Tough Enough: Phelps works to prove herself as a bull rider

Once Jenae Phelps has a dream in her head, she doesn’t quit.

At 19, she decided that she wanted to be a bull rider. She didn’t quit even though most cowgirls that she had seen at Yankton Riverboat Days, the Sioux Empire Fair and the Korkow Rodeo were barrel racers, not bull riders. She didn’t quit after being turned down by nearly every stock contractor in South Dakota when she called asking to practice on their bulls. She didn’t quit after being stepped on, headbutted and even tossed around in the dirt once she finally did get a chance to ride real bulls.

No, Jenae Phelps doesn’t quit. And she’s certainly not going to quit now.

“One thing that this sport is is extremely intimidating,” Phelps said, now 22 and a junior biology major at Augustana. “Extremely. Whether it’s guys just starting out—or women, but especially for women—I know it’s all eyes on me no matter what. People are wondering why I’m behind the chute. People are wondering what I’m doing. People are expecting me to be in rodeos very soon. This is a sport where you cannot be all talk.”

The 5-foot-7-inch, blond-haired and blue-eyed Sioux Falls native is proud to call herself a bull rider, though she has had a difficult time finding her place in the sport. She’s trying to make a name for herself, something that is hard to do without the same access to bulls and training equipment that many others have.

Her father—who rode horses when he was young but never rodeoed himself—took Phelps to rodeos when she was a child, the first one when she was eight months old.

Phelps first got on a pony at the Country Apple orchard when she was five years old. As she got older, she would continue riding ponies at Leif Ericson camp and quarter horses through the mountains of Wyoming on a day trip with her family.

When she was seven, she started taking horse riding lessons at Reinbow Stables and as she grew, she would continue to develop her skills during summer camps at Inspiration Hills.

Phelps developed an interest in bull riding from attending rodeos with her family and friends, but she never seriously considered it as an option because of her family’s attitude about women and the sport.

“My parents always taught me it’s too dangerous for girls, so I never thought about doing it until I hit about 19, as old as that is, just because it never occurred to me that I could do it,” Phelps said.

It was in 2017, after watching riders get introduced with pyrotechnics and smoke at a Professional Bull Riders event in Sioux Falls, that she knew that she wanted to ride bulls. PBR riders are the elite, the best in the sport, and Phelps knew it would take a lot of work, but she had dreamed of an opportunity to be someone in life. Someone who could accomplish greatness and glory. A bull rider.

“I could see myself walking through the smoke and fireworks up to the stage and waving my hat to the crowd,” Phelps said. “Hair done big and my pink chaps and all.”

Phelps quickly found out that it was hard for a newcomer like her without a name or reputation to get started. She picked up a phone and started making calls to anyone in the industry whose name she knew—bull riding coaches, stock contractors.

They all turned her away.

“None would let me,” Phelps said. “They said, ‘Nope, can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Let me sign a form. I will sign away my life, just let me get on, I want to try this.’ None would let me.”

But she kept trying.

“Being a female, I know a lot of people didn’t take her seriously and didn’t think she would actually do it,” said Jenae’s friend Mykenzie Kuchar, who was with her throughout much of the process. “I just think that was her biggest challenge getting started, that no one believed in her.”

It was at a Professional Bull Riding promotional event in Sioux Falls in the summer of 2018 that Phelps finally found her answer. She walked up to a man who was there promoting the PBR and asked how a female could get started in the sport. He handed her a card for a bull riding school run by Lyle Sankey, a rider and coach who is one of only four men to have qualified for the National Finals Rodeo in bare back, saddle bronc and bull riding.

The man informed her that Sankey’s school would cost her $500 and would last three days. She remembers him telling her, “To teach you everything you need to know, this is the place to start.”

Phelps finally knew where to go and what to do, so she bought her gear: a beat-up bull rope that would serve as her anchor, spurs to give her balance on the bull, a glove to protect her hand from the burn of the rope, a black and pink protective vest with her last name on the back and custom-made cowhide pink chaps with “Tough Enough” embroidered into the bottom.

Tough enough. That’s what Phelps wants to prove. That she’s tough enough.

“There’s a reason why women don’t do this sport,” Phelps said. “It’s because it is so hard on your body. You get thrown around like a ragdoll. It’s like if you’re on a roller coaster. It’s like holding onto that roller coaster with one hand. And you’ve got to hold onto that roller coaster with no seatbelt. Nothing. You’re holding on with one hand and that’s what you have to hang on to that entire time.”

Texas Trials

It’s December of 2018 and Phelps travels to New Caney, Texas, for Lyle Sankey’s three-day school.

Her first ride is unsuccessful. She falls off right away, but holds onto the rope and as she falls, the bull socks her in her hip.

Her second ride is her best—though she is still unable to make the necessary eight seconds. A video she posted to Instagram shows it all.

She waits inside the narrow confines of the enclosed chute, each leg wedged between the bull’s body and the iron bars that keep the half-ton animal from moving.

Many people in the arena are watching. The other riders. The workers in the ring. The bullfighters, ready to rush in if something goes wrong. Phelps’s coach, Brandon Dummit.

While Phelps prepares in the chute, Dummit instructs her.

“Slide your feet forward,” he says. “Slide your feet forward. Keep going forward. Keep going forward with your feet. Right there. Slide all of the way up. Get off of your rear end, squeeze in with your knees right there.”

When she is in position, he gives her a final bit of advice.

“Tuck your chin, pull your chest out and nod.”

She grips the rusty iron gate with her right hand and, following Brandon’s instructions, nods. The gate opens and the spotted white and brown bull leaps out, the bell hanging from the rope wrapped around his midsection clanking.

“Once you get going you almost black out,” Phelps said. “You can’t even remember it when you get off because it’s so fast, and you are trying so hard to hang on with everything. You’re basically giving yourself whiplash, because you’re just getting thrown back and forth.  There’s no control, there’s no, ‘Ok, I can handle this.’”

The bull shakes his back legs from side to side with each leap and Phelps hangs on, adjusting her body to counter his movements. She lasts about 5.42 seconds, falling off when the bull’s back legs come down from the fifth buck.

After she hits the ground, the bull’s back right hoof comes down on top of her chest. She gets up quickly and hustles back to the sidelines as the bull heads toward the other side of the ring, leaping as if Phelps were still on his back.

“As far as an actual injury goes, probably getting my chest stomped was the worst because you can’t breathe,” Phelps said. “You try to take a deep breath and you feel like you’re having a heart attack. My chest was purple and I had bruises places that I didn’t even know where they came from.”

On the third and final ride, Phelps steps into the chute to mount a red bull with horns the size of baseball bats.

Her heart is pounding. She can’t see much because of the facemask on her protective helmet. She and the bull are facing a different direction than she is used to and having to ride into her hand rather than away from it makes her more anxious than normal. To calm down, she focuses on what she needs to do: get her hand set.

Phelps takes the bull rope, rubbing it with rosin to give it more of a grip. Then she tightens it around the middle of her left hand, and someone pulls it. They hand it back to her and she slides it around her knuckles and back through her hand. Then she throws the tail of the rope behind her and slides forward. Her hand is turning blue under the pressure of the tightly-wound rope.

She feels ready to vomit. She knows it’s not the best idea, because her mouthpiece is in.

“It’s adrenaline to the max,” Phelps said. “You are strapping yourself to a wild animal.”

A video on her Instagram page shows the rest. Phelps adjusts herself on the back of the bull. Then she nods, ready for the gate to be opened. The latchman pulls the latch, which takes a second to release. Then the gateman yanks on a rope to open the gate, and they both hustle out of the way as the bull leaps forward, with Jenae on his back.

He bucks once, twice. It only lasts about 1.91 seconds. Phelps tries to stay on, but her body leans to the left and once the bull hits the high part of the second buck, she falls while holding on to the rope. When he comes down, his hoof lands right next to her head.

Phelps takes a moment to get up. As she does, the bull turns around and tears back towards her.

“Run, run!” voices in the background shout. She is barely on her feet, looking behind her to see where he is, when he strikes her square with his head. Luckily, the clipped-off tips of his horns are to either side of her, but he sends her sprawling back into the dirt.

After that, it’s a few seconds of chaos. Bullfighters swarm to get him off her, but he hits her again while she’s down. He hits her one more time.

Then he turns, trying to fight off the group of men surrounding him. Yelling and waving their arms, they manage to get the bull away, but the damage is done.

“They thought I broke my back,” Phelps said. “They thought he was so on top of me that I broke my back. Luckily, I really wasn’t hurt at all. It just scared me.”

Phelps managed to get to her feet afterwards and scrambled to the edge of the ring, still coming to terms with the fact that she could have been seriously injured in that couple of seconds.

“I was tearing up and I was upset, because I had to register in my brain that this thing was just on top of me,” Phelps said. “If he would have put his weight down on me, that’s 1,600 pounds on top of me.”

Weighing Fear

Bull riding is tough. It’s brutal. Injuries are imminent. It’s less of a matter of if and more of a matter of when. The rough nature of the sport has created the notion that bull riders must be fearless. Why else would they risk everything for an eight-second ride?

But Phelps is not fearless. She feels fear every time she gets on a bull.

“If you think about the worst moment in your life where you were scared s***less,” said Phelps. “I mean, just terrified of whatever it is you were doing. Your heart is beating out of your chest. You feel like you’re going to vomit your stomach up. You’re just sweating. That’s what it feels like the whole time.”

Phelps has carefully weighed the risk of injury and the possibility of death that the sport poses. Especially because she has more than herself to think about.

Her son, Liam, is three years old, and she has been raising him as a single mom. As Phelps talks about her bull riding career, he plays on her phone. Every once in a while, she glances over at him and catches him playing a game. At one point, the screen appears to have a bull riding video on it.

Like mother, like son.

“I wanted to make something of myself in life,” Phelps said. “I didn’t just want to be a single mom who pays bills and dies—that’s it. I wanted to make something of myself, and I want him to grow up saying, ‘My mom was a bull rider. She did something with her life.’”

Strength in Determination

Phelps drives 87 miles from Sioux Falls to Sioux City five days a week to practice her riding on drop barrels, though soon she is going to have her own, and she won’t have to make the long trip.

At the moment, the barrels are the closest possible replacements to actual bulls that she can ride. She says that there are no practice pens in the area and the nearest one is about a five-hour trip by car. Camps and rodeos provide her with her only opportunities to get experience on real bulls.

On the drop barrel, she works on balance. Somebody pushes a black bar opposite to the grey barrel upon which Phelps is seated, and it glides up and down, mimicking the movements that a bull would make. As the barrel moves, Phelps keeps one hand in the air and shifts her body to adjust to the displacement of her seat.

“Balance is super, super important for this because a lot of people try to outmuscle the bull, they try to counteract it,” Phelps said. “You’ve kind of got to ride with it, you’ve got to go with the flow.”

Phelps hasn’t competed in a rodeo yet, but she is going back to Sankey’s school in Texas later this month for more practice, and she hopes to begin riding in rodeos this summer.

For now, she practices. In the gym, she tries to work out a different part of her body every day of the week: upper body on Monday, legs and thighs on Tuesday, abs on Wednesday and back and chest on Thursday.

“I really try to work on upper body strength and leg and hip strength because both play a very important role in bull riding,” Phelps said.

She knows that to be able to compete, she needs to be strong.

“Me being a female, that’s where I struggle,” Phelps said. “It’s because all of these men, they work out, but they are five times stronger than me already without even working out. They have a lot of upper body strength. That’s not something I have at all.”

Jenae Phelps talks to other participants at Lyle Sankey’s Bull Riding School in New Caney, Texas. Photo provided by Jenae Phelps.

Inspired and Inspiring

Phelps cuts pictures of women out of the pages of Cowgirl magazine and hangs them on her living room wall. Women like Ruth Roach, a professional bronc and trick rider that made her debut in 1917, and Mildred Douglas, who was the first woman to ride a steer in competition in 1919.

“They would just take a rope and ride these steers around,” Phelps said. “No vest, no protective gear. And they were just crazy. You have to be crazy to be doing this sport.”

They are the women, along with modern female riders like Jordan Halvorsen, that Phelps looks up to. These women give her confidence. Phelps says that if they could do it and push through the pain, she knows she can do it too.

Having women around to support her when she is riding also helps Phelps feel more at ease.

“For me, being behind the chute, it makes me have so much more confidence if I have a woman right next to me cheering me on,” Phelps said. “My best ride, I had a woman right there cheering me on. It makes me less intimidated knowing that there are other females there. Because if I screw up, everybody notices me. I’m in pink, you’re not going to see another person in pink there.”

As a woman in a male-dominated sport, Phelps says that she also has trouble knowing who to trust, especially many of the men that she comes into contact with.

“A lot of them want to help me just to sleep with me,” Phelps said. “Not all of them are like that, but a lot of them are. A lot of them are very sexist, a lot of them are very ‘leave it to the men.’”

Lyle Sankey, who usually has two or three women at each of his rodeo camps, has also noticed that the atmosphere can be challenging for female riders, especially at amateur rodeos.

“The girls have to work harder,” Sankey said. “People don’t expect them to do well. They’re not accepted in so many circles.”

Sankey said that another blond hair, blue-eyed student of his faced a lot of discouragement in amatuer rodeos while she was trying to find success. But she was able to rise in the ranks and eventually had the opportunity to make rounds on a lot of talk shows.  

“Gosh it was just amazing the crap that guys did to her at those amateur rodeos,” said Sankey. “And when she started going to the pro rodeos, then guys would just kind of leave her alone, you know. They’re busy taking care of business. But, people are people, wherever.”

Despite facing similar challenges, Phelps keeps working hard, pushing forward.

She doesn’t give up,” Kuchar said. “She doesn’t let anything discourage her. Especially being a female in that sport, there’s definitely a lot of discouragement, and she doesn’t let that stop her. If anything, she lets that push her more to succeed.”

Part of Phelps’ motivation to keep going, Kuchar believes, stems from girls of the next generation. Kuchar recalls a moment in which Phelps was helping out behind the chutes at the 2019 Tri-State Horse Expo in Sioux Falls, when she met a little girl who had dreams similar to her own.

“This little girl came up to her and she was just so excited that she got to meet a female bull rider because that’s what she wanted to do but she had never seen females in it before,” said Kuchar. “This little girl just followed her around and was so excited, and Jenae just took the time to talk with the little girl and show her around the chutes and stuff, so to me, that’s really awesome, because that’s encouraging someone to follow their dream as well.”

Dreaming of Success

Ultimately, Phelps says that she has two goals that she hopes to achieve. The first is to win a belt buckle. Just a belt buckle. She doesn’t care about money.

“My goal isn’t to win money, my first goal is to win a belt buckle,” said Phelps. “Just to have that piece of tangible item in my hand that says, ‘I won this rodeo.’”

The second is to be the first woman in the PBR. She says that she wants to compete in the elite circuit and attempt to handle the same roughstock that the men do.

“Even if I never win it, the fact that I would be there and be present for that would be me making history and to me that would be the ultimate goal,” said Phelps. “To make history as a woman bull rider.”

But for now, she’s going to keep training and keep practicing. Next semester, she’s planning to transfer from Augustana to Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota, to study either ranch management or big animal science. She says it’s a better fit for her interests.

“The end goal is to be able to move somewhere where I can do that and then be more involved in the rodeo world,” Phelps said. “Texas, maybe.”

Phelps doesn’t know if she’s going to be any good at riding, and it’s too early in her career for anyone to tell. But she is content knowing that someday, other little girls might see her on a bull and be inspired to grab the rope and ride.

And that’s enough to keep her going.

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