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Holding on tight: Competitors show their skills at first event of International Bull Riders 2016 season

Full bleachers lined three sides of the Shipley Arena at the Carroll County Agriculture Center on Saturday, Feb. 27 as 33 bull riders competed for a piece of the pot at the International Bull Riders first event of the 2016 season.

After mounting bull No. 195, named How Convenient, bull rider Jimmy Hoke, of Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, steeled himself for what some call the most dangerous eight seconds in sports. He wrapped a long braided rope around the only hand allowed to touch the bull to help him stay on for the eight seconds required for a qualified ride.

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How Convenient burst from the shoot with all four hooves in the air. Hoke, 24, was off in fewer than three bucks. That's when two bullfighters sprang into action, zigzagging through the ring, enticing the bull to chase them and allowing Hoke to escape.

"I've been doing this since eighth grade," Hoke said of bull riding. "I haven't been riding much in the past two or three years but I came out of retirement for this one."

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Bull riding is something Hoke said he wanted to do even as a child.

"We'd watch bull riding on television and I'd ride the couch," he said. "I lived on a dairy farm. Sometimes when I was little I'd catch a cow and ride it."

Many of the bull riders at this first event of the season will be back at the arena on Saturday when the top 30 riders from 2015 compete in the year-end finals.

At each competition, more than 30 bulls are ridden in the first round. Then, the top 10 riders compete in a second round and eight of them take home a piece of a pot that's been built with $75 entrance fees. At this event, the IBR added $1,000. The No. 1 bull rider, Devon Weaver, of Portage, Pennsylvania, took home 30 percent of the pot. The next seven places took home smaller percentages.

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Sonny Williams, of J Bar W Ranch, in Union Bridge, formed the IBR. He said he grew up in the Union Bridge area milking cows and attending rodeos with his dad. After riding bulls as a teen, he joined his family in raising rodeo bulls. In 1997, they started holding rodeos at J Bar W, something they still do on the first and third Saturdays of June, July and August, and the first Saturday of September annually. In 2005, they held their first bull riding competition at the Carroll County Agriculture Center.

"We have two judges for a possible 100 points scoring both the bull and the rider," he said, explaining that each can get up to 50 points. "The rider is judged on how well he stays in control. They shouldn't be falling off the side of the bull. They have to ride one handed. They can't slap them or touch them with their free hand. They usually keep one hand up for balance. The bulls are judged how high they buck, changes of directions, extensions, how hard they kick or twist. The ones who extend are the hardest to stick to [because of centrifugal force] and generally are the highest scoring bulls."

Before the bull riding began, children filled the ring for a free Little Wranglers Rodeo with stick horses, lasso roping stations and a simulated bucking bull.

Kyle Vanderveer, of Sykesville, brought his wife Mallory and their children, Allison, 6, and Paisley, 3.

"We come every year," Kyle said. "We love it."

Mallory said Allison enjoyed the experience.

"[Allison] just rode the mechanical bull," Mallory said. "She loved that. These are the things we used to do in my childhood. It's nice to get them away from the electronics to just enjoy and spend time together."

Russell and Melinda Swanson, of Hampstead, brought their 6-year-old daughter, Jillian.

"This is our first time at the rodeo," Russell said. "We like to check out anything new and exciting in the area."

His daughter bounced up and down on the bleachers.

"I like to watch them ride the bulls," she said.

After the first round of broncs there was a mutton busting contest for kids less than 50 pounds.

Eight names were drawn from a hat to compete. Mason Allgood, 3, of Libertytown, and Jackson, 5, of Westminster, tied for the win after each took a fast ride on a speedy sheep. Holding on for the long haul, each boy hit the dust and bounced back up with a smile.

"We came just so he could do the mutton busting. He's done it several times before," said Mason's mom, Amanda Allgood.

Jackson's mom, Amy Bankerd, said this was Jackson's first mutton busting contest.

"He's pretty fearless," she said.

Mason said riding the sheep was fun.

"It throwed me off," he said. "The most fun was falling off."

Rodeo clown Timmy Johnson, of Eldersburg, had a more lighthearted job. His antics inside the ring drew laughter.

Johnson, 53, said he's been in the business for 36 years, working as a bull rider and a bullfighter before becoming the ring clown.

"My job is to make people laugh. That is the only thing I am there to do," Johnson said. "[People] pay their hard-earned dollars to come out and see a show and I try to give them the best show for the money. There's nothing I won't do to get a laugh,"

Mastering an 1,800-pound bucking bull is risky business, but bull rider Austin Gosnell, of Mount Airy, said it is part of who he is. He was 11 when he went to a day camp hosted by former pro bull rider Chip Ridgely at Rockin' R Arena in Libertytown. Ridgely said he started the camp for anyone who wanted to ride a bull so they could learn how to do it the right way.

"I thought he was too little at first," Ridgely said of Gosnell. "But after a little bit of nagging for a week or so I gave in and let him get on one. I can tell when someone has a natural ability and Austin had that. He was tough, scrawny little kid."

Now 24 years old, Gosnell has been riding bulls on the professional circuit since age 18. He's broken bones, had concussions and been stitched up multiple times. He's dislocated his shoulder, lacerated his liver and had a collapsed lung, but he continues to climb on bulls.

"I've been a cowboy ever since I was little," Gosnell said. "You have to experience it for yourself. It's not a feeling you can describe."

Gosnell won the IBR year-end championship in 2014. Nursing a broken hand from a recent bull ride, he decided not to ride in the Feb. 27 competition but he plans to ride on Saturday in the IBR year-end finals.

"With bull riding you are not going against your buddies," Gosnell said. "It is you versus the animal. The only person you have to beat is yourself and the bull."

Lois Szymanski writes for the Neighborhoods section and can be reached via email at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

If you go:

What: Top 30 International Bull Riders Bull Riding Finals

When: Saturday, March 5. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m.

Where: The Shipley Arena at the Carroll County Agriculture Center off Gist Road in Westminster

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Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for kids ages 6 to 12 and free to kids five and younger.

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For more information: Call 301-748-0617, email bec3500@aol.com or visit www.goibr.com

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