Raging bulls and pro riders raise dust
IT IS Saturday night in Tamworth and the biggest show in town will unfold among the pungent smell of farm animals on a stage of dirt.
Almost 3,300 seats at the undercover events centre are filled with excited locals - families, young couples, retirees, and groups of school friends.
The Professional Bull Riders event, a recent import from the United States, is bull riding only and does not call itself a rodeo.
Off we go ... bull riding events at Tamworth attract international competitors. Photo: Ben Rushton
It is a production.
''This is pain, and fear, and blood, and courage, and glory,'' the PBR promotion promises the audience.
As the cowboys prepare for their eight seconds of joint-tearing riding on a bucking bull a massive ''PBR'' written onto the dirt at the arena centre is set alight.
Riders must cling on, one-handed, for at least eight seconds to achieve a qualified ride.
With the rain and wind lashing the country music capital outside, coloured lights dance across the building and the cowboys, in their chaps, hats and boot spurs, are introduced. Among them is reigning Australian PBR champion Troy Wilkinson, a slight 21-year-old from Upper Horton near Narrabri, who works as a diesel mechanic.
''I grew up on a farm,'' he said. ''It was in the family and my father was in a few rodeos.''
At the age of six, Mr Wilkinson, who now stands at 174 centimetres and weighs 64 kilograms, was riding sheep in the shearing shed and three years later had moved onto calves. He entered his first rodeo aged 10.
He said he had suffered serious concussion and had also broken his arm, but cowboys needed to learn how to fall from a raging bull to avoid injury: ''It's like any sport. You know you're going to get hurt eventually.''
The riders mount the bulls in confined chutes and grip the bull rope, which is pulled tight around the one-tonne beast's belly, before they are released into the arena.
Mr Wilkinson did not do as well as he had hoped last Saturday.
He remains ranked PBR's No.1 in Australia - putting him in line to qualify for the world finals in Las Vegas where the prizemoney is US$1 million - but rookie Nathan Burtenshaw from Coonamble won the night.
No riders appeared to sustain any serious injuries at the event, but the odd ''oooh'' and ''aaah'' from the audience indicated how close riders and the bullfighters used to protect them came to horns or hooves.
By 11pm , the family night out had come to an end. The crowd was encouraged to attend the ''after party'' at a local pub.
For some, the bull-riding arena is their life, Mr Wilkinson said.
''I don't want [animal rights advocates] to kill the sport. A lot of people make a living out of it," he said. "We do respect the animals. They are looked after."