A Riding School Where Students Can Learn to Take the Bull by the Horns

Times Staff Writer

Wings, Bad to the Bone and Money Bags basked in the spring sunshine in the hills north of Santa Maria, contemplating malice. It's an activity that comes as naturally to a bull as swatting flies.

A bull doesn't need anyone to teach him to be mean. A bull rider, on the other hand, requires guidance. There's nothing natural about perching atop 2,000 pounds of sour attitude. So a man who wants to sample the big bucks of rodeo bull riding (a top rider can leave the National Finals with more than $50,000) has got to learn to act unnaturally.

The No. 1 School

The best place to learn the trade in all the country, some say, is at Gary Leffew's Bull Riding School, home of Bad to the Bone and other infamous bucking bulls.

While the bulls brooded in the sun on a recent Saturday morning, a dozen riders-in-training circled Leffew, world bullriding champ in 1970. The 42-year-old former rodeo rider (he only rides for TV commercials these days) was a lesson in cowboy cool in his pressed grass-green cowboy shirt and snug Wrangler jeans. The accessories--hat, belt and boots--were black, with a tiny diamond horseshoe pinned to his hatband.

Leffew seemed to his students to have it made. He drives a two-tone chocolate-and-cream Cadillac. He owns a bucolic ranch where he lives with his wife, Sandie, and their sons, Judd Paul, 11, and Brett, 19. And a lot of young bull riders look up to him.

A Troubled Youth

But Leffew didn't always have it so good. Reared on a ranch just south of Nipomo, he was in and out of jail 10 times before he was 19, he says, then ran with the Hell's Angels for a while and generally made trouble. Until he got on a bull. There, at last, he discovered a better way to get the adrenaline rush his hoodlum activities had previously provided. The thrill became so addictive, Leffew said, "I'd almost walk through hell to get it."

Newly married, with a baby on the way, Leffew had to find a way to overcome self-doubts in order to stay on the bulls long enough to make a living on the bull-riding circuit, he said.

The 5-foot-9, 155-pound rodeo hero explained to his assembled class that through goal setting, positive thinking and visualization, his dream came true.

"It's a mental game," Leffew told the riders. "If you don't have that bull whipped in your mind before you crawl on him. . . ."

There was no need to elaborate. Bull riding is the most hazardous event in the rodeo--with the exception of bullfighting. (Formerly known as rodeo clowns, rodeo bullfighters distract the animals when a bull rider has fallen.) Leffew himself wears a metal plate in his leg, a reminder of the day in 1972 when a bull named Shorty T. bucked him and then stepped on him.

Bruises, scrapes and an occasional broken bone are all in a day's class work at the Leffew school. (Leffew teaches six weeklong classes a year on his ranch, and additional classes in Texas, Florida, Kansas and other states. Students pay $250 for the class.)

Leffew said the only serious injury occurred a few years ago when a young man was bucked off a bull and landed on his head, breaking his neck. The accident left him a paraplegic.

After Leffew's morning lecture, the bull riders lined up with their injuries behind a pick-up, which doubles as a portable clinic. Marty Kiff, a trainer at San Luis Obispo High School, was on hand to treat routine injuries.

Several men held out their open palms to Kiff. Each of those hands appeared to have several gaping holes. This is the most common bull rider's injury, said Kiff--newly formed callouses torn open by the bull rope.

After taping a few palms, Kiff moved on to Albert Nez's leg.

Forced to Wear Tennis Shoes

Nez, from Keams Canyon on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, was stepped on by a bull during the second day of class. Kiff taped Nez's ankle and lower leg as best he could, but Nez was forced to trade his cowboy boots for a pair of loosely laced Reeboks.

To the students who were still in the game, Leffew said in his lazy, confident drawl, "Rosin up. I'll go get my video equipment and let's get on some (bulls)."

The riders, most of whom had rodeo experience before coming to Leffew's class, appeared to be at home in the bull ring. All the trappings were familiar and pleasing--the Bull's Eye Barbecue Sauce banners flapping, the black-hatted cowboys strapping on spurs and ritualistically drawing rosin up and down their bull ropes to give a better grip.

There were no female riders around to interfere with the clubbish scene. Women are not considered serious competitors in bull-riding circles. There are a few who do ride, Leffew said, but only on "mediocre" bulls.

The name of the game is bad bulls, or rank bulls as the cowboys call them. "Whoever draws the rankest bull and rides him for eight seconds will win the rodeo," Leffew said. "You get a sorry bull, you ain't gonna win money."

Tales of Crooked Nose

Pasadena resident Dwayne Hargo, a rodeo bullfighter, regaled the students with tales of Crooked Nose, a rank bull who has been known to terrorize rodeo competitors by banging his sole horn up against the ring before a round, making the arena vibrate like a tuning fork.

Most of the bulls on Leffew's ranch aren't all that rank by rodeo standards. Oh, they puff and wheeze a bit in the chutes, just enough to quicken the pulse of any cowboy settling down on their backs.

As one rider adjusted his bull rope in his gloved left hand and clamped his legs around a bull's fly-specked shoulders, the animal took a sideways kick at the gate as if to show he wasn't simply driver-training material.

"Really ride now, Norm," Brett Leffew encouraged Norm Nelson, an LAPD detective taking his position at the gate. "You can handle this son of a buck."

The gate lifted. The bull corkscrewed out into the arena. Nelson stayed with the twisting, bucking animal by assuming the bull rider's posture--chest thrust out, ungloved hand waving above him.

Nelson, 43, is a veteran of police rodeos. He's had ribs broken, a shoulder dislocated and the left side of his face crushed. "It just comes with the territory," he said.

A Quick Exit

Like most of the seasoned riders, he looked cool enough until he hit the ground and had to meet the bull on his own level. The best of the riders get wild-eyed looks, and then scramble away on all fours like frightened kittens.

Why the panicky exit?

A bull, unlike a bucking bronco, is not satisfied to dislodge a rider. Once a rider is on the ground, the bull is out to pulverize him. Or if not the rider, then the bullfighter dancing around in the dust, or the rider's cowboy hat, or a bystander leaning on the rail.

Phoenix attorney Steven Brown discovered this aspect of bull behavior during his first rodeo bull ride. Brown, 34, took to riding after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year and a half ago. He said it was "a way of trying to pull myself together."

Physically, though, it tore him apart. He jumped on a rank bull named Lizard before a full house at the Phoenix Veterans' Memorial Coliseum several months ago. Lizard promptly dumped Brown, then proceeded to shovel the attorney up onto his horns--a condition known as being hooked--and toss him across the ring. Lizard repeated the throw no less than seven times before the bullfighters could distract him--making it a world's record for Lizard in the bull-rider toss, Brown said.

But a concussion and a few broken ribs did not sour Brown on the sport. While attending Leffew's school to brush up on his bull riding, he declared that rodeo is still the best sport in America.

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