OTTUMWA — Turning a large indoor space into a rodeo arena requires effort, coordination and dirt. Not just any dirt. Special dirt.
This is the seventh year Bullriders of America has come to Ottumwa, said BOA President Levi Stepp Friday morning. In Ottumwa, Bridge View Center is responsible for providing the arena surface.
It’s a clay-loam mix, said Stepp. It’s very firm. “It packs, but you can still have fluff [on top].”
The bull-riding surface has to be firm, not slick, so the bulls don’t lose their footing, said Stepp. “So the bulls can perform to the best of their ability. So they’re not getting hurt.
“They bring in all the dirt and then we actually have our own people come in and set up the arena to our specs.” After the show, the work begins again. “Our guys will tear down the area,” Stepp said. BVC will remove the dirt.
“We have bull riding all year long,” said Stepp.“We probably have around 80 events.” The BOA hosts events in Missouri, Iowa, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Mississippi and Iowa, he said. “We cover a pretty big territory.”
“We have four different stock contractors,” Stepp said. “They supply all the bulls.” The animals that riders face at Bridge View Center this weekend are from Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas.
Stepp calls the bulls “bovine athletes.”
The bulls are better cared for than the bull riders, Stepp joked. “They’re bred and raised for one job, and that’s to buck.”
That doesn’t stop organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) from protesting BOA events. Stepp said they’ve threatened to set the bulls free, but that would be hazardous to the activists, Stepp said.
PETA has tried to stop BOA events by blocking their vehicles, but BOA’s semitractor-trailers don’t stop for PETA blockades, Stepp said.
Bull riding draws a large crowd in Ottumwa. “We’ll fill this building,” said Stepp. He estimates 1,500 to 2,000 people will attend. BOA events at larger venues draw 5,000 to 6,000.
“Generally your bull riders come from western lifestyle families,” said Stepp. They grew up riding horses and raising cattle. Stepp was mutton busting at the age of 3 and riding calves at 4, he said.
“You do have some city-slicker type kids” who want an adrenaline rush similar to what they find in skateboarding. Some become good bull riders, Stepp said, but most bull riders come from western-style backgrounds.
Stepp rode bulls professionally for 16 years. “I retired in this arena last year. I felt that I had hit the peak in my career,” said Stepp. “I felt, physically I wasn’t going to be able to do it much longer.”
“Year in and year out, I was in the top five. I was very, very fortunate.”
Many bull riders compete full time and live off the prize money, Stepp said, but he competed while working a full time a steel mill in Norfolk, Nebraska. Stepp lives in Pierce, Nebraska, with his wife Stacy and son Ryken, who is almost 2.
The BOA Finals continue tonight at 7:30.
Reporter Winona Whitaker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @courierwinona.