Dane Doggett: Inside the Mind of a Bull Rider

"You gotta take risks. Life wouldn't be as fun if you didn't."

“I’ve broken my arm, my leg, my jaw, I tore my bicep … just minor stuff,” professional bull rider Dane Doggett recounts his injuries with a raspy voice and a laissez-faire attitude. He is uncommonly positive and polite; copious “yes, ma’ams” pepper his conversation. “I’m pretty fortunate for someone who’s been around bulls for 20 years. I’m blessed, I guess you could say.” But underneath his confident calm and cowboy hat is an intense desire to dominate fearsome beasts.

Bull riding combines the immediate thrill of extreme sports with the mythic appeal of the cowboy. Its athletes are anachronistic Wild West characters with a survival philosophy straight from the American frontier: Work hard, give 100 percent and never complain. Driven by staggering courage and a voracious appetite for risk, their steely determination is forged through a lifetime immersed in the rush of the ride.

Now 24 years old, Doggett has been hooked and hooved too many times to count. In early 2017, he dislocated his right elbow and damaged the arm’s tendons and ligaments. After a 13-week recovery, he rode just a handful of bulls before separating his shoulder on the same arm, putting him out of action for another 13 weeks. But Doggett’s most significant injury happened in September 2018 at Cowtown Coliseum. A bull stomped on his head. It broke his jaw in three places, requiring another long recovery — this time with his mouth wired shut by 14 screws.

“I have a high tolerance for pain, but it ain’t no fun,” he admits. The most difficult part of his recovery was not the pain, however, but having to watch other people eat. He lived off blended-up SpaghettiOs and milkshakes for seven weeks, then went back to the bulls as soon as he could. “My mouth doesn’t feel the same, but I can eat and talk. It didn’t scar me up too bad. It knocked some teeth loose, but I didn’t lose none, thank God.”

The forced downtime was no vacation for Doggett. Bull riding is more than a sport to its athletes; it’s a lifestyle. They eat, sleep and breathe for those eight seconds. “Every day is bull riding. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if it was just taken out of this world tomorrow. It’s all I’ve ever known — I was chompin’ at the bit to get back on.” Most people tend to avoid something that has wounded them. Not bull riders. Being thrown or even injured by a bull just makes them want to conquer it that much more. The bull that broke Doggett’s jaw lives at Knapp Ranch in Mansfield, a home-away-from-home where the cowboy practices year-round. “I’ll get revenge on him one of these days,” he drawls.

Bull riders are the rodeo’s rock stars. They are modern-day gladiators, challenging beasts in the arena to the roar of the crowd. We love to see them confront death because we don’t have the guts to. We’re too scared to speak our minds or ask someone on a date, much less ride on the back of a 2,000-pound behemoth. But we love to glimpse that hyperbolic bravery, to bathe in its electric energy. Ancient Romans bought vials of gladiator sweat and dirt to use as beauty ointments, an attempt to commune with the warrior’s potent vitality. This same desire draws millions of spectators to bull riding events across America: to experience the primordial battle of man versus beast.

Bull riders don’t face their fears — they ride them. They crash to the ground and then dust themselves off and do it again and again. In a world where most people his age are calling for safe spaces, Doggett puts himself into one of the most dangerous spaces on the planet: on top of a bucking bull. Meanwhile, college students are having cry-ins and being coddled with puppy-cuddling sessions because they’re overwhelmed by finals. Cowboys they ain’t.

Bull riding is widely considered the most hazardous sport on earth, claiming more deaths and life-changing injuries than any other. It’s 20 times more dangerous than football.

And still they ride.

Are they crazy? Why would anyone climb onto the back of a bull? We are fascinated by the mentality of these athletes, but we’ve been captivated by bulls for much longer. The earliest cave paintings depict a rush of giant bulls, dramatic images imbued with the awe of the humans who etched them 17,000 years ago. The sacred bull was worshipped throughout the ancient world and played a starring role in humanity’s oldest known work of literature (Mesopotamia’s Epic of Gilgamesh). Bulls are a mythical, cross-cultural symbol for raw power, strength and virility.

Bull riding celebrates this classic sense of masculinity, which is out of sync with today’s hypersensitive culture. Its athletes value courage more than caution. Gritty and tough as nails, bull riders are the ultimate cowboys. They embrace the sport’s violent physicality. Doggett is well aware of the risks, but he turns his focus elsewhere. “I just don’t really think about the negative part of things, because if you’re worried about the wrong stuff, then you’re not thinking about the right stuff. I just try and stay positive.” Doubt can be deadly for bull riders, who choose faith in providence instead. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Born in Fort Worth and raised 25 miles away in Springtown, Doggett has been riding since he was a young child. “I was always around it. My uncle rode bulls, and my whole family deals with cattle or rodeo. My dad would always buck me around my living room pretending to be a bull. Anybody who came over to the house that was big enough to put my little bull rope on, I would beg ‘em to get on their hands and knees and buck me around. People quit coming over after a while.”

When he was 4 years old, his grandfather finally let him ride on a calf. “Since then, I’ve been at it,” he says. Most bull riders start on sheep before progressing to calves, small steers, big steers, bulls and finally the big bulls. “I always knew I wanted to ride bulls. But being 4 years old and getting slammed to the ground, I wasn’t certain if I was going to stick with it or not. But the older I got, the more I got on; I knew it was what I wanted to do. Once I started winning buckles, I was hooked.” Today he’s won well over a hundred belt buckles.

Dane practically grew up in Fort Worth’s Cowtown Coliseum, where his father Dru Doggett is the current arena director of the Stockyards Rodeo. His grandfather, Derwin Doggett, also worked there as arena director and is now the maintenance manager. “I’ve had a lot of good stuff happen to me in that building,” Dane recalls. “My first calf to ever get on was there, and the first time I was ever 90-plus points was in that arena.” He won the rodeo’s year-end competition and finals at age 16 and was crowned the Cowtown Horizon Series Champion three years later.

His family has been behind him all the way, including his younger brother Dalton, who also rides bulls. “My whole family’s been real supportive, especially my dad,” Dane says. “When my mom or dad’s there [at the rodeo], I feel a lot better. But sometimes I do better when they’re not, just because I ain’t got that pressure of Dad back there. He’s gonna be on my butt no matter what. I don’t want to say he’s hard on me, but in this sport, if you’re not going to give it your all and put out the best, then there’s no point in getting on. You can make a lot of money riding bulls, but you can also hurt yourself or even lose your life. So, I just try and stay focused on what I need to do; that way, I’m not putting myself in that chance to end up in a bad situation.”

Bad situations can happen in a heartbeat. This sport isn’t just win or lose — it’s life or death. Sixteen of its athletes died between 1989 and 2009. Bull riding has skyrocketed in popularity since the early ’90s, growing from an obscure extreme sport to a game with millions of dollars on the line. Much of this surge is because of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) events, which are televised around the globe (including the flashy World Finals in Las Vegas). The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) also hosts high-dollar competitions, and there are amateur rodeos all over America. Today over three million people attend a live bull-riding event every year, an audience one hundred times bigger than it was in 1995.

Riders must stay on the bull for eight seconds to receive a score. Two judges rate their control, grace and style. Bulls are also given points for their aggression and speed. The scores for rider and bull each count 50 percent and are combined for the final result. Cowboys are matched with their bulls by lottery, and everyone wants to ride the meanest monster in the pen. That isn’t necessarily the biggest bull — the smaller, faster ones are often the most dangerous. Many new fans assume incorrectly that whoever rides the longest wins (eight seconds is all you need; nothing afterward counts). Or that the bull bucks like crazy because a rope is tied to its testicles (the rope wraps around its side, nowhere near the herd’s jewels). And real bull riding is absolutely nothing like a mechanical bull.

Staying on the bull requires a stout combination of strength and balance. Doggett focuses more on balance, sharpening his skills with relentless practice. “A lot of guys rely on strength, but I’m scrawny, and I ain’t got all the muscle in the world. I’m not in the gym a lot. I stay active just day working and things like that, but as far as lifting weights every day — I’m not that kind of athlete. I just believe that if you’re going to learn to do something, then you gotta be doing it. So, I get on a lot of practice bulls. I never leave the practice pen without getting a bull rode, or two or three in a row rode.”

Competitions come with added pressure. “When there’s all that money up to grab, sometimes you’re thinking about that if you’ve got bills due and need to win. Sometimes that gets to me. At the practice pen, there’s no pressure. You’re just having fun and getting on.”

Getting on. The bull is understood, but never underestimated. “There’s no point in nodding your head if you’re not gonna treat every bull the same, whether it’s at the practice pen or a rodeo. You’re there for business, and you’re gonna try and win.”

Doggett flies across the country to compete in far-flung places like Santa Barbara, California and the Pacific Northwest. But most often he’s hitting the road with his friends, all of whom plan to ride bulls too. “There’s no one in the car that’s not getting on unless someone brings their girlfriend or their wife, which isn’t very often. Usually if that’s going on, they take separate vehicles, and we’ll see them at the rodeo,” he laughs. Moments of bull-back exhilaration punctuate a repetitive pattern: drive all day or night, relax, rodeo, sleep. “Then the next morning we wake up and drive to the next rodeo, and just keep doing that whole routine.”

He rides in amateur competitions as well as professional events like the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, which was the first to include bull riding in 1933. Now the 23-day rodeo hosts bull riding every evening, including Bulls’ Night Out. Forty top-ranked riders compete at this two-day event, which is part of the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls Tour. The purse in 2018 was almost $65,000. Bigger pro rodeos like Fort Worth provide Doggett with plenty of practice. “You’re getting on so many stock. It’s practice, but it’s also for the money. You’re not getting rusted, you’re staying loosened up and not thinking too much. You’re just climbin’ on and going. It’s more fun.”

Bull riders dress in a multi-layered ensemble that includes chaps, boots, spurs and a ballistic-style vest for protection. They may also wear a helmet. With a grid of metal bars in front of the face, the bull rider’s helmet is less hat and more head cage, akin to a hockey goalie’s mask. Those who don’t wear helmets say that they interfere with balance and visibility, two critical factors in the sport. Some argue that helmets actually hinder safety by creating a false sense of security that encourages riders to take more risks. Others just want to wear their lucky hat. Like many athletes, bull riders can be quite superstitious. Doggett never wears yellow and always keeps his hat off the bed. But he doesn’t wear a helmet.

Protective headgear is mandatory at all youth events in Texas for riders under 18 and in the PBR for all riders born on or after Oct. 15, 1994. Doggett missed the deadline by a few months. “I’m just claustrophobic. It ain’t really the helmet that bothers me; it’s the chin strap and the bars in front of me. I feel like I’m just messin’ with it too much or something and not worried about what I need to be doing.” Confidence is crucial in this sport. An uncertain bull rider is an injured bull rider, and wearing a helmet is the equivalent of signing a prenuptial agreement: It makes sense logically, but it can also undermine the integrity of the endeavor.

Every bull rider has his own strategy to maintain the right state of mind. “You’ve got your guys that keep to themselves, and then you’ve got your guys that are rowdy — like they’re not even about to get on a bull. For me, if I’m trying to be too serious, then I’m thinking too hard. It’s not going to work for me. So, I kind of just cut up like I’m at the house, just stay relaxed and focused at the same time.”    

If Doggett is feeling anxious before a big event, he calls his dad or his grandpa. And he always prays. “I’ve never climbed on one without praying before; it just makes me feel better.” He isn’t the only competitor calling on a higher power at the rodeo. “I’d say at least 95 percent of places I’ve been were pretty religious in the locker room. They’ll get a circle going before a bull-riding event; one guy will say a prayer, and we’ll all sit there and pray with him. Everybody’s in good spirits and turning to the Lord.” The athletes’ devotion is part cowboy culture, part survival. “You want all the help you can get.”

Fueled by faith, the riders enter the chute. There’s no place for fear. “I’m nervous sometimes and get butterflies, but I don’t think I’d call it ‘scared,’” Doggett confides. “All that goes away once I sit down on ‘em. Once I climb in the bucket chute and I’m sitting on his back, I’m in the zone. And everything is just natural. I’ve done it so many times, it’s just a routine now.” As he lowers himself onto the bull, his cheeks flush and his body is engulfed by pure focused energy, an electric connection with the beast below. He grips the braided handle of a rope that’s tied around the chest of the bull. And then he nods.

The gate throws open, and the bull explodes into the arena. During the next eight seconds, only one thought goes through Doggett’s mind: Hold on. “I just focus on staying on my bull and getting a whistle and hopin’ I come off all right. Pray to the Lord everything works out.”

No thrill comes close to bull riding. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “I’ve never experienced anything else like it. Maybe getting on a horse bareback, just because it’s a moving animal beneath you. But there’s really no other comparison. I love it.” Bull riding is not a fight, but a dance. The best riders anticipate the animal’s actions and move in sync with the bull, appearing to be in complete control. They’re not. Bulls have their own motivation and are respected as athletes in their own right, with names as bombastic as their buck: Bushwacker, Bodacious, Pearl Harbor. Some are valued at almost $1 million and are more famous than the cowboys who ride them.

Get the whistle, get off and get paid. “It ain’t gonna happen every time,” Doggett admits, “but it’s a lot better whenever you step off one, and you know you’re about to get paid, and everybody’s going wild for you.” As bull riding’s popularity grows, so do the prizes at pro rodeo events. The big money is with the PBR, which awarded $11 million in 2018, including a $1 million bonus to the World Champion Bull Rider. But it’s not just the money that drives these athletes, it’s the gold belt buckle that’s awarded to the best rider every year. “Money spends, but that buckle’s forever. No one can take that from you. It says you were the best, and that’s what every professional athlete is going for.”

Pain is part of the package. Minor injuries are shrugged off. Unless a rider is hauled away on a stretcher, they will usually ride again the next night. They have families to feed and bills to pay. Wrist braces are strapped on, and broken ribs are duct-taped. They don’t complain. They cowboy up.

Grit. Courage. Perseverance. Doggett boasts all three in abundance. It’s a rarity in modern America, where an increasing obsession with safety comes at the expense of building character. Children can’t learn these cowboy values without facing difficulties and discomfort. Bravery bloodies knees, and determination does it again the next day. But we hate to see our kids suffer, so we shepherd them away from risk and into safe spaces instead. Many are growing into fragile, fearful adults who are unable to handle life’s challenges.

Dane Doggett’s jaw may have been broken, but at least his head is on straight. His appetite for risk is simply greater than most. He chooses to ride bulls, while others choose to ride in motor vehicles. We all understand that every time we ride in a car, there is an inherent risk of a horrible accident. But we accept it, and we ride anyway. Just like Dane.

“You gotta take risks,” he says. “Life wouldn’t be as fun if you didn’t.”