Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 03 April 2012 15:07
At the very least, the brothers from rural Durham would have earned an “A” for “adrenaline rush.”
Kyle, 17, and Levi, 14, competed the last weekend of spring break in the Kansas Junior Bullriding Association Finals in Fort Scott—and did well.
Kyle won the Junior Bulls division while Levi finished second in Senior Steers. By virtue of their skills, both brothers qualified to compete Aug. 1-4 at the Youth Bull Riders World Finals in Abilene, Texas.
The YBR event draws competitors from 19 associations from across the U.S. as well as from Canada and Mexico.
This season, KBJA offered a circuit of 17 competitions between July 16 of last year and the March 23 finals. Kyle finished as the top point scorer for the season in Junior Bulls while Levi was second in Senior Steers.
Kyle plans to ride in the Senior Bulls division at the World Finals while Levi said he will compete in Junior Bulls.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, the labels “junior” and “senior” apply to the skills of the animals, not the age of the riders.
“Junior bulls are either older bulls that aren’t ranked, or younger bulls that are in the stage of becoming senior bulls,” Kyle said. “Senior bulls are better bulls (for scoring) because they buck harder, they’ll throw you around a lot more, and are just harder to ride.”
The two brothers showed an inclination for the sport as early as age 3.
“In the beginning they were going out and sitting on our dairy calves,” said their mother, Bonnie Mendoza. “Then, all of my husband’s brothers were doing rodeo in Mexico, so they kind of encouraged it.”
Levi said his extended family was a key influence.
“When we lived in Oklahoma, a bunch of uncles would come down and everybody would ride,” he said. “The little kids would ride the calves and the older guys would ride the bigger ones. We did that just about every Sunday.
“After that, when we moved to Missouri, we were riding in the Little Britches Rodeo. I just thought I wanted to ride more than just once a year.”
When he was 12, Levi participated in a rodeo school in Rosehill, one of many schools offered in the region by an accomplished veteran in the sport, Lyle Sankey.
“A lot of kids who have never even been on a bull before go there,” Levi said. “He teaches you what equipment you need and what not to use on your equipment. And he teaches us the techniques.”
Brother Kyle noticed the impact the school had on Levi’s performance, so he enrolled in a Sankey school in Derby last month—and was named the champion student there.
“I came back for (KBJA) finals and won first place,” Kyle said about the impact of the school on his own performance.
Both brothers say the adrenaline rush is a key reason they’re hooked on bull riding.
“It gets me ready,” Kyle said. “When I’m on top of the bull, my adrenaline is pumping so much that nothing can ever happen to me. Usually that saves (me), because I’m usually running before I hit the ground.
“It’s fun,” he added. “I’ve never liked a sport better than this one.”
Levi said a lot of folks have trouble understanding their passion.
“People don’t see why I like getting thrown on the ground,” he said. “It’s an adrenaline rush.
“I also like that me and (Kyle) can be there together, and help each other in it,” Levi added. “I don’t ever have to worry about having help getting my bull ready because he’s always here—and I’m there to help him, too.”
Levi said he also likes the unpredictability of each ride.
“In this sport you don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “In basketball you know what you’ve got to do, but in this sport you don’t know if the bull is going to buck straight or spin. So it’s an adrenaline rush and a challenge—and I like challenges.”
The brothers said a lot of people don’t realize that bull riding is a physically demanding sport.
“You have to have really strong legs to do it because you have to be able to hold on with your ankles and your knees at the same time,” Levi said. “And you have to be able to hold on tight and at the same time hold on with your hand—and have your upper body positioned well and keep you balanced.”
Added Kyle, “It’s not just physical. You have to be mentally there. If you’re not mentally there, you’re on the ground.”
Pain and injuries
The brothers have learned from experience that even with all the safety gear they wear during a ride—a helmet, mouth guard, protective vest and chaps—the sport can be dangerous even if you’re mentally prepared.
“Sometimes in the association there are some pretty mean junior bulls,” Kyle said. “I got one, and if it hadn’t been for the bull fighters I probably would have a lot of broken bones. I did get a deflated lung.
“Those are the kind of bulls I don’t like,” he added. “But you want a bull that bucks hard, so you can rack up some points.”
On another occasion, Kyle was thrown off the bull and got kicked in the head on the way to the ground. Dazed, he managed to stumble to the gate, then simply flopped to the ground as he got to the top of it. Kyle, who lost consciousness, was diagnosed at the hospital with a concussion.
Levi said he got hurt when he wasn’t mentally ready to ride.
“I left the bucking chute out of position, then I got bucked forward,” he said. “I was too far back, and then I went forward—his horn came underneath my helmet and hit me (on the chin). It knocked me out.”
The incident caused concern, but Levi escaped without serious injury.
The boys’ parents, Ernesto and Bonnie, realize the potential for harm, but they also know bull riding is their sons’ passion.
“As a mom I make sure they have protective gear—from the mouthpiece, to the helmet, to the vest,” Bonnie said. “If I could get them convinced, I would like for them to wear a neck collar, too. But it’s not real comfortable for them.
“I do a lot of praying before each of their rides,” she added. “Maybe I’m a bad mom, but I don’t pray for success. I pray for safety.
“It’s nice for them to win—I get really excited and ecstatic,” Bonnie said. “But if they don’t make a qualified ride, and as long as they don’t get hurt, then I think we had a good rodeo.”
Words of advice
The brothers say a lot of their peers at school don’t really understand their sport or their passion for it, although Levi cites a small group of close friends who do support him and have even seen him compete.
But Kyle and Levi do have advice for anyone who might be interested in competition.
“I would tell them that they should probably go to Lyle’s school first,” Kyle said. “They’re probably thinking that they won’t get hurt, that it’s easy because people make it look easy. But if they’re going into it and don’t have any experience, they are going to get hurt. They should get some training and be emotionally and mentally prepared.”
They also need to be financially prepared, added Levi.
“It’s a very expensive sport,” he said, citing the cost of the protective equipment, entry fees and travel.
To offset their own expenses, the boys work at a nearby dairy as well as take odd jobs for people in Durham and Hillsboro. They also have secured a few corporate sponsorships.
The boys will need all the financial help they can get as they prepare for the YBR World Finals this summer.
“Worlds is really expensive, but they’ve been doing really, really good at contributing to the cost,” Bonnie said.
Kyle and Levi both see bull riding as way to get to college. Kyle already has his eye on Fort Scott Community College’s rodeo program; Levi hasn’t selected a school yet.
After college, they’d like to pursue a professional career.
And when that’s over?
They hope to become stock contractors who raise bulls for others to ride.