Bull riding proves both a living and a pastime

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Elliot Hughes
August 2, 2015

JANESVILLE—Hours before the Horizon Series Bull Bash began Sunday at the Rock County 4-H Fair, 24-year-old Eli Vastbinder hit town—fresh off another rodeo almost 500 miles away in Iowa.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Craig Check arrived late—less than an hour before the event began—for his two-hour dance in the ring as a bullfighter. Check is one of the men who keeps guys like Vastbinder safe when a 1,600-pound bull inevitably tosses one of them off its back.

One man had a payday in mind, with plans to be in another state the next day. The other, with his riding days behind him, just loves being around the beasts and the game.

Anything to keep from having a “real job,” as Tuff Hedeman—bull-riding legend and event organizer—said before Sunday's event.

Both Vastbinder and Check were town for the Bull Bash, a touring bull-riding competition organized by Championship Bull Riding. The two were joined by 27 other riders (and two other bullfighters) from across the country, chasing after the largest share of $8,000 in prize money.

The event's organizers described it as a kind of “feeder rodeo" that helps riders qualify for more fruitful, televised events. But Vastbinder is already an established rider, a full-timer who's appeared on the TV circuits and who hauled in $100,000 last year alone.

A native of Ohio, Vastbinder grew up on a farm in a family fanatic about bull riding. He hit up his ride in Janesville out of convenience, having been in Sidney, Iowa, the night before. He's on the road so much has no idea how many competitions he normally crams into a year.

“It pays money, and that's what we do,” he said.

Check's been a bullfighter for 18 years, starting after a brief career as a professional rider. He tours with Championship Bull Riding in the winter and mainly spends his summers as a construction worker in Tomah, where he has a wife and two daughters who also rodeo.

“That's one thing about this sport,” Check said as he pulled on his padded vest. "It's a family sport. They go with me and I go with them.”

That padded vest, by the way, is important. To a layperson, it's startling how little protection Check wears in the ring. If it weren't for the cowboy hat, he would look exactly like a soccer player—cleats, long socks, an advertisement-laden shirt and shorts, but no helmet or shin guards.

Vastbinder wears a similar vest, but he also gets a helmet.

Of course the two have each been pummeled in the past, though each said they've mostly been lucky. Check has broken his ribs, wrist and experienced intense bruising from being run over by bulls. Vastbinder has broken his leg, ribs, hand, shoulder blade and “tore every muscle in his body.”

Less than an hour before Sunday's show, Check searched for a medic to tape up an unhealed hand. A small chunk of his ring finger was taken out by a bull two weeks ago. Ringside, Vastbinder threw some chewing tobacco into his mouth and applied some tape.

“I'm pretty sore all over,” he said. “The groin (especially).”

Both Vastbinder and Check were given individual introductions: Vastbinder for his past accomplishments and Check, along with other fighters, for his protective duty.

Vastbinder was the fifth rider to come out of the chute, and his ride did not go well. As one of the larger riders present (6 feet tall, 170 pounds), he was paired with a bull that was disproportionately small for him. He was thrown off almost immediately, vexing his payday in a flash and leaving the announcer audibly shocked.

“Unbelievable,” he said as Vastbinder walked off.

Vastbinder stuck around to watch the end of the show, but after that it was off to Nashville by car to catch a flight to Colorado, where a $10,000 prize awaits.

“Some days you win, some days you lose,” Vastbinder said, the chew back in his mouth. “It's been a rough week.”

For Check, it was basically a fun day in the sun. He spent almost two hours in the ring, always staying within 10 feet of an agitated bull. Three times he even smacked them in the nose while they were still moving like a tornado to get their attention. He got chased up a wall once.

When his last rider finished, Check limped out of the ring. He took off his shoe and exhaled in relief. It was tied too tight.

“Good bull ride,” he said.

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