Salvation at the Cowboy Church

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

How I hit rock bottom and discovered my true calling.

by Richie Champion


It’s Saturday night, July 3rd, the summer after my 11th grade year.

I’m in the chute on a bull named Harley at an amateur rodeo somewhere in East Texas. It’s hot. The air’s sticky and smells like fry oil and horse sweat. A buddy leans in and pulls my rope. I try to focus, to get out of my head and go with the adrenaline pumping through my body.

You’re always hopeful in that lull before the nod. Eight seconds. That’s all it takes. But tonight I feel extra hopeful for drawing a rider-friendly bull.

“Man, Harley’s just what you need,” one of the locals told me. He’s not mean. Has good timing. You can read him like a book. And he’s got these horns that curve straight back over your thighs, like a safety bar on a carnival ride. “Nobody bucks off Harley.”

I need a win, not for the money but for the confidence boost. After three years, hundreds of bulls and a broken leg, I can’t shake the voice in my head asking if I’m cut out to be a bull rider.

I nod. The gate opens. Harley bucks into the arena and spins right. We go around a couple of times. Maybe five seconds in, he stumbles just enough to sit me on my butt. He goes back to bucking, and I roll out of the safety of his horns and off his back. I slump to the ground and instinctively hop up and run. I’m not hurt—heck, I’ve taken harder falls off the bed—but I feel pathetic. Part of me feels like I deserve to get hooked.

You have to try something else, the voice says. You can’t keep falling off bulls.

The voice was right. Looking back, it’s obvious, especially considering the success I’ve had during these last seven years.

Bucking off Harley was my rock-bottom. But on that sticky July night in East Texas, who knew I’d find salvation the very next day.

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

The first time I ever saw a rodeo I was eight. My family had just moved to Texas from Alaska. My Dad’s in the hotel business. He had been managing the Sheraton in Anchorage but took a new job at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas. We were living there until we could find a house. The rodeo was in Mesquite. It’s only a dozen miles east, but for a kid raised in Alaska, getting away from all the concrete and noise was a breath of fresh air.

I was two when we moved to Anchorage. I learned to hunt and fish and was basically brought up wearing snow skis. I loved going fast. My parents grew up around horses. Mom was a competitive show jumper in Virginia, and Dad did some cowboying in New Mexico. Like most boys, I had a cowboy hat and cap pistols, but the only horse I’d ever seen was made from a broomstick.

All that changed at the Mesquite rodeo.

I’m not hurt—heck, I’ve taken harder falls off the bed—but I feel pathetic. Part of me feels like I deserve to get hooked.

Everything was new—the sites and sounds and smells, riders spurring horses around barrels, cowboys bucking off bulls and broncs. I thought, Sweet! This is what I want to do. I didn’t know which part. I just knew I wanted to rodeo.

We moved into a house in Plano, and I started taking riding lessons. From then until now, I’ve lived and breathed horses.

A turning point came when I was 13. My older brother, Doug, was learning to ride bareback horses. I decided I wanted to ride bulls. Some of his high school rodeo buddies took me to a practice pen and put me on a heifer. She was young and jumped in a tight little circle. I stayed on her, and you can just imagine how awesome that adrenaline rush felt. After three or four head, I got on a full-size bull. In 8th grade, I started competing, rode 10 bulls and broke my leg. That put me out for eight months.

I came back and competed for two years of high school rodeo. Man, I tried like hell. I rode hundreds of bulls and probably bucked off 80 percent of them. For six seconds, I was the best there ever was. But six seconds don’t cut it.

You know when you work at something complicated, like juggling or jumping rope? You struggle and struggle and pretty soon you stop thinking and just do it. With bull riding, I could never stop thinking. I could never swing the rope and jump at the same time.

Why didn’t I quit? You see so many young guys who can’t ride a bull or bucking horse to save their lives. But they keep getting on and keep getting on, and then one day they’re headed to the NFR. For me, it was one of those deals where you’re searching for buried treasure without a map. I was young and didn’t have myself on a clock. Why not? Everybody tells you to keep getting on, that if you want to win bad enough you’ll figure it out. I wanted to win. I crave winning more than the adrenaline rush. But I chose the wrong event.

Young Richie.jpg

Bucking off Harley was the first time I realized I sucked at bull riding.

That night, I came home and went to bed feeling low. The next morning, Doug shook me awake. “Hey, I’m gonna go get on a bucking horse,” he said. “You wanna come with me?”

“Yeah,” I said, still half-asleep, “and I’m gonna get on one, too.”

“Bullshit,” he said. “We’ll see when we get there.”

It was Sunday morning, July 4th. Independence Day. By then, we lived in the Woodlands, near Houston. We drove an hour north to the Branded for Christ Cowboy Church near Huntsville, Texas.

In Texas, there are plenty of cowboy churches—small, friendly houses of worship where the congregation does a little roping after the service. It’s rare for a cowboy church to keep bucking stock, but this church’s pastor, Bubba Miller, coached Sam Houston State University’s rodeo team and supplied stock for the area high school rodeos.

Doug and I entered the concrete-floored barn and joined a few dozen worshippers on folding chairs. Pastor Miller preached from a stage up front. Afterwards, we all went outside to buck horses.

I was nervous and jumpy. I had never ridden bareback on a bucking horse. But I had helped my brother, so I knew enough.

Pastor Miller loaded an old bay mare into the chute. She was almost black and branded “V71.” We figured out my hand fit the same bindings as my brother’s, so I used his glove and rigging. He gave me a few pointers. We taped up my elbow. A lot of guys just starting out don’t ride with any bindings. They want to start slow and get a feel for things. I had bindings on the front and back of my glove. My hand was locked. You’re in it, or you’re not, I thought. There’s no easy way out other than to do it right.

In the chute, after sliding my hand in, I was surprised at how calm and clear-headed I felt. My gut still buzzed with excitement, but I felt good. Comfortable. It’s hard to explain, but I just slid up and nodded. I lifted up on that rigging and kept my feet on the neck, and the gate opened.

It’s real common for young rough stock guys to black out. They get bucked off and come back and ask what happened, only to hear that they quit breathing due to nerves. Heck, a lot of guys don’t remember their first 20 horses. But on that first bucking horse, I saw everything clear as day.

Around the second jump, I let her roll and started spurring. And she started peeing. Everywhere! She was swishing her tail and covering me in piss. It was pretty gnarly, but I didn’t care. She bucked for about eight seconds and then stopped. I double-grabbed and kind of let up, but everybody started yelling, so I jumped back up to my rigging, and they whipped her on the butt, and she went to back to bucking! I rode her for another six or eight seconds and got off on the pickup man. I had never done that before, either, but it felt natural. All I could think was, Man, this is fricking awesome!

Doug and his buddies were stoked. So was I. Something had changed. On that bucking horse, I was more aggressive than ever, but also clear and calm. I didn’t overthink it. That ride was a revelation.

I was soaked in horse urine and reeked the whole way home, but I didn’t care. The next day, Doug and I went back for the church’s holiday rodeo. I had to borrow his gear again. He rode in the first section, and I rode in the second. I didn’t do as well as the day before, but I didn’t buck off. And I couldn’t wait to get on another horse.

I had a lot of catching up to do, so I went to every bareback school I could find and rode bucking horses any chance I got. That year, Doug and I drove up to the Branded for Christ Cowboy Church almost every Sunday. At first, I went for the bucking horses. But I got to know people and grew close with the community. The next thing I knew, I was looking forward to the church service and praying at the rodeos. We’d come home late Sunday night, go to school the next morning and look forward to going back the next weekend. The routine felt comforting.

Halfway through the year, as soon as I turned 18, I got my PRCA permit. I competed in pro rodeos on Fridays and Saturdays and the high school rodeo on Sunday mornings. After that, Doug and I went to church and bucked horses in the evening. I was on five or six horses every week and still wanted more. That year, I won the Texas State High School Rodeo Championship. After graduation, I rodeoed in college, and my career took off like a rocket. I was still a junior when I became the first cowboy ever to win the million-dollar prize at RFD-TV’s The American rodeo in Dallas.

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

People who knew me when I was falling off bulls wonder how come I can ride bucking horses. Some people play football, others play baseball. That’s the way the world works. I have no idea why bareback riding is my thing, but I’m insanely lucky that I found it. I try not to question why.

I do know this: I would not have had the same start if I hadn’t struggled so long to ride bulls. And if I had not spent so much time on horses growing up. I was comfortable with the animal and the dangers of bareback riding. Otherwise, my career would never have come together the way it did.

I hesitate to call it providence. Then again, I did discover my gift for bareback riding at church. These days, I’m not an avid churchgoer. I couldn’t quote the Book to you, but I have a relationship with God. Preparing for my third trip to Las Vegas for the NFR, thinking back on all the good things that happened after I bucked off Harley and climbed on that black bucking mare, I’m incredibly thankful.