Taking a ride on the wild side
McLouth teen-aged bull rider works toward career on professional rodeo circuit
The wide-brimmed cowboy hat occasionally may leave his head, but it's likely the hat seldom leaves his heart.
Bull rider, football player, farm hand.
Skeeter Kingsolver may be all. But first and foremost, he'd rather ride bulls than do anything else.
That's why, last Monday and Tuesday, Skeeter rode bulls during the youth invitational rodeo at the American Royal. And, earlier this month, he rode in the American Royal parade.
Skeeter, who just turned 16, began his bull-riding career at age 12.
"I started off on steers and then moved up," Skeeter said. "Now I'm riding the big bulls."
The bigger they are, the better Skeeter likes them.
An unassuming teenager, Skeeter is comfortable in a sleeveless T-shirt, faded jeans and of course his black cowboy hat. The hat, which replaced an earlier western hat he outgrew, is a part of his career.
As are the jeans he wears in competitions. When Skeeter is winning, the jeans go unwashed, week after week. If there's a weekend when his performance slides, the jeans go in the washer, ready for a fresh start.
Bull riding is a rough sport, and denim, as well as bones and flesh, are likely to be damaged.
When there's a tear in his rodeo jeans, according to Skeeter, the seamstress in McLouth who does his mending hopes the winning streak has been short. The more rides the jeans are worn in, the muddier they'll be and the more of a mess she'll have to clean up at her sewing machine.
And, as any respectable bull rider knows, a little bit of dirt is no reason to throw the jeans in the washer.
Though it's the bulls he rides, it's the people at the bull-riding competitions he likes.
"There are the best people you could meet," Skeeter said.
And of course, he always appreciates the competition.
"When you're in there riding and whenever you're making a real good ride -- there's no better feeling in the world," Skeeter said.
During a ride, his adrenaline rushes, his heart races.
"Before, during and then it's still going after I get off, but I eventually calm down," Skeeter said.
But the nervousness helps.
"It just makes you give more effort to make the ride," Skeeter said.
Taking his falls
In bull riding, falling off is risky.
But falling off and landing in front of the bull is perilous.
"Almost every bull is mean if you get right in front of them," Skeeter said. "Some bulls will buck you off and leave you alone, but most will come get you. So you need to get up and run once you're on the ground."
Though he prefers his western hat to a safety helmet, Skeeter does wear a padded leather vest to protect his chest and abdomen. And then there's the rest of the uniform -- long-sleeved shirt, mouthpiece to protect his teeth, jeans, leather chaps, boots, and spurs that are not sharp, but dulled.
Skeeter started training as a bullrider by taking classes in Richmond from George Steinberger. He began his rodeo career by riding a mechanical bull.
Mechanical bulls have an up and down rhythm, Skeeter said.
Though they're good for beginners, mechanical bulls don't begin to teach the whole story.
"Some bulls have a lot of rhythm like a mechanical bull, and most will come out and start spinning," Skeeter said.
But that's a good thing.
"You earn more points when they spin," Skeeter said.
Bull riders don't have a lot to hold onto. With their left hand, they hold onto a rope that's wrapped around the bull's belly and their right hand must be held in the air.
"You can't touch any part of your body or the bull, or you'll get disqualified," Skeeter said.
So far, Skeeter said, that hasn't happened to him.
A hazard of bull riding is that the riders, when they're bucked off, can get caught up in the rope, and dragged around the arena -- by an angry bull.
"I've been hung up four or five times," Skeeter said.
The work's proved risky.
Skeeter's had one broken collar bone and about eight concussions.
And he came close to losing an eye when, after a ride, he jumped off the bull but didn't run out of its sight quickly enough.
"I turned around and looked up and the bull horned me right underneath my right eyebrow," Skeeter said.
Mom stays at home
It's things like that that keep Skeeter's mother, Sue Kingsolver, from attending competitions.
"She's just worried that I'll get hurt," Skeeter said.
So Skeeter's father, Randy, takes him to the events, which can mean a weekend's trip could take them to Abilene, Western Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas.
And during the fall, that's after Skeeter plays in a Friday night McLouth High School football game. Accompanying them to many of the rodeos is Skeeter's older brother, Blake, whom Skeeter refers to as his "business manager." Blake is a senior at MHS. He plans to attend college next year at Fort Scott Community College and to be involved in the college's rodeo team, Skeeter said.
Bull riding takes preparation -- and it's not just from riding the simulated bull next to the arena at Skeeter's farm.
"You've got to stay in shape," Skeeter said. "You've got to lift weights, you've got to be strong -- you've got to get muscles on your bones because if you do get hurt it won't be as bad, you'll have more padding."
Keep on keeping on>/b>
Skeeter has a drawer full of championship belt buckles, still in their boxes.
He wants bull riding to be not just his present, but also his future. He plans to be a professional bull rider.
There's money in the career -- for those who can hang on.
The national bull riding champion can win more than $1 million.
"I want to ride bulls until I'm 30 or something like that," Skeeter said. "And then whenever I get done with that I'm hoping that I'll be able to have a bull riding school."
And in the meantime, he doesn't get discouraged -- not even after a bad ride.
"When I get bucked off, I still get mad because I know I made a mistake because I bucked myself off," Skeeter said, giving a tilt of his head and a quick sigh.
"But I know there's another rodeo tomorrow or next weekend that I can improve on and work on what I did wrong."