Justin McBride has earned over $5 million as a professional bull rider, more than anyone in the sport's history. He's won two world championships and is retiring after he finishes competing in the Professional Bull Riders World Finals currently underway in Las Vegas. TIME talked to McBride about why he drove his teachers crazy, bull riders who wear helmets, and his burgeoning country music career.
When did you first get into bull riding?
I started participating when I was about 3 years old in junior rodeos, getting on itty-bitty calves. I started getting on big bulls when I was 11 years old. They were 1,500 to 1,600 pounds.
Were you terrified the first time you got on a bull that big?
I was probably a little anxious, scared, nervous and excited all rolled into one. It really isn't much different than the feeling that I still get now. You're still getting on a bull.
Did you ever consider any other careers?
I never really had a back-up plan, which looking back on it, probably wasn't very smart. As a little bitty kid competing in rodeo events, I made a little money and I thought, Wow, this is a lot better than having to get a real job. I think I'll just do this the rest of my life. I think it was a little frustrating for some of my teachers because they really wanted to give me an education just in case the whole bull riding thing didn't pan out.
On TV, bull riding looks insanely painful. What's the worst injury you've ever had?
None of mine have ever been that serious. I broke some ribs and punctured a lung one time and needed to be back riding in about two weeks. I broke both bones in my lower leg one time and was back to competition in two and a half weeks. I had 11 screws and a plate put in my leg. But never anything that's been real life-threatening.
Do you wear any protective gear?
We have protective vests. And then probably 30 to 40% of the guys are wearing helmets now.
Do you wear a helmet?
I don't wear a helmet.
I'm old-school on it. I definitely don't look down on anybody who does wear one. A lot of the guys that do wear them have had facial injuries and head injuries and it's either put the helmet on or quit riding. And then the younger guys have grown up wearing them.
Is there more to bull riding than just hanging on tight?
You have to keep your chin down, tucked. That's the key to being able to stay on for eight seconds. If you allow your chin to come up in the air during the course of a ride, it's going to allow your upper body to get leaned back.
You guys seem to get jerked around a lot. Is that just part of bull riding?
If you do it right, you won't get jerked around. It's more like a give and take. You're never ever going to be as strong as a 2,000-pound bull.
Do you have a favorite bull?
A favorite one of mine was a bull named Hollywood. He was really big and mean and you never knew what he was going to do. So when you got on him, you knew that you better have everything in line or it wasn't going to be good for you. Then there was another bull named Mossy Oak Mud Slinger. Everybody wanted to draw him, but if you made one little mistake, you would buck off of him.
You're a fairly small guy at 5-foot-eight and 140 pounds.
I'm probably closer to five-nine. I'm not actually that short compared to a lot of guys. We have guys that are five-three, five-four, five-five.
Is being short an asset?
For the really short guys, they don't have as much of an upper body to control, so they might have some advantage there. Some of the taller guys have longer arms, so they can give and take a little more. But it really doesn't matter at the end of the day.
You got a $1 million bonus check for winning the world championships last year, right?
I've won that a couple of times.
What goes through your mind when somebody hands you a $1 million check?
You feel pretty happy. I always knew I was going to ride bulls for a living, or hoped that was what I was going to do. But I never had any idea that I would be able to make the living that I've been able to. I owe every bit of it to the guys who started the Professional Bull Riders. Without them, I'd be no different than all the really good bull riders before me that rodeoed all their lives and when they were too crippled to do it anymore, they went and got a job.
You just put out a country music CD. Is singing your next career move?
I'm going to do some more live shows and kind of get my feet wet. If people like it, I'll continue to do it more and more. If not, I'll just sit home and do it on my back porch.
Why are you retiring?
Because I don't feel like doing it anymore.
That's the bottom line. This was something I started doing because I loved doing it and I'm going to quit because I don't love doing it anymore. I don't care if it pays $15 million a year. You can do all kinds of things to make a living. If you're going to do something as dangerous as bull riding, it's got to be for more than just to make a living.