Bullish About Bulls

For The State Fair, A Family Of Frederick County Ranchers Lends A Bit Of The West To The East Coast

August 27, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

For 10 days beginning tomorrow, the Maryland State Fair in Timonium will offer samplings of the best the Old Line State has to offer: crab cakes, horse racing, corn on the cob, livestock, carnival rides, bull-riding.

OK, maybe one of those doesn't exactly fit - Maryland has never been known for its cowboys and bucking bulls. But don't tell that to the thousands of people who show up throughout the summer at the J Bar W Ranch in Johnsville in Frederick County, where breeding, training and riding bulls is a 24-hour-a-day operation. And don't try to convince the state fair people that there's nothing Maryland about bull riding. This is the fourth year they've invited the J Bar W folks to stage a competition at the annual end-of-summer celebration, and it's always a crowd-pleaser.

"We'll probably draw four or five thousand people," says state fair President and General Manager Max Mosner. "You don't think of the East Coast as being rodeo territory - you think Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado. But we're impressed with the job they do. You don't often see cowboy hats and boots here, like you do out in the West. But you'll see them that night."

Sonny Williams, who owns the J Bar W along with his dad, John, and sister, Lisa, started riding bulls when he was about 17. At the time, his family was raising beef cattle, barely making ends meet. But even while his family was in the beef business, Sonny - he's really John III, but nobody calls him that - was far more interested in riding cows than milking them.

"Even when I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to ride bulls, I don't know why," says Williams, 37, sitting under a shade tree on his 50-acre farm, sporting a brown cowboy hat, a championship belt buckle from the 1991 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championships in Cowtown, N.J., and the grizzled, laconic countenance that generations of cowpokes have worn like a badge of honor. "It's the adrenaline rush, I guess. Some people do skydiving, jumping out of airplanes. I ride bulls."

Better him than you or me. A tour of the farm, one of two that together make up the 180-acre ranch, reveals some impressive-looking bulls. Unlike the stereotypes, they don't seem especially nasty; in fact, they seem as laid-back as their owner, contentedly munching on hay, occasionally nuzzling one another or gazing with utter lack of interest at the humans entering their pens. These old bulls know the score, and they're not impressed, or much scared. Some skittish youngsters, not yet accustomed to human contact or ready for the riding circuit, huddle together in an adjacent pen, looking nervous and shuffling their hooves. But the bulls, veteran buckers all, don't charge, don't snort, don't defiantly stand their ground.

"We're not going to hurt them, so they're not afraid of us," says Williams. "Everybody thinks that when we breed them, we breed them for meanness. But we don't. We breed them for athletic ability.

"One that's mean," he adds with a sigh and a slight grin, "that doesn't mean he'll buck. He'll throw people, but that's about it."

But what these bulls lack in attitude, they make up for in size. A 1,700-pound, six-year-old brown bull grooms one of his pals, while across the pen, a mottled white and black bull, five years old and weighing more than a ton, stops just long enough to impress everyone with his size before going on to find some more hay.

Get these guys on center stage, with a flank rope wrapped around their waist, and the action begins. Watch them at the fair Monday night, when 35 of the ranch's best bulls will be ridden by 25 competing cowboys, and things will get pretty frenetic. The bulls will be trying to get those annoying ropes off, bucking and jumping like a bovine Tasmanian devil, while their riders will be doing everything they can to stay on for the required eight seconds. Bull and rider will both be awarded scores by a two-judge panel, with the beasts rated on their bucking prowess and aggressiveness, the men for their ability to hang on with something resembling grace. "If you're hanging on to the side of a bull, instead of riding one," Williams explains, "they'll deduct you some points."

Each rider goes twice, with a maximum total of 100 points awarded. Score in the 80s, and you're doing pretty darn good. Get into the 90s, and you and your bull are superstar material.

The fair show will also feature a barrel racing competition, where women riders and their horses navigate a course outlined by barrels, as well as mutton busting, where kids ride lambs. But it's the big-boy bulls that most people will be coming to see. And Williams, who quit competitive riding when he turned 30 - "When you're 18-24," he observes dryly, "stuff don't hurt nearly as bad" - regards his bulls as athletes. Not in the sense that, like racehorses, they can be trained. "Bucking, it's not something they can be trained to do," he says. "Either they want to, or they don't."

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