Hard Ride

Bulls, broncs and the blunt wisdom of Ray Cox challenge the cowboys and weekend warriors of the Lazy C Rodeo School

The pretty blonde sitting in the dusty bleachers with her wide-eyed two-year-old remembers her boyfriend's first rodeo ride. Scott Schwer had been the terror of the Cadillac Ranch, a country & western bar in Skokie, Illinois. "He loves the mechanical bull," Rebecca says. "He'll be on all night long."

Schwer, a sheet-metal worker in Skokie, was champion bull rider at the Cadillac. You don't have to stretch the logic far to know that he'd eventually be in a chute on the back of a real bull, waiting for the gate to open at an outdoor rodeo. "It was so scary I was shaking," Rebecca says. "I couldn't even take pictures."

"Soon as the gate opened, I was scared to death," Schwer says, recalling his first time on a real live bull. Scott, whose ranching life consists of visits to his grandfather's farm when he was a boy, has the good sense -- and lack of cowboy machismo -- to admit his fears at the time. He flashes a bright, straight-toothed smile, further evidence he hasn't been rodeoin' too long.

Jennifer Silverberg
Lazy C owner Ray Cox: "If you're lookin' for sympathy, around here it's in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis.'"
Jennifer Silverberg
Lazy C owner Ray Cox: "If you're lookin' for sympathy, around here it's in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis.'"

Keep your chin tucked in, your elbows to your sides, your heels against the bull, your toes out: All the quick tutelage he'd received before that first ride vanished as the bull exploded from the gate.

Arms and legs flying out, with a face full of dust, his eyes wild, he was a scared city boy running hellbent for the fence.

But he actually managed to stay on for three seconds -- more than any of his friends managed that night.

Not too long after that, a friend told him about Ray Cox and the Lazy C Rodeo School near Jacksonville, Illinois, and not too long after that, he and Rebecca and two-year-old McKenzie were making the four-and-a-half-hour drive on a Friday night. "We get a motel and stay the weekend," says Rebecca. "Those days are awesome," she says of Saturdays and Sundays at the Lazy C, where as many as 80 cowboys, or weekend cowboys, find the turnoff at a bend in a curvy, dusty road to get a chance on a bull or a bucking horse and receive a concise analysis from Cox: "Not chargin' enough." "Not enough drag." "Your chin came up."

Young men look into the old man's face, intent on every word.


"Me and my buddies were just watchin' the PBR," explains Eric Barnett. In his early twenties, he's fresh-faced, tall and lanky, with strong arms and legs. He tapes his right hand. "I blew my hand open the last two weekends, ripped off all the calluses."

Barnett's been making the drive from Shipman, near Alton, for a year and a half. Shipman's even smaller than Alton, Barnett says. His high school's nicknamed Cornfield High because it sits smack-dab in the middle of one.

Those buddies, the ones with whom he sat watching the Professional Bull Riders tour on TNN, found other distractions. But since riding bulls for the first time at the Lazy C, Barnett's stuck around. Last summer, he rode in rodeos nearly every weekend. This summer, he slowed down.

He and Bill Shufflebothom stand in a small waiting area, where visitors sit and talk and gossip outside the indoor arena. Shufflebothom's a few years older than Barnett, a muscular, tan, jocular cowboy in a black hat. They swap stories about bulls they came to know this summer:

"I thought for sure he was gonna pull me to the right."

"I rode him over in the finals."

After every sentence, Barnett spits on the ground, the pinch of Skoal snug in his cheek:

"When he comes out, he's quick."

Spit.

"Man, that guy came over the top of his head and his ass was above him."

"That guy went wham!"

Spit.

"He ain't gonna hurt ya. He's a nice bull."

"That bull in Troy, I thought he was gonna eat me alive. I was crawlin.'"

Spit.

A scratched and battered sign hangs from the gate between the waiting area and the arena, a sign no one takes notice of, meaning that it is required by the state: "Warning. Under the Equine Liability Act, each participant who engages in an equine activity expressly assumes the risks of engaging in and legal responsibility for injury, loss, or damage to person or property resulting from equine activities."

The arena is layered in decades of dust. Even though the ground is watered to keep the dust down, a few hours inside the arena and a jean jacket has clouded with dust. The arena is rimmed with stalls for horses and cattle. A mare and her foal stand together prettily in one. On this evening, the red sun glimmers through the open end of the building. A pale horse in the foreground swishes its tail and watches the young men near the chutes.

"That horse walks like a queer."

"He put those chaps on to look sexy."

"He called you everything but a white man."

Amid all the bluster and chatter that young men bandy about, the arena gets quiet as a cowboy descends onto the back of a bull. The knees touch the back of the bull first, to let the animal knows he's going to have a man on him. The hands are placed on the small of the bull's back, although it sounds absurd that this 1,200-pound animal would have a small of the back. The cowboy locates a shallow spot where the knuckles go and rests his little finger along the backbone. He sets one hand snugly between rope and bull.

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