A Wild Ride

Blake Sharp’s bucking bulls thrill rodeo fans in arenas from Manhattan to Las Vegas

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

Blake Sharp stares with pride at his prized pupils whose dead-eyed gazes are fixed on him and his visitors to the Sharp family ranch just off Highway 45-Alternate near Columbus.

“You should definitely shoot these two,” he suggests to the photographer, pointing into the small pen where the bulls stand motionless. “I’ll see if I can move them so that you can get a photo of me with them in the background.”

By all appearances, the two seem docile in the way that livestock generally appears. It is a delusion, in this case, and arranging a photo of Sharp with the two bulls will require some orchestration.

“No, I can’t get in there with them,” says Sharp, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds. “They’d throw me clean out of that pen if they got the chance.”

There are dangerous jobs. Then there is what Sharp does for a living.

Sharp, 24, is something called a stock contractor, which at first sounds like he spends his days battling the bulls and bears on Wall Street.

He battles bulls, all right, but the closest any of them will get to Wall Street is Madison Square Garden, one of the stops on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, PBR for short.

In a sport where the quality of the performance is a collaboration of both rider and animal, it falls to men like Sharp to provide the animal part of the equation. A winning ride for the bull-rider depends, in large part, on the performance of the bull.

And in the case of the two bulls Sharp is trying to coax into the photographer’s frame, Sharp has delivered quite a show.

“It’s been a great year,” he says.

X22 Hammer It Again, a 5-year-old brindle bull, is the undisputed star of Sharp’s collection, reaching the PBR Finals in Las Vegas last spring, and ranking among the top 25 bucking bulls in the country. Hammer Slinger, a white bull flecked with brown, is a 3-year-old and may be on his way to similar stardom.

The two are among a group of 80 bulls (and 30 cows) on the Sharp family’s 300-acre ranch off Shaeffer’s Chapel Road. The bulls range in age from yearlings to 6 years, all of them born, bred, raised and trained to produce about 10 seconds of unmitigated, unrelenting, snot-slingin’ fury in big city arenas packed from one end to the other.

You might naturally think that the only people who are rooting for the bull in the events are the bull owners. Not so, Sharp says.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are cheering for the bull. They want him to throw the rider and stomp on him.”

Much like a champion prizefighter, a top bucking bull can develop a following, picking up endorsement deals and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way. A top bull can compete for up to 10 years.

Raising bucking bulls, it turns out, is much like raising competition thoroughbred horses.

In fact, the bulls used today have established their own breed, thanks to a man named Bob Tallman, who developed a DNA registry of top bucking bulls in the 1990s. Virtually all of the bulls on the top bull-riding circuits come from that registry.

“Bucking bulls are all about genetics,’’ Sharp says. “It’s instinct, and that’s in their blood. What I do is try to get the right combination of bloodlines. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

To that end, Sharp not only has assembled a ranch full of cows selected to produce high-quality bucking bulls, he keeps his eyes open for promising young bulls around the country, mainly through his almost constant travels.

“We’ll probably enter 30 events a year, about every other weekend,” Sharp says. “When we’re not competing, I’ll go places to look at bulls I’ve heard about and might want to buy.”

That is how X22 Hammer It Again – X22 for short – became part of Sharp’s arsenal.

“I bought him from a friend of mine, Denny Patterson, who lives in Horn Lake,” Sharp says. “I heard about him from another friend of mine, Griff Strode, who saw X22 as a young bull in an event down in Pearl River County. He told me he was one of the best bulls he had seen. So I went to take a look and liked what I saw.”

Sharp paid $10,000 for X22.

“I could get, probably, $100,000 for him now,” Sharp says. “Some bulls go for as much as $500,000 or $600,000. We’ll see how far X22 goes.”

Sharp estimates the worth of his stock at “around $7 million.”

“It can be a pretty expensive business, not just the cost of the stock but the whole operation, everything from feeding and raising them to transporting them and everything else that goes along with it,” he says.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Blake learned the trade from his father, Tony Sharp, one of the best-known figures in the bucking bull industry. A couple years ago, Tony turned over the operations to Blake, who played offensive lineman on East Mississippi Community College’s national championship football team in 2013.

“I loved playing football, but there was never any doubt about what I wanted to do for a living,” Sharp says. “I’ve been around these bulls all my life. Even when I was at EMCC, I’d come home and work with them just about every day.”

Given what these bulls are asked to do, you might assume that men like Sharp spend their time trying to make their bulls meaner, nastier.

“No, no, no,” Sharp says. “What a bucking bull does in competition, he does naturally. What we do is just the opposite. I pamper ’em. I always tell people who ask about that that I take better care of these bulls than I take care of myself. They eat before I do, probably better than I do, too. They’re on a high-protein, special diet.”

In short, no animal is harmed in the training process. Sharp begins training his bulls when they are about 8 months old.

“Really, what you try to do is calm them down,” he says. “A young bull hasn’t found his feet yet. What I mean by that is when he bucks and lands, he may not be able to get his feet under him, and he’ll fall or crash into something and may be injured. You don’t want that.”

“The best bucking bulls are the ones who have a high vertical kick when they buck. It’s about them getting their feet high in the air when they buck. That’s the kind of bull the riders want.”

For young bulls, training is also about familiarizing the bull with his environment — getting them in and out of chutes, acquainting them with the gates and sounds and all of the things a bull encounters during a competition.

Up until age 2, when the bulls are ready for competition, Sharp will put them through a bucking session about once a week, using a remote control dummy that he can release from the bull after 6 to 12 seconds, simulating the amount of time a rider will stay on a bull.

“Once they start competing, there’s no need for any more training,” he says. “They know what to do.”

So does Sharp.

“It’s not an easy job,” he admits. “There’s all the time you spend with the stock, then the thousands of miles driving to events and all the other stuff that goes with it. It’s pretty much an all-the-time job.”

There is one other thing, though.

“I love it,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”