PROSSER, Wash. – In early November, T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas was filled with dirt, rodeo fans and 40 of the best bull riders in the world.
Among the steel panels and chutes at the Professional Bull Riders World Finals, the bull riders hope to last 8 seconds for a shot at pride, glory, life changing money, and the culminating titles that include world champion.
All the lights, money, danger, story lines and pressure, however, mean nothing to the other star athletes – nearly 1-ton animals that await a cowboy on their back and the chance to shake him off.
The owners of some of these bulls are Craig and Vicki Wentz. They have endured sleepless nights, hours of back -breaking work, frustration, joy and countless miles on the road to get to this point.
They watch as a rider nods his head and the gatemen open the chute. Their bull goes full throttle in a split second, legs defying gravity as the first jump of the wild ride begins.
Four bulls from the Wentzes’ Washington breeding program made the exclusive cut for the finals this year: Montana Moon, Whiskey Bent, Jasper and Red Clark.
Their moments weren’t decided by a single high-scoring ride.
In the late 1990s Craig Wentz began the difficult task of ending his rodeo career riding saddle bronc horses. Vicki Wentz was a barrel racer.
Rather than leave rodeo, they began breeding some cows to bucking bulls from the famed Flying 5/Big Bend Rodeo Company out of Ritzville and settled in Prosser.
“We knew what a bucking bull looked like and what they were supposed to do, but as far as genetics we weren’t familiar with any of that,” Craig Wentz said.
Nonetheless, the simple idea of “breeding the best with the best” was exactly what they did.
Bucking bulls, such as those from the Wentzes’, aren’t just Angus bulls thrown in a chute with a rope and a rider; it takes years of breeding and genetic background to get to the level of competition of modern-era bulls .
Consider Red Clark, a bull in sixth place in the Professional Bull Riders’ year-end standings. His sire, Italian Stallion, died as a 4-year-old, and came from one of the Wentzes’ greatest, Buckey.
“Buckey was the first bull we hauled to a PBR event and the first one that we felt had the potential to show anyone in the world that he could go,” Craig Wentz said.
Wentz has found that the chances of having a calf that goes on to be a bucking bull are much higher than they used to be, and these odds increase with every generation.
The calves born every spring come in many different colors and sizes, such as the classic Northwest rodeo bull look of big, furry and red.
The bulls are judged on the same criteria for the entirety of their lives: the amount and ferocity of jump, kick, spin and degree of difficulty.
“Sometimes we’ll buck them when we wean them, we have a little remote-control box we can put on them that is kind of like a rider; it acts like a counterweight on their back to give them that feel,” he said, “and we’ll watch them as weanlings, we’ll watch them as yearlings, we’ll watch them as 2-year-olds and we’ll buck them a couple times a year up until they’re 3 and we’ll make cuts based on their performance.”
The “little remote-control box” Wentz mentioned is known as a “dummy.” It is with this dummy on their back that the 1- and mostly 2-year-old bulls compete in “futurity” competitions. Three-year-old bulls can compete in derby competitions and 4-year-olds can compete in the “classics.”
The Wentzes themselves don’t end up participating in many of these events. They’re more focused on the bulls when they turn 3 (old enough for a rider) and bringing them to small events as they get used to the experience. By the time they are 4, Wentz has them ready.
“In the Northwest there’s very few of those events,” Craig Wentz said. “And it just never has fit our program. Our program is more adult or mature bulls and we’ve kind of stayed in that lane. Although, there’s a lot of money in the futurity events.”
These competitions can be lucrative; Oklahoma’s D&H Cattle Company’s 4-year-old bull Juju won the 2021 American Bucking Bull Incorporated classic competition and collected $100,000 for the year-end title.
The bulls begin to peak around age 5. Sometimes, the Wentzes find themselves pushing their animals’ careers a bit further than possible in Washington with the help of other stock contractors.
After the 2020 PBR season and world finals, the Wentzes and Texas stock contractor Jeremy Walker of Paradigm Bull Company cut a partnership deal that saw Red Clark staying in Texas and now being hauled by Walker for an ideal shot at every stock contractor’s dream, a world championship. Walker would go on to purchase a bull named Jasper from the Wentzes this year.
And another offspring of Buckey, Cochise, was in a similar position, being hauled by Oklahoma’s Gene Owen from 2016 to early 2020 and being a world title contender every year.
“Up here we don’t get to go to a lot of events in the Northwest. Being in Texas or Oklahoma is being more central to more events,” Craig Wentz said. “You can get to 15 to 18 events down there and we can get to six, maybe eight if we’re lucky. So a bull’s career on a typical animal starts when they’re 4 and getting finished up by the time they’re 10 probably, so there’s four to six years of being competitive at the highest level and just being able to haul them and get them to more events can help their confidence and conditioning, along with living in a more moderate climate.”
Through all of the intricacies and hardships, the bucking bull business and is much more than a means of income.
When the Wentzes began the breeding bulls, one of the key aspects was incorporating the entire family. Without help from their son Wyatt and daughter Fallon, the Wentzes are unsure they would be able to run the business or find anything near the same level of passion they have today.
The bulls are also like a part of the family; the amount of time, effort and care put into them will do that to anyone.
That’s one reason why the concern that the flank strap is hurting the animals is something Wentz can never understand.
“It’s a soft cotton rope and it’s tied about as tight as your belt is around your waist, and that’s about in the same area there just in front of the hips. It hurts them in no way at all, and I’d be willing to show anybody at any time at any event how it’s tied on and how loose it is,” Wentz said. “It helps with the timing of the bull breaking over. We don’t want to hurt these animals, some of them are $50,000 to $100,000 animals, and if they’re in pain or hurting they’re not going to buck. They are genetically bred to do this and that’s what they want to do, they enjoy it just as much.”
And to see those bulls on the biggest stage in bull riding, the PBR World Finals, may just be the most exciting part of the stock contracting business for Wentz.
This year’s four bulls at the finals were the most for the Wentzes; overall there were 112 bulls selected for the competition.
“We are always hopeful for the best trips they can have and are always excited to see the results of our toils, that’s what makes it exciting,” he said. “As they grow we put our heart and soul into getting them up and getting them going. Seeing them on the big stage, the PBR World Finals, with one of your calves, is probably the most meaningful to us seeing the starting goal accomplished.”
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