The moment before a bull bursts from the chute into the rodeo arena leaves a close observer breathless with secondhand tension. The cowboy’s legs are clamped to either side of the nearly one-ton animal. His knees rest on slabs with muscle made lean from a carefully curated high-protein diet. For one endless moment, the two wait, the rider’s free hand hovering in the air, the bull’s eyes rolling frantically. Then the barrier breaks, and the bull twists free.
What happens next feels like the result of pure chance. The bull bumps into the chute gate or he makes a clean exit. He takes one big jump or two smaller ones. He turns back to the left or he twists to the right.
But what if the bull’s movements weren’t random, and instead were something that riders could predict with a degree of certainty? That’s the question the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association hopes to answer with the introduction of advanced tracking and analytics to professional rodeo.
Data tracking is changing the way players, fans and gamblers view professional sports. Cameras in NBA stadiums track the movement of the ball and each player on the court. Dissecting this data can reveal how specific players and teams are likely to react to different situations.
For rodeo, this would involve knowing exactly what a bull or horse is likely to do in the arena.
“Every animal bucks uniquely,” said Anthony Bartowski, PRCA director of athlete development. “No two are the same. … However, over the course of time, if you’re starting to track what an animal does, specifically a bull, it’s gonna come out of the chute, it’s gonna take one jump or two jumps, and then it’s gonna start turning back into the contestant’s hand or away from the contestant’s hand. How does that happen, time after time?”
The data can expose consistent bucking patterns in bulls and broncs. It can also reveal new truths about timed events.
“We’re also tracking, how fast is the horse moving down the arena to catch the calf or to catch the steer?” Bartowski said. “Or, when they stop and the steer wrestler gets off or the tie-down roper gets off of their animal, how fast do they get to tying down the calf? How fast do the tie-down roper’s hands move on a certain animal versus another animal?”
Understanding the habits of rodeo roughstock is not a new concept. Cowboys often already have an idea of what to expect when they draw a particular animal, and roughstock providers keep detailed logs of how each animal performs in the ring. But intensive data collection has the potential to quantify this analysis into easily digestible statistics.
“The roughstock guys, they have a pretty good indication these animals are bucking most times the same pattern, and people know what a horse will do, how a bull’s gonna act,” said Mike Mader, treasurer of the Johnson County Fair Board. “It would be interesting to see if technology says the same thing the cowboys say.”
John Forbes, who provides horses for the Johnson County rodeo, doesn’t keep written records. But his son Sandy Bob Forbes says that Forbes has a faultless memory of how each animal will act in the arena.
“My dad raised them, so Day 1, we’ve known where they were or something about them,” Forbes said. “Some of them have a little different attitude. … They’ll have a set plan – a lot of times, they’ll buck down the same tracks.”
With all the variables that change with each given rodeo, Forbes doubts that increased tracking will change the game.
“It’d be kind of cool, something fun, but honestly I don’t think it would have a huge benefit,” Forbes said. “They’re only there for eight seconds. Different setups, different pens. Horses are different inside and outside.”
But Bartowski said that even in those brief eight seconds, better-tracked rodeos would benefit both the animals and the riders. For the horses and bulls, tracking could bring ailments to light in those eight seconds of competition, before the human eye would notice the difference.
“We may be able to look at the animal data and say, wait a second, this animal didn’t score as well, or this animal didn’t move as fast in the arena,” Bartowski said. “All of a sudden that can raise a flag of, hey, is there something wrong? Is there a pulled muscle, or did they tweak something that we need to investigate?”
More information could also benefit riders in an inherently dangerous sport. Protective gear exists for cowboys, from mouthguards to flak vests, but most rodeos make its wear optional. Although the Professional Bull Riders organization requires helmets for those born after 1994, the PRCA leaves the choice to its riders.
“If cowboy safety was the main topic of a rodeo rule book, it’d be too thick to pack around and it’s unlikely anyone besides the editor would ever read it anyway,” Mader said. “Competitors enter up knowing the risks and knowing it’s a game of wits, luck and effort. Things may go smooth or you may take a hit and go on. That’s just part of the sport.”
Having detailed tracking information available may tip that balance toward wits and effort and leave slightly less to luck. But because this movement is being spearheaded by the PRCA, any data collected would be privately owned by the organization. Who it is available to will affect how cowboys approach competitions, owners raise livestock and gamblers place their bets.
But before that data can be shared, it first has to be collected. And how exactly that would happen is the biggest obstacle the PRCA will face in its quest to analyze rodeo.
“We have 750 rodeos across the United States, and, well, we can’t be on-site at all 750,” Bartowski said. “So how do you data collect and understand what’s happening out at the actual rodeos?”
Solutions could include training a network of observers to attend rodeos and record data on animals’ movements. They likely will also involve trackers on the rider, although that has its limitations in such an unpredictably violent sport.
“You can get some of the motion off of these trackers if it’s connected to a person, and then all of a sudden on the roughstock side, if a contestant is bucked off, now you don’t understand what the animal did after the buck-off,” Bartowski said. “Did the contestant get bucked off in one second? Now you have seven more seconds where now you’re not tracking the action of the animal.”
The animals could be tracked individually, although the efficacy of attaching a piece of expensive electronic equipment to a thrashing bull remains to be seen. It’s one of many questions that will be, for the moment, left unanswered. Nevertheless, according to Bartowski, these advancements are coming to rodeo one way or another, and they’re coming soon.
“We could start having trials of it here, maybe early part of next year,” Bartowski said. “It could come into play by the time we get to the 2021-22 season.”
When advanced tracking does start to show up in the rodeo circuit, it will start with the professionals. But if the rollout is successful, it will eventually trickle down to impact even the amateur levels of the sport.
“The High School Rodeo Association, … they follow PRCA rules because the natural progression is to move from high school to college to the PRCA,” Bartowski said. “So the earlier you can get your participants and contests following PRCA rules, the easier it is to transition up that performance ladder.”
If data analysis becomes core to the modern rodeo at the professional levels, roughstock producers could get used to collecting that data until even the high school competitors taking the arena at the Johnson County Fair and Rodeo might be able to glance at a chart that explains to them what, on average, they can expect their animal to do.
“A bunch of data is going to start being collected here over the course of the next few years, really giving us a breadth of information that we’ve never collected before,” Bartowski said. “So now the contestant is coming in with a better playbook and understanding of, ‘Hey, this is gonna be my mental approach to the game and how we go about doing this.’”