High school bull riders pioneer path for fledgling Maryland rodeo association

Two experienced bull-riding Middletown students are riding high during their first competition in their home state of Maryland. (Randy Smith/The Washington Post)

The first event in Maryland High School Rodeo Association history pitted 18-year-old Justin Reed against a wild-eyed 1,500-pound bull with a short temper and little regard for milestones. The animal, named Bone Crusher, snorted and kicked dirt, marking his territory in the pen at a recent rodeo west of Baltimore.

Reed couldn’t stop pacing. He paused only to pound his chest and thighs and to run to the tree line behind the arena to urinate. Finally the Middletown High School senior did the only sensible thing he could think of: He knelt near Bone Crusher’s hooves, separated from the bull only by an iron gate, and prayed.

A few minutes later, Reed was strapped atop the monstrous shoulders of the animal. A new era had begun for high school sports in the state, but the moment lasted for just a few fleeting seconds. Bone Crusher bucked Reed off and onto his back, and the furious bull nearly stomped on the teenager while he was in the dirt.

“Ol’ Bone Crusher is not happy,” the event’s announcer said as the bull trotted around the arena.

“It’s a game of inches,” Reed said after limping back to the chutes at the Wild West Fest in West Friendship last weekend, shaking his head in disappointment. Soon he walked back to his family’s camper parked near the arena to stretch and take an ibuprofen.

Reed’s best friend, fellow Middletown senior Justin Stone­street, was also riding in the 80-degree heat, and his first run ended with a sliced chin from a bull’s horn. As he and Reed waited for the second round, they could revel in the fact they had not been seriously injured. They are the only two sanctioned high school bull riders in the state, and staying whole means they can continue with their cause.

At a time when safety concerns shroud youth sports such as football, the National High School Rodeo Association, which counts more than 12,000 members and extends into five Canadian provinces and Australia, nonetheless touts that rodeo is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Maryland became the 42nd state to offer interscholastic competition when the MDHSRA was formed last fall, and it gave Reed and Stonestreet an unprecedented chance to establish their sport for other students in their home state.

“I would hope it grows as much as it can. I would definitely love to come back as an alumni and help these younger ones coming up,” said Reed, who plans to pursue bull riding as a profession after he graduates high school.

‘Me versus the bull’

Reed is the perfect prospect to set the bar for the MDHSRA, which was born in a Wegmans restaurant in Gambrills in November and now has about 60 members — including a veterinarian, a religious liaison, a rodeo clown and two teenagers who want to be part of one of the more adrenaline-driven and dangerous fraternities in sports.

Reed was introduced to bulls at a young age by his father, Brian Reed, who started raising the animals in 1995. Reed’s uncle, Mark Reed, is a stock contractor who runs Triple R Bull Company in Boonsboro, Md., and has supplied several bulls to the Professional Bull Riders finals in Las Vegas over the past decade.

Reed took his first ride at 14, and by the time he entered ninth grade at Middletown, he was seasoned enough to recruit and teach Stonestreet how to ride. Both were key football players at Middletown, helping the Knights win their third consecutive 2A state championship at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium in December.

Bull riding is a completely different animal, though, and Stonestreet is Reed’s only teammate. Both have become infatuated with their goal of completing an eight-second ride, which would qualify them for the national high school competition in Wyoming in July.

The two competed in their first rodeo together in Powhatan, Va., earlier this spring. On weekday afternoons, they grade one another’s technique with countless hours on a mechanical bull at Reed’s 10-acre ranch in Myersville.

“I think it’s me versus the bull,” Stonestreet said. “One of them is going to win. Just hope for the best.”

While MDHSRA plans to expand its bull riding roster in the coming years, finding students like Reed and Stonestreet won’t be easy. They are unique athletes with unique resources, but they are also willing to take risks that most high school athletes are not.

Bull riding is widely considered one of the most dangerous sports in the United States, one that rewards violence. Serious head injuries and broken bones aren’t just possible — they’re expected. A deep pain threshold is just as valuable a skill as learning to attach the bull rope or pumping the hips during a ride.

“I always get the question, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Reed said. “I don’t think it’s too crazy. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”

A 16-year-old Arkansas boy was killed after being trampled during a competition in Oklahoma in 2008. A 16-year-old Florida girl died in a similar incident during a rodeo in 2011, and last month a 20-year-old member of the Eastern New Mexico University rodeo team was killed after a bull stepped on him during practice.

While Stonestreet has suffered just nicks and bruises during his short career, one of Reed’s best runs resulted in serious injury two years ago. He was practicing at his uncle’s arena in Boonsboro and was whipped onto the side of his head after a five-second run, knocking him out cold and breaking his growth plate. Both boys wear hockey goalie masks when they ride, which is an order from their mothers.

“That’s the rule: You wear a helmet or you don’t ride. It’s the least I can do,” Beth Reed said. “You kind of hold your breath. . . . There’s a pride, yeah. I’m proud of him just because other kids around don’t really do it. But I don’t want him to do it as a career.”

Both Reed and Stonestreet have optional $25,000 insurance policies while competing in MHRSA events, according to the organization’s president, Karen Anderson. Securing an insurance coverage plan for the 27 athletes was one of the most expensive hurdles in forming the MDHSRA, but it was far from the only one. Anderson had to tie down sponsors, contract with stock companies to provide the animals and chutes and find property to hold the organization’s first event on state soil.

A dream realized

Maryland has the most horses per square mile in the nation, according to a report released by the state’s Department of Agriculture in March, but the state’s athletes have never had a chance to perform in Maryland sanctioned rodeos like their counterparts in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania (there are also high school rodeo organizations in New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida).

Anderson set out to put her home state on that map last year. The owner of a 52-acre horse establishment in Bel Alton called Southern Grace Farm, Anderson first gauged interest at regional county fairs, passing out pamphlets to whomever would take them. She handpicked her entire board from the meeting in Gambrills, and the association’s constitution was passed that night.

“This was my dream, my work, and I wanted to direct it,” Anderson said.

The MDHSRA has plans to add multiple events per year in the future but will continue its debut tour this spring at other state rodeos across the region, including this weekend in New Kent, Va. Nearly a dozen bull riders from several states are expected at the event, including Reed and Stonestreet.

After disappointing showings in the first three rounds at West Friendship last weekend, the two boys saved their best — and most violent — runs for the final round Sunday afternoon.

Riding a white-spotted beast dubbed Snake Eyes by the event’s announcer, Reed survived several wild bucks out of the chute. He waved his hand for several seconds before he was launched into the arena’s iron railing. Reed’s hockey helmet was jarred off, and he frantically climbed up onto the railing to avoid being stomped on.

Stonestreet stayed atop his bull for several seconds before the animal rammed into a gate that had errantly flung open. The collision sent him onto his shoulders. That miscue earned him a retry from the event’s officials. He responded with one of the best runs of his young career, riding for nearly four seconds before he was flung off over the bull’s horns.

When he landed on his feet, Stonestreet’s hand was caught in the rope. There was a moment of panic. Cradling the bull’s head, Stonestreet took several blows from the snout before breaking free.

“You all right?” Reed asked his friend upon return, patting him on the back. Stonestreet nodded. He walked back to the chute where no one could see and knelt down to absorb the pain.

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