Big bullies: Riders test their skills at local rodeo

Posted: Sunday, July 26, 2009

A student at Kenai Middle School, Bill Ashwell is 13 years old.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Colten Jensen and Grim Reaper go their separate ways during the bull riding event Saturday at the Progress Days Rodeo.

Yet he wasn't scared while preparing to mount Get it On, a roughly 2,000-pound bull ready to shake Ashwell's diminutive frame off.

"I'm used to it," he said, despite having only ridden junior bulls and calves before. "Just think of it as a big pussycat that wants to claw you to death."

Or like riding a bicycle.

Well, maybe a bike with hundred-pound legs of fury kicking with all their mite instead of wheels.

And a rope to grip rather than handlebars.

Oh, and an angry bull beneath you instead of a comfortable, cushioned seat.

So really, it's not like riding a bike at all.

"More like, 'Oh, hang on for your life or you'll get killed,'" Ashwell said.

A handful of courageous riders braved the one-ton animals Saturday at the Progress Days Rodeo at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds, clinging to the bucking bulls for as long as possible before getting flung to the mud below.

Eight seconds atop the flailing bull is the goal.

Walking away unharmed is even better.

"It's an adrenaline rush you can't even imagine," said Mark Gerry of Wasilla. "You sit down on that 2,000-pound bull, pull your rope tight, give your nod, bust out of the gate, it's great."

Gerry, 32, has been involved in the sport for just two years now, hoping to eclipse the elusive eight-second mark on Saturday.

His first ride last summer lasted maybe one second.

It didn't matter. He's hooked.

"You're pumped up with adrenaline before you get on, you're pumped up for like an hour after you get off," he said. "It's a great high. It's the best high you can get."

Even after suffering an injury, resulting in pain he dubbed to be a 10 on the 10-point pain scale, he wanted to do it again.

"It's the love of it. It's great," Gerry said. "You do it once, you're hooked."

Micah Robertson and Shirley Schollenberg help facilitate local riders appetites' by providing them with the bulls and calves to mount.

Robertson, a 20-year riding veteran from Sterling, sold a few bulls to Schollenberg, who resides and cares for them in Ninilchik. Schollenberg then purchased three more bulls, bringing her total to seven, and then along with her friends, formed the Bad Girls Rodeo Company.

"We do it more than anything just so we can have rodeos," Schollenberg said. "Because there's not a lot of people that are willing to own bulls."

Robertson is hired as the chute boss at the rodeos, organizing the riders and bulls to ensure every detail is mapped out.

If one small thing goes awry, it could prove catastrophic.

"I get very wound up when people don't do their job," said Robertson, who earlier had to enforce his opinion when a gate was opened prematurely. "If they don't do what's needed, you're going to get the guy on that bull hurt, whether it's in the chute or whatever.

"Everything's got to go just right or them kids, them men, are going to get hurt," he added. "They've got to pay attention. You've got to be on the ball. This is a very serious game. People get hurt if you don't pay attention."

Ashwell, who first rode when he was seven, was doing more than paying attention. Decked out in a masked hockey helmet and protective vest, he lasted nearly seven seconds atop to the black beast.

"That was awesome," he said following his run. "I'm thinking, 'Wow. This feels a lot bigger, a lot more power, too.'

"It was a lot different. Bucking a lot harder. It just felt great," Ashwell added. "Best experience I've ever had on bulls."

Robertson was impressed with the youngster's skills.

"He wasn't scared because the kid's got it in his mind, he's going to be a bull rider," he said. "They're ain't no two ways about it. That kid's got it in his heart and mind.

"He knew what he had to do on that bull and then that was that."

He's also encouraged by the number of kids participating in this and other competitions.

"We're part of the national level for the high school and junior high rodeo and to see these kids be able to go down there and compete against some people that get to ride year-round is awesome," Robertson said. "It's good to see because there's a new breed coming up. To be able to pass on the education to them is awesome."

For those who believe bull riding is cruel to the animals, Schollenberg believes they enjoy it.

"When I pull up into the arena in Ninilchik to load them up in my horse trailers there, they are just all ready, 'Let me on the bus. Ready to go. Ready to go,'" she said.

"I think they get excited about it. They get pretty bored being in Ninilchik and nothing going on. They were ready to come."

Schollenberg, though, has yet to ride, saying she wants to soon.

And it has nothing to do with finding the necessary courage.

"I'm too smart," she laughed.

Matthew Carroll can be reached at

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