An eight second ride is all it takes to be in the running for prize money, belt buckles and rodeo glory.

But first, riders need to stay on up to 900 kilograms of bucking bovine … holding a rope with just one hand.

Enter the world of amateur bull riding where up-and-coming bull riders risk life and limb.

James Keatley has cowboy pedigree running through his veins … his father used to ride bulls and his family have been involved in the rodeo circuit for decades.

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James Keatley rides bull ride at Penola Rodeo(Suppled: Liz Rymill)

Mr Keatley has taken his passion for rodeo sport to the next level over the past couple of years by riding Division Two bulls in rodeos around the country.

But his mum hasn’t seen him ride just yet.

“She’s never seen me ride in person before … I think she was a bit worried the first time I hopped on … I didn’t give her a lot of notice,” he said.

“I found out I was riding the night before and then told mum that’s what I was going to do the morning of.

He jumped on two bulls at his local rodeo in Branxholme in South West Victoria.

“Mum didn’t watch and dad was a pretty worried, but after that one went alright, they’ve sort of come around to the idea,” she said.

a cowboy with a black hat rides a bucking horse in a sand arena at Penola Rodeo
A bronc rider takes to the ring at the Penola Rodeo.(ABC South East: Liz Rymill)

The glint of gold buckles

Mr Keatley said he spent his younger years “hanging over the rails” watching cowboys at rodeos around the country.

But he said it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he decided to try it for himself.

“I’m on a horse most days at the feedlot where I work,” he said.

“I mentioned to some of the guys that I work with that I was interested in getting on something at a rodeo.

“They said, ‘how about a bronc?’ but I said, “how about a bull?'”

His first ride, at Branxholme, was in the second division bull ride — a starting point for amateur cowboys on slightly smaller bulls.

“I was using all borrowed gear, I was second last to ride, I dropped my rope in the chute, I finally got set … the chute opened, and we got out into the ring, but yeah … the bull turfed me pretty good,” he said.

“It was an experience.”

Cowboy checking over the bronc at a rodeo
A cowboy checks over a bronc at the Penola Rodeo.(ABC South East SA: Liz Rymill)

He said there was not a lot of time to plan before the chute opened.

a western rodeo saddle lays on the ground Penola Rodeo
There are no saddles for bull riders.(ABC South East SA: Liz Rymill)

“It’s all over pretty quickly — there’s not much time to think, and I reckon that’s a good thing,” he said.

“I get in and get out as quick as I can.”

Bull riders need to stay on board for eight seconds to qualify for the final round, and are scored out of 100 possible points by judges.

50 points go to the rider and 50 points to the bull.

Mr Keatley said there were practice days and “ways to work on your skills”, but “it’s still very much one of those things where the only way you get better at it is by doing more of it”.

“You’ve just got to keep getting back on and doing it,” he said.

Unlike saddle bronc, there is no saddle for bull riders – instead, they hold onto a rope that is fitted around the back of the bull’s shoulders.

“You’re sitting on its back and holding on with one hand and your legs and working your balance with your free arm as you’re being bucked around in the ring,” he said.

A girl with a cowboy hat leaning on fence
A junior cowgirl hangs over the rails at Dartmoor Rodeo.(ABC South East SA: Liz Rymill)

Bred for the job

Mr Keatley said there was a team of experienced support crew in the ring during the ride while most spectators were focused on the cowboy and bull in action.

“Cowboys are so thankful for the protection athletes [sometimes called rodeo clowns] who know how to direct the bull away from the rider when the rider comes off,” he said.

“Their job is to get you off and protect you when you’re on the ground.”

He said safety and animal care were at the heart of the rodeo circuit.

Bulls ranging from 500 up to a whopping 900 kilograms are “purpose bred” to buck for up to eight seconds in the ring, before spending the rest of the evening in the hay yard.

“They love what they do. They’re athletes and they’re treated like kings,” he said.

Mr Keatley said a lot of rodeos were cancelled during COVID but the circuit was “starting to fire up again”.

He said he hoped to get as much time in the ring as possible this year while chasing his dream of one day taking his passion to America.

“The speed that it’s all happening at – you just have to take what you can get, get up and get out of there,” he said.

“It’s thrills and spills, and a whole lot of fun.”