of whom who had been involved in the sport since childhood. Molan, who reckons he is “the only Irishman in the business”, insists he wasn’t treated any differently because of his background.
“The rodeo fellas, especially the Aussies, don’t care who you are.
“They don’t care if you are a world champion or a useless lump. If you are a good fella, you are a good fella, but if you come in talking a big game, they will be quick to bring you down a peg or two.
“I like the Australians. They are straight down the line.”
Molan’s primary experience was in Australia, but he has also had spells in Canada, Mexico and the US. The last of these is the end of the yellow brick road in the rodeo game. It’s where the mega money is, and everyone is chasing the dream. Molan secured a work visa (sponsored by a US champion) so he could try his luck in the States. Everything about the adventure was bigger than anything he had experienced before.
Rodeos in America are huge, attracting crowds of anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000. The events themselves may be glamorous — the life around them not so much so.
The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) association is a multi-million dollar company (paying out $150,000,000 in prize money since 1992) which runs the shows across the States and continues to set record-breaking numbers for bums on seats and in the online world.
“The States are great, but costly. You have to fly everywhere and then you are paying for motels and restaurants. To save cash, four of us would share rooms and car journeys, but you need a good travelling crew, guys you get on with and guys who are competitive.
“You were constantly trying to stay ahead of the curve.
“The top, top guys were getting massive sponsorship and they are not worrying aboutmoney [two- time PBR World Champion JB Mauney has made over $7m in prizemoney alone], but at the other end, it is much, much tougher. You are always battling to stay afloat.”
And that was where Molan found himself, swimming with the big sharks and trying not to get sucked into a vicious game of catchup.
“If you are running low on the bank account, the fear is that you start trying too hard [on the bull] in a bid to win and make money and, if you are trying too hard, you are not relaxed in competition and then you make the wrong decisions. When you are rodeoing, you must keep your focus on the job at hand and not be distracted by other things going on outside of the event.”
In the bottom tier, however, that’s easier said than done.
“It is like a guy in Ireland wanting to be a champion jockey, or playing a county final or making it to the All-Ireland. If you are in it to get rich, get a real job.
"It is more about passion and pride, travelling down the road with your mates, even though you are competing against one another. I could turn up tomorrow with no gear, and the guys would all pitch in to give me some. In golf, would the other players give you their clubs?”
There is a routine of sorts for riders in the hours before they climb onboard a bull 10 times their weight and head into battle.
Molan usually tries to check-in about two hours in advance, pay his entry fee
and begin the countdown to action.
Given the seriousness of what’s about the unfold, the mood among his colleagues is surprisingly relaxed.
“Guys are laughing and joking in the dressing-room,” he reveals. “There is a lot of messing — you would be better off not knowing half the stuff that goes on!
“You have some quiet guys in the corners. Other guys are loud. Some like to listen to music. Others duck in and out for a cigarette. “Everyone has their routine, whatever works for them.”
Riders then discover the bull they are drawn on and wander back to the pen to look at the animal, and see if they can discover any nuggets of information which might assist their cause later in the evening. Then, it’s back to suit up and boot up.
Molan’s kitbag contains all manner of items: A bull rope, gloves, boots, jeans, bull
riding vest, helmet (not compulsory, but getting there), a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of chaps and spurs.
“Once you get on the bull, you don’t think, it is just about your reaction. You focus on staying relaxed, setting your rope, and breathing.
“The best comparison to what we do is to the way that professional golfers approach their game. They aren’t overthinking the shots, they are trying to keep it as natural as possible.
“The worst thing to do on the bull is to be fidgety. The more messing around by the rider, the more the bull will play up more.
“Then, it is just like stepping into a boxing ring. You just go at it.”
The gate opens.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
“You have to ride for eight seconds to get a score; nothing under that counts. Points are awarded towards the rider and towards the bull. So, for example, if a bull goes in a straight line the points awarded will be less than if it was bucking.
"I could be hanging onto a really good bull [and] the judges might score the bull very high, but might score me low. The number of rides depends on the competition or the event. You could get on two bulls and, if you make the top 10, you could be called back again.”
Which is all well and good, but the challenge then is that a rider may have picked up knocks or bruises from the earlier outings so the rides become more challenging.
Then, there are the bulls, themselves. Like the riders, the animals they are climbing onboard are an elite bunch.
“The bulls now are getting bigger, tougher, faster and stronger. There is big money in the breeding side of things. The breeding programme is approached in the same way that the likes of Coolmore would deal with horses,” says Molan.
So what defines a good bull?
“The kick. Those bulls know what they are doing. All have their own personalities. They know the second the gate open that they must buck... but afterwards you could nearly pet them.”
A few years ago, the owner of one of the top-five bulls in the world put up a video clip of his 12-year-old daughter riding the bull around on their home farm, like a pet. A week later, that same bull was going to work on a world champion!”
Molan has experienced the full remit of their power and pace.
“The bull you are on depends on the draw. The bulls that have never been ridden are the challenge. You wonder if you could be the first guys to ride him. Some bulls, I’d class as fun bulls.
"They are good and honest and you know you are going to win good money. They are going to carry you. To the crowd, they look tough, but to us, you just have to ride them there. Some bulls are tough. They move forward and jerk and pull and tear. And they are challenge”
“All of the things you see in trauma wards from routine sports injuries all the way up to the type of things you see when they scrape folks off the highway at night” — Tandy Freeman MD, the PBR medical director on the injuries sustained by competitors.
“BLOOD, bruises and broken bones” is quite the introductory line on the section of PBR website which provides updates on the well-being of riders who have been knocked up — or down — in competition.
Google the words rodeo and injuries and prepare for a list that ranges from ghastly to gruesome and all points in between.
Molan’s career has been no exception, though he counts himself fortunate.
“My most recent one came earlier this year when I broke my left leg just above the ankle (see X-ray picture).
“I had to get plates and screws inserted and am still laid up with that. I’ve been
unlucky in terms of injuries: I broke my left arm, my right wrist, my left ankle and a few ribs. I’ve also had my left shoulder reconstructed.
"I also ended up getting a few plates in the face and I lost my right eye. That happened in
practice, when I got pulled down and hit the bull’s horn.
“I wouldn’t say it was a bad career choice, but not the career choice I had planned for. It is just the way things have worked out.”
That leg break may yet prove to be career-ending. He sustained it in the States and is back in Ireland rehabbing it and looking at his options. Injuries in this game mean no work, and no work means eating into his savings. The problem that riders like Molan face is that their work visas are specific to their rodeo riding; he can’t even stack shelves in Australia or the States if he is laid-off from his ‘official job’.
“If you are in for the money, you are in it for the wrong reason,” he says. “It is fine for the top, top guys, who are sponsored and have all of that backing, but for the rest, it is a difficult slog. To be honest, I am unsure what I am doing or where I am going. Time will tell.”
The parting question is a deep one for someone who puts their body on the line on a daily basis.
Are you happy?
“I have no regrets. Things happen, and things could have been a lot worse. I read a book recently called Reinvent Me [by Camilla Sacre-Dallerup] and there was a paragraph in it which sums up where I’ve come from and what I’ve achieved.
"It is better than anything that I could write, or say myself, but it sums it all up perfectly.
“When I look back on my career, it is not the winning moments that spring to mind first, it is the people I met, the experiences I shared, the actual journey of getting there, the inspiration and kindness from strangers I met along the way.
"Those are the moments that make me smile.”
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