Once a bull rider himself, Jackson Hole Rodeo judge Joe Young likes to think back to a line in one of his favorite George Strait songs, “Amarillo by Morning.”
“I hope that judge ain’t blind,” Strait sings in his ballad of a rodeo cowboy.
“I’ve always loved that song,” Young said. “Judging is a big responsibility. You have to keep your eyes open.”
If you’re new to the world of rodeo, you may be surprised that there’s a lot more riding on a win than watching the clock. Though some events, like roping and barrel racing, are decided solely on time, judging roughstock events — saddle bronc, bareback and bull riding — requires a much keener eye.
And what may look like a winning ride from the stands may not hold up behind the judges panel.
First, you should know that it’s not just the riders being judged; the animals are, too.
For roughstock events, each of the two judges score both the animal and rider on a scale from 1 to 25. The two scores are put together to make a composite score that can be from 2 to 100.
In bigger rodeo competitions, judges can score using quarter and half points, but you can expect only whole numbers at the Jackson rodeo.
Animals — bulls in bull riding and horses for bareback and saddle bronc — are judged on their athleticism and how hard a ride they put out for the human.
“For bulls I really pay attention to how high they kick, how fast they are and how well they spin,” Young said. “Being an old bull rider, I can tell if a bull is really powerful just by the way their technique and bucking is.”
Horses, often wilder to ride than bulls, according to Young, are judged on similar criteria. From the stands, it may be exciting to see a bull or horse take off across the arena. Oftentimes, however, those rides are easier than ones that stay closer to the gate.
“A bull that jumps up and spins is going to score higher even though he doesn’t travel that far,” Young said.
Keeping one eye on the animal’s athleticism, judges must keep the other on the rider. Most importantly, they’re critiquing the riders on their control — “if they’re just hanging on for dear life or actually controlling the situation,” Young said.
“Like a dance partner, they’re matching every move the animal makes, and they’re in control — not of the animal — but of what their body is doing,” he said. “Everything the animal throws at them they’ve got something to counter it.”
Part of maintaining control in bull riding is resisting any chance of slapping the bull, meaning touching your raised hand to the animal. For bareback or saddle bronc, riders must maintain their “mark” on a horse, which is keeping their spurs above the shoulder line of the animal. A slap or failure to maintain your mark will disqualify your ride.
“One of the toughest parts about being a judge,” Young said, ”is knowing a rider made a great ride but you had to throw your flag because they missed their mark early on or slapped the bull, even just barely. You have to make those calls and be fair to everybody.”
Those who keep their marks and hands held high can earn extra points for spurring the animals. Spurring is essentially encouraging your horse or bull to buck even harder.
“A perfect bull ride would be a bull doing everything he could possibly do — kicking straight over his head, spinning on a dime — and the rider doing everything imaginable to keep up with him and give him some more,” Young said.
The animals and riders are being judged on all of these fronts, but only in the first eight seconds of the ride. After those eight seconds, the judge might as well look down at his stopwatch and start jotting down his score.
“I do know a lot of the crowd will think that whoever got the longest should get the longest score, but it’s all just from the first eight seconds,” Young said.
Judging the roughstock does have a subjective component to it, but ultimately, Young said, whoever makes the best ride in the judges’ eyes will receive the best score.
“We want the person that tried the hardest, that rode the hardest, put out the most heart and passion to win. We want to be fair. The person that should deserve first place should win first place, and second place should earn second place and so on,” he said.
Young will be returning to judge the Jackson Hole Rodeo this summer from Poetry, Texas. ￼