Back of the Chutes
A judge’s job starts long before the bulls buck. Allan Jordan breaks it down.
In this photo, taken on April 26, 2018, I’m checking ropes before a Professional Bull Riders event at the Clovis Rodeo in California. Whether I’m judging for the PBR or the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, I show up a couple hours early. My job back of the chutes is to make sure the contestants don’t get fouled and have a great chance of winning money. At the same time, I make sure the bull won't get hurt or taken advantage of. The competition should be clean and safe and fair.
We go through the animals, making sure their horns are tipped and that the bulls are healthy. You can tell. A bull might look sucked-up, like he’s a hundred-fifty pounds light. Has he been fed? Did he get down in the truck? You look at their hair condition, skin condition. You look at their eyes. It’s like going to the line in football. You get that little skinny guy yawning. Or you get that big greasy sumbuck that weighs 300 pounds more than you, and you go, Oh shit, I’m in trouble. We’re trying to be fair, because if the bull’s not a nineteen at least, there's going to be a re-ride option. And if a bull is sick, we have a veterinarian on hand.
At Clovis, I think we had sixty-four bulls and forty bull riders. You mingle through and look at the bulls in the pens. As soon as the contestants get checked in—about forty-five minutes before the bull ride—you check their ropes and spurs.
Then and Now
All I wanted to do growing up was ride bulls. We lived in Southern California. My Mom and Dad rodeoed. I used to help this stock contractor in the summer. When I was thirteen, I moved to his ranch in Northern California and lived with the cooks. As a kid, I rode mount-out bulls at pro rodeos, which is not allowed anymore. I got my PRCA permit when I was sixteen, which is not allowed anymore. And I got my pro card when I turned seventeen. That’s not allowed anymore, either. I was the PRCA bull riding Rookie of the Year in 1977.
That same year, I got my first taste of judging. I was traveling with a roughstock crew. At Livermore, California, they needed a rodeo official. I was the rookie kid.
“You’re out. You gotta judge,” the other roughstock cowboys said.
“What do you mean I gotta judge?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve been raised in this business. You know all the events. Get out there. You’re up, buddy.”
Back then, if a bull rider broke his leg, he might judge for five months. That’s how they got their officials. It didn’t work so great for the timed events. The roughstock guys were all torn up and sore. They didn’t even know how to set the barrier.
You had to be careful judging the rodeo. If anything smelled, they took care of it right then and there. There were plenty of good old-fashioned ass-whippings at the local bars. That’s why the PRCA’s judging program became so important. Jack Hannum was the man behind a lot of that evolution. He was a steer wrestler and calf roper. Back in the 1980s, he became the PRCA rodeo administrator and ran the judging program for twenty years. Mr. Hannum started training officials and recruiting new guys. You want to talk about a fantastic guy. He standardized rodeo judging.
I rode bulls for nineteen years. In 1994, I became a Pro Rodeo official. There were eighty or ninety PRCA officials back then. Today, there are about a hundred-forty. I’m one of eight full-time, salaried PRCA officials. On top of that, I probably judge a dozen or more PBR events per year.
In the photo, I’m checking the slack in the handhold to make sure it’s not too loose. We check spur rowels, too. At the PBR, we have specific standards that guarantee the safety of the animals. There’s no swing on that. The bulls are just as important as the contestants.
I’ve got this rope tied to the fence. The only way we can get the rope to work is if we pull it tight enough for that handhold to come down. But it won’t. I can tell. There’s too much slack in it. With my hand, I’m measuring from the flat side of the handhold to the top, where the bull rider hangs on to it. We use a two-by-four, because it’s a standardized size. We’ll put it in there, roll it over and pull the rope tight. If the two-by-four comes out, that handhold is too loose. You don’t see the two-by-four in this picture, but it’s coming! I’m about to say, Go get me the two-by-four. Because this rope’s no good.
The PBR has spur-rowel standards, too. The rowels are thicker than most and have five points. Any deviation can lead to disqualification or fines. At the PBR event in Clovis, we had to change out four or five sets of rowels. Three of them boys were straight out of Brazil. A couple were Americans up from the rodeos. They didn’t know. There was no intent. We’re in a teaching process at all times. The bull riders are getting educated about how we do it.
I also check the rowels or nicks or burrs that might hurt a bull. Again, there’s not intent. These guys are young and ready to ride bulls. They’ll say, No problem, my buddy will loan me a set of rowels.
It’s a little different in the PRCA. We don’t mandate a standard rowel size. The PRCA puts the responsibility on the cowboy. They’re professionals, and they know their craft. But if a cowboy hurts an animal, he's fined and he sits home for thirty days. We’re not going to tell them exactly what they can and cannot do. But if it goes the wrong way, they pay for it.
The PBR has such a diversity of people, from surfers right on down. They see it on TV and say, I want to do that, and here they come.
A lot of guys, like Robson Aragao in this picture, come up from Brazil. They’ve been taught differently. They pull rope the opposite way the Americans do. Our tail comes up and our handhold is at the end. In Brazil, the tail is on the other side, and it pulls the hand into the block of rope. The block is that big glob of leather and stuff at the end of the handhold. The Brazilians wedge their hand against the block. The way the Americans take a wrap, they don’t do that.
The Brazilians are accustomed to a handhold with a lot of slack. If you have too much slack, you can really pull a lot of rope into the bull. You’ll never feel it on your hand, but the bull will sure feel it. The typical American rope has way less slack in the handhold. When you pull it down on the bull’s back, it starts pulling your hand as well. You feel pressure on your hand as much as the bull feels pressure.
These guys want to win. Some of them will mouth off. Ultimately, the judge has the final say. That’s when the contestant has to shut up. If he gets belligerent, you can have them removed. You have to step up for the credibility of the sport. That’s no different from any sport. Luckily, it rarely happens in the PBR or Pro Rodeo.