Cliff Richardson made headlines in 2014 when a bull he was riding almost ended his life. A horn to the stomach ruptured his spleen and pancreas. It took him two years to recover.
Now the Gresford cowboy is hoping to make headlines of a different kind. He is one of three professional bull riders from the Hunter Valley representing Australia at the “Olympics” of bull riding in Sydney next weekend.
His brother Lachlan and Singleton’s Cody Heffernan have also qualified for the 14-strong Australian team which will compete at the inaugural home-turf leg of the PBR Global Cup at Qudos Bank Arena on June 9 and 10.
Joining them in the arena will be two of the unsung heroes of bull riding: protection athletes Mitch Russell and Geoff Hall, also from the Hunter. They are often referred to as “clowns” but the title is misleading. Far from being a comedy act, the courage, speed and agility of protection athletes can mean the difference between life and death for a bull rider.
“Mitch and Geoff are two of my best mates,” Cliff Richardson tells Weekender while fencing a property. He whistles softly to his dog from time to time if it strays too far.
“Mitch has been doing this as long as I’ve been riding bulls. I’ve got the utmost trust in them guys and I don’t know what they get paid but it’s not enough. They’re in the arena for every single bull ride, every single round. Their job is to take a hit from the bull before us and that’s gotta be worth a lot of money.”
Richardson, 28, began riding bulls at the age of 12 and is ranked third on the PBR Australia Standings. He works for the family business as a cattle buyer and property manager during the week and devotes his weekends to bull riding.
“Fencing and jobs like this get me ready for the weekend. It’s a workout. Sometimes you classify the bull riding on the weekend and travelling across the country as a holiday because you’re flat out during the week,” he says.
He captained the Australian team at the PBR Global Cup series opener in Canada last year. It is the largest team event and battle for national pride that the sport has ever seen, pitting the world’s premier bull-riding nations Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the US against each other.
Host status brings with it a significant competitive edge. The host nation receives a home-turf advantage and fields a 14-rider team – double the size of the visiting nations’ teams.
National pride is at stake and being part of a team is a major motivating factor for Richardson.
“I never played football or any team sports like that, so to go over to a foreign country and ride as a team, yeah, a fair bit of pride goes into that,” he says.
“There’s a lot of pride involved in riding for your country, too, especially when it’s the biggest ever bull ride in Australia. It feels good to be a part of that. And it won’t be my last either.”
Bull riding is a family affair for Richardson. Brother Lachlan is a six-time PBR World Finals qualifier and spends most of his year in the US competing on the 25th PBR: Unleash the Beast, Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour and Touring Pro Division.
Younger brother Eric is also a bull rider and sister Olivia works in sponsorship for the PBR Australia Tour. Richardson also has cousins on the PBR tour. Then there’s his wife Jess, whose father was a bull rider and his uncle before him, and her brother Bradie Gray. Family rivalry, he says, pushes him to be the best he can be.
“I am never gonna stop trying to get better, because you can always get better, I believe. I’m going to keep trying and striving further forward,” he says.
“My brother is in America and I don’t see him for nine or 10 months of the year but we yarn every day about work and bull riding and it keeps me going, for sure.
“If he rags me out a bit it fires me up for the weekend.”
As for Singleton’s Heffernan, he rode his first calf at the age of four and is now based in the US. One of Australia’s top riders, he nabbed the national title in 2016 and is currently fourth on the Australian Standings.
The protection athletes, on the other hand, don’t compete for fame and fortune. They attract the attention of the bulls when riders come off and do whatever it takes to keep the rider and the bull safe, while at the same protecting themselves and their partner in the arena. This may involve laying across a fallen rider to protect them or distracting the bull and making themselves a target, which sometimes means getting in the way of a bull’s horns or hooves.
They tag-team with the other protection athlete and position themselves far enough from the bull during the ride so as not to impact its performance, but always close enough to strike in a split second.
A protection athlete can come between bull and cowboy up to 60 times per night.
A farrier by trade, Hall started as a protection athlete in 2007 on a break from bareback riding. He regularly partners with Russell and the two have learnt to read one another’s moves.
When asked how he can square up to a 900-kilogram bull, Russell is matter of fact.
“I don’t really think about it. I tell people I’m not the greatest specimen to look at and I don’t think I could run a marathon – but I can fight bulls for half a day,” he says.
“I agree with Cliff that we should be paid more but I’d still do it for nothing if they let me. It’s a job that’s not for everyone but I like doing it.”
After so many years as a protection athlete, is he able to read the bulls in any way?
“To a certain degree, yes, but they are animals so you can’t really plan anything. Just like us they have bad days,” Russell replies.
“We’ve got to react to every situation how we see it, and try to deal with it the best we know how to. The bottom line is we put the rider first. As I see it, we’re third on the food chain. You’ve got the riders, then you’ve got the bulls, then we’ve got each other.
“Our job is not to be funny for the crowd or anything like that. If someone asks me how the crowd was, I couldn’t even tell you how many people were there. I just focus on what I have to do.”
Russell, who also breeds bulls to be ridden at rodeos, is just as proud as his mate Richardson to be part of the Global Cup.
“It’s a pretty big honour for them guys to ride for their country because it is such an individual sport. But we’ve got the job to support the best riders in the world, not just the Australians,” he says.
“We’re proud of that too, it’s a pretty big honour for us. And to do it with mates, I can’t wait. It’s a privilege and should be fun.”
Predictably, Russell has had his fair share of injuries on the job. The list includes more than 10 broken bones, missing teeth, three knee reconstructions and a horn to the neck that made his windpipe swell up and affected his breathing. One knee reconstruction was “serious enough”, he says, but “nothing life-threatening that I couldn’t recover from”.
Richardson also downplays the injury factor associated with the sport.
“Four years ago when I got horned there wasn’t even a mark on me, honestly. The damage was underneath the skin,” he explains.
“If you were to look at my body when I got injured, and you ignored the pain on my face, you wouldn’t have known there was a single thing wrong with me.
“You can’t let it bother you, mate, to be honest. Some people, it messes with their head but if you want to be competitive you can’t let it. It’s in the past and you move on.”
Fear keeps Russell on his toes in the arena but he doesn’t let it take over.
“I’m not going to say there’s no fear involved, I’d be lying to you. But when there starts to be too much fear and I feel I can’t do the job as well as I do, I’ll go. I’d be stealing money then.”
Their respective wives remain supportive, even though both men are now fathers of young children. Russell’s son Max has just turned three and Richardson’s little boy Wylee is 18 months old.
“I wanna get 10 years in a row in the finals. I don’t think anyone has done that before. Then I might think about giving it up,” Russell says.
“I feel as though I’m getting better at it, the older I get. My wife Alese has never told me it was time to quit or slow down or anything like that. She’s pretty supportive.”
Richardson says, laughing: “My wife don’t have much of a choice. I thought I’d slip that in there but nah, I’ve been with Jess for nearly 11 years now and she knows how it is. We met at a rodeo. She’s a country girl and her father was an Australian champion bull rider so she was around bull riding long before I was.
“She’s seen her dad take glory and plenty of injuries as well in his later years of riding so she understands.”
As for his son, Richardson is not going to push him into bull riding but will not be surprised if it comes naturally to him.
“You’d think he’d have the genes, yeah, but he may not want to do it. If he wants to do it I’ll support him, the same as my parents did to me,” he says.
“But if he wants to do something completely different, nothing to do with the sport, I’ll still be there to support him. If I was a betting man, though, I’d probably put the ranch on him riding bulls or doing something in rodeos because he’s been around it all since the day he was born.
“He was probably at a rodeo when he was not even a month old. One thing’s for sure though – he gets his looks from his mum.”