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What makes those bulls at the Kitsap Stampede so mad?
Wolfman didn’t enjoy the smell of flowers. He never snoozed in the shade under cork trees, either.
But unlike Ferdinand the bull from the famous children's book, the bovine whose nature was essentially peaceful, Wolfman sure knew how to buck.
“He got his name the first time I saw him buck,” said Don Kish, the man who bred, raised and traveled with Wolfman on the rodeo circuit until the bull turned 14. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a wolf he is.’ He was real fast, real electric.”
There will be 26 Kish-bred bulls in the Xtreme Bulls competition Aug. 29 at Thunderbird Arena at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds. Five contractors will provide stock for the Kitsap County Stampede, which precedes Xtreme Bulls and begins Wednesday.
Wolfman died five years ago at the age of 19 — old, by industry standards — but he is still the only bull of record to carry a cowboy to a perfect 100-point score in the United States. He gave Wade Leslie the ride of a lifetime in 1991 during a professional rodeo in Oregon.
“It was a sense of achievement,” said Kish, who has bred bucking bulls for more than 30 years. “Imagine a parent watching their kid play Pop Warner and then 20 years later, you see them in the NFL.”
But not all bulls are as fierce as Wolfman, who was born into the Oscar bloodline and produced nine sons — known collectively as “The Wolfpack” — who bucked at the 2000 National Finals Rodeo.
Genetics and high testosterone levels make bulls aggressive by nature, ideal for rodeo, but experts say bucking is a learned behavior and bulls can be trained to perform.
“Most people would argue that, depending on how you raise these bulls, it will affect their behavior,” said Ahmed Tibary, a professor of theriogenology at Washington State University who has studied large animal reproduction most of his life.
It’s happening more and more, too: At least 95 percent of rodeo bulls are bred to buck, said Cindy Schonholtz, spokeswoman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Kish, 48, has been breeding and raising bulls for more than 30 years and compares himself to a football coach.
In addition to size and strength, he looks for bulls who understand how to buck with a rider aboard. Some bulls resist bucking and never appear in rodeos because they don’t “accept,” he said, but most are trainable.
Some bulls learn faster than others.
“Basically, you’re just looking for a smart bull that’s willing to buck,” Kish said. “We’re looking for bulls with a little brain.”
The number of rodeo-caliber bulls that Kish raises varies yearly, but during good years about 80 percent of his stock make the rodeo circuit. Some years, however, the number dips to 40 percent.
He has a new breed every year.
“It’s kind of like a revolving door,” Kish said.
On his 300-acre ranch in Red Bluff, Calif., there was a time when Kish recruited young cowboys to ride his bulls while he trained the bulls to buck. He needed to determine which animals were fit for the show, so he simulated real-rodeo situations.
But cowboys suffered broken arms, cracked ribs and chipped teeth on a daily basis, and it was difficult to find people who were willing to play dummy.
“It’s easy to find the heroes who want to work the big rodeos,” Kish said. “But not many of them want to work Monday through Friday.”
Enter bucking dummies, which have made training easier.
Kish’s dummies weigh about 45 pounds — heavy enough for the bull to recognize — and they operate on batteries.
They are simple to use and relatively safe: Breeders place them on the bull and open the shoot, then watch to see how the bull reacts.
All dummies are equipped with an electronic chip and a latch, like that of a car’s trunk. The breeder pushes a remote-control button after eight seconds, activating the latch and sending the dummy flying through the air like a real cowboy.
The person who opens the shoot is the only live body on the arena floor.
Kish said most dummies last about a year, not very long, because they are constantly stepped on. They cost about $1,000.
“They’ve taken the liability of trying the bulls out,” Kish said. “We actually get to enjoy it now. We don’t have to worry as much about guys getting hurt.”
But injuries happen often in real shows, when bulls react to the noises and smells and colors of the arena.
Bulls also react to flank ropes.
They are made of nylon and are about 1-inch thick, 10-feet long and placed on the part of the bull known as the “flank,” a 3-inch piece of skin that hangs under the belly.
The flank is a sensitive area, Kish said, but it’s not attached to the testicles or penis. The rope never comes in contact with those areas, either, he added.
Flanks are applied by a “flank man” who stands above the shoot and uses a long wire hook to wrap the rope under the belly of the bull and over its back. After each ride, the flank rope is removed in a “stripping shoot.”
“It’s like tickling a funny bone, there’s no pain at all,” Kish said. “All the stories — the barbed wire on the testicles — are ridiculous. I can’t believe people listen to it.”