Ride on the Wild Side

How a teen cowboy mastered the art of the rodeo

Episode 7: Nicholas Jackson

A Before We Could Drink Series

“Before Nic, I’d never come across a Maryland cowboy. I’d always associated the culture with the South, so it was a surprise when a fellow worker tracked him down.

“At first, I couldn’t imagine a kid tackling an animal ten times his weight. I needed to know what made him that daring, and that fearless.

“Getting to know Nic and his family was an honor. I’ve never met people so loving. The grit, the fun… I haven’t laughed that much in ages. It was an unexpected slice of home. I’ve kept the boots in the closet, ready for my next trip.”

– Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink creator

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

It’s the big day. Fastened to the braided straps of a prized bull, Nicholas Jackson straddles 1500lbs of pure heft. Poised in a small enclosure, his adrenaline flows in sharp surges. Deep, extended breaths offset each jangle of nerves. Hooves shift and shuffle in the dust.

Clad in a pair of faded black jeans, Nic adjusts the rim of his rancher hat. The grubby, stonewashed denims are an auspicious reminder of all the contests he’s partaken in – the headgear a prevailing symbol of this longstanding American tradition. As anticipation mounts, one last lungful accompanies a quick nod. The signal commences. A nearby gatekeeper obliges. The solemn clink of his bell sounds, heralding the start of this remarkable opening act.

The ensuing chaos is frantic – a frenzied frolic between bull and rider alike. The animal lurches, heaving its hind legs in a sequence of wild jerks and spasms, flinging the rag doll jockey desperately to and fro in a violent flurry. The intensity is electric, but Nic retains his composure. Drawing on previous experience, he remains atop the beast for eight seconds, fulfilling his objective.

“I find so much joy in this,” Nic beams. “I don’t see it as a fight, I see it as a dance.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

From amateur gigs to specialist tournaments, there’s a rodeo every day in America. Popular in the Southern states, over 600 currently exist across the country, commissioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). For the winners, it’s a rewarding venture: prize money topped a staggering $45 million in 2015.

Despite its benefits, stereotypes can often prove rife, particularly when it comes to animal welfare. Here, Nic’s quick to clarify any misconceptions.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I know you can’t do your job if your cattle aren’t healthy. You have to treat them with absolute respect,” he explains.

“There’s nothing aggressive about the process. They’re naturally inclined to buck – as soon as those calves hit the ground, they’ve got that inclination. They’ll even do it for fun, without any human interference.”

Tackling such a formidable foe would prove daunting for most adults, let alone a preteen. Nervousness was a predictable reaction, but it didn’t deter Nic. The promise of accomplishments more than outweighed the apprehension.

“As I started getting into it, I didn’t really have any fear. I think respect is key. You have to work together to make it a success.”

When it comes to measuring said achievement, both parties are allocated a score of 50. The numbers are then added together to form the final result. A perfect hundred has only been attained once – by Wade Leslie at the Central Point Rodeo in Oregon, October 1991.

“It’s only been reached that one time, but who knows,” Nic ponders, grinning suggestively.

“Weirdly, this where I find my peace.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

In those all-important moments, riders can’t touch the ground, or use their free arm to touch the bull. Points are allocated for the strength of the landing (preferably, on one’s feet) and centralized positioning.

In this field, balance is perhaps the most effective performance determiner. Lose your bearings and you’re liable to be kicked, catapulted, or worse.

“You’re not alone in your experiences, which is reassuring. Before you mount, you learn the physical and mental coping mechanisms, and that’s a huge help.”

When the stakes are so high, upholding stability is something cowboys must actively strive to perfect. Exercises are a rigorous cycle of demanding – and often unusual – workouts.

“I take a basketball and balance on it, for 20 seconds to a minute,” Nic says. “I do curls at the same time. The combination is a really useful form of practice.

“Weirdly, this where I find my peace.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Whatever will be.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Whatever will be.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“I’ll ride my mother’s horses bare-back, which helps to perfect my steadiness – specifically with regards to fast-twitch muscles. It mimics the feeling of a bull. I also have a simulator that rocks up and down, as well as a stationary barrel, which aids my form.”

Often cited as one of the world’s most dangerous sports, Nic’s world hinges on cooler heads prevailing. Risks are an unavoidable reality. What matters is the way they’re handled.

“In situations like those, you have to stay calm. Being nervous only makes it worse. In that scenario, my dad got me out. He drew the bull’s attention, and that gave me a window of opportunity to escape.”

Nic’s father played football throughout school and college. Ever the sportsman, he taught his son the importance of fitness and discipline – imperatives that the youngster carries with pride.

“I plan on expanding my career. I want to go to a rodeo college, maybe on some kind of scholarship, like my dad did,” Nic says. “Hopefully I’ll make it to the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) and the PRCA. That’s where I’d like to end up.”

For the young man, a genuinely astonishing tale is slowly starting to take shape. It’s defined by individualism, but solidified with support.

“Before I ride, my father and I will always say a prayer. I’m so grateful to have this backing. It means everything.

“When I’m in that ring, I know I’ve got someone watching over me.”

 

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