EQUINUNK, Pa. — Most 11-year-olds ride bikes. Shawn Rake rides bulls.
Competing under the BLM Bull and Rodeo Co. in Virginia, the Equinunk boy started riding miniature bulls in the summer. Although the animals are called miniature, they can weigh more than 800 pounds.
Shawn always wanted to ride bulls growing up, and spending summers on his uncle Jeremy Funk’s farm in Virginia only fueled his passion.
“It sounded fun, so I wanted to do it,” Shawn said.
Spending time with his uncle “really got Shawn riled up into wanting to bull ride,” Shawn’s mom, Laurie Fuller, said.
“He loves it,” she said. “It’s all he talks about.”
Someday, Shawn hopes to become a professional bull rider.
Since miniature bulls aren’t common, especially in Northeast Pennsylvania, Shawn’s first rodeo also happened to be his first time riding a bull.
Clad in a cowboy hat, a full-face helmet akin to a hockey helmet, spurs and a neon-green vest with matching chaps, Shawn mounted his first miniature bull in July.
To help stay on a bucking bull, riders use a length of rope to strap their hand to the animal’s back by winding the rope around the bull’s chest and tucking their hand underneath.
It was “nerve-wracking” for Shawn as he secured himself to the bull and waited for the gates to open. Raising the stakes even higher, Shawn was about to ride in front of a crowd of around 700 to 800 people.
The gates opened, and he was off.
Then, the adrenaline kicked in.
“You don’t really think about anything else,” Shawn said. “You’re on this bull that controls you.”
After an intense four seconds, it was over. For adults, the standard is eight seconds. For youths, it ranges from six to eight seconds depending on the rodeo.
“It was scary, fun,” Shawn said.
Unfortunately, Shawn couldn’t move out of the way fast enough, and the bull stomped on his fingers. Now, his fingers pop when he opens and closes his hand.
DEDICATION TO RIDING
To help him develop his bull riding skills in the offseason, Shawn’s family built a practice rig for him at their home in Equinunk.
Consisting of a large blue plastic barrel suspended by ropes and springs connected to a pool noodle-wrapped wooden frame, the setup is “a work in progress,” Fuller said.
With the help of his 9-year-old brother, Jason, Shawn practices almost every day for about an hour to an hour and a half, he said. At the start of each practice session, Shawn wraps his bull rope around the barrel the same way he’d tie it around a real bull. After situating himself on the slick barrel, Shawn gives Jason the “OK.”
Using all of his weight, Jason rocks the barrel, pushing it back and forth, up and down.
Shawn tries to hang on as he gets thrown around, occasionally stopping to give Jason instructions on how to better manipulate the barrel and ropes to mimic a real bull.
The practice setup has even become a hit with Shawn’s friends. Groups of kids will take turns to see who can last the longest with everyone else pulling on the barrel and ropes.
Practicing on his setup is pretty similar to the real thing, Shawn said.
“Not so scary,” he added with a laugh.
Riding the bull isn’t the scariest part of bull riding for Shawn. Falling off is.
Sometimes, it’s worse when you can’t fall off.
Shawn had his first close call during his third rodeo in September.
Seasoned riders had helped Shawn rope the bull, which resulted in Shawn’s hand being strapped to it more securely than he was used to.
“My hand flipped up, and I couldn’t get my hand out,” Shawn said.
Luckily, Shawn’s hand came free after a few seconds, and he escaped without injury.
“The adrenaline was coming through me so much that I got up, I started running and I fell back down,” Shawn said.
Despite being dragged, Shawn managed to place third in miniature bulls at the rodeo.
During his second rodeo in August, Shawn’s helmet came off while he was on the bull. Thinking quickly, he prioritized his safety and decided to end the run at five seconds. Had his helmet stayed on, Shawn is confident that he could have hit the six second mark, which would have netted him a $600 prize.
LIKE MOTHER LIKE SON
Even though she’s no stranger to riding aggressive animals, Shawn’s mom only needed one word to describe what it’s like watching her son ride the hulking creatures: “Petrifying.”
“It really didn’t scare me until the chute opened and then seeing him being tossed around,” Fuller said. “But it brought back memories for me, too, so I’m glad he’s following in my footsteps, but it’s scary at the same time.”
When she was Shawn’s age, she helped her family break horses on their ranch in Virginia.
As worrying as it is to watch her son ride bulls, she’ll always be there cheering him on.
“He doesn’t compete without me there,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
As soon as school is out next summer, Shawn will be en route to Virginia for another season of bull riding.
Shawn’s grandfather is buying him his own bull to practice on, and his uncle is going to build him a chute for the full experience.
The chute is the small gated enclosure where the rider climbs onto the bull and prepares to ride it.
When Shawn turns 13, he’ll move up to the amateur league. Amateur league rodeos use bulls that either didn’t make the cut or are retired from the professional circuit, Fuller said. In his late teens, Shawn hopes to move up to professional bull riding.
For the time being, Shawn is just enjoying his favorite sport and everything that comes with it.
“After he rides, there’s quite a few people that come to him for autographs,” Fuller said.
The byline on this story has been corrected. The reporter is Frank Wilkes Lesnefsky, not Rank.
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/