ROUNDUP, Mont. -- The big black bull snorts and kicks. Its horned head swings around in the chute, its teeth lock on the railing.
"He calms down when you sit on him," Shawn Bellows confides to the baby-faced cowboy lowering himself onto the beast. "Sit down, right on him. Concentrate about putting your spurs in him. . . . Stay on the front end. The front end is where the money is."
Six seconds later, cowboy Kyle Kring hits the dirt. In Bull Riding 101, even the best buck winds up on the back end. "The only way to get off a bull," Mr. Bellows tells his students, "is to buck off."
In towns and cities across the Western states, young men are suiting up for the thrill and fright of a lifetime. Whether at backyard schools, such as Mr. Bellows', or stadium-size arenas, bull riding is drawing more competitors to the biggest crowd-pleasing event in rodeo.
Mr. Bellows remembers his own beginnings in the sport, shuttling from ring to ring, riding six, seven bulls a weekend to build up his confidence so he could ride well and qualify for his professional rodeo card.
The 5-foot-11, 155-pound Gary Cooper-look-alike spent five years the pro rodeo circuit and endured the not atypical consequences -- a torn ear, a snapped thigh bone, a broken neck.
He retired three years ago, after a two-week stint in an intensive care unit. But he couldn't walk away from the sport. He decided to open a bull-riding school at the family ranch in the Bull Mountains of Montana.
"I learned in the school of hard knocks -- just get on and grit your teeth," says Mr. Bellows, a lineman with the telephone company. They say, after you get on your first one, if you're willing to get on your second one, you're hooked."
Rodeos are attracting larger crowds than a decade ago, and bull riders are earning more in prize money, says Kelly Clark, the bull-riding director of the Oklahoma City-based International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA). In 1994, the top 15 professional bull riders won a total of $262,914, up from $186,584 in 1990.
"You can't explain to someone why we get in pickup trucks, five or six of us, and drive 1,500 miles and get on bulls," says Mr. Clark, 35, of Fort Worth, Texas. "Never in my life have I done any drugs. I ride bulls. That's where I get my high."
Of the 3,000 IPRA members (rodeo contestants, producers, stock contestants and fans), 814 are bull riders. That number doesn't include the teen-agers competing in high school and college or the young men like Bill Sturmans and Derik Kraft who pay the Shawn Bellowses in backwaters like Roundup for a chance to buck as many bulls as they can.
"You learn every time you get on one," says Derik, a 17-year-old from Billings, Mont., who rode his first bull on a challenge from his aunt.
"It's the one time in your life that you can be completely free," says Mr. Sturmans, a 23-year-old college student who drives 300 to 400 miles a week in pursuit of bulls.
Mr. Bellows' classes offer the basics: advice about the type of spurs to buy (ones that lock, not roll), the kind of rope to use, the safest way to dismount. Students watch videotapes, practice on a buckin' barrel and eventually climb atop a bull.
"Let your natural instincts take over," Mr. Bellows tells the novices.
"When you see a bull rider for the first time, their natural instinct is to hang on."
Mr. Bellows' day begins on horseback under Montana's big sky, clear and blue and forever.
He, his wife, Jane, and a neighbor, Carol Anderson, ride across the slopes of Little Divide Ranch. On this sunbaked morning, it will take two hours to round up the bulls.
The horse riders head for the dells. Mr. Bellow's father, William Bellows, follows in his pickup truck, calling the bulls as though they were children late for supper.
"Come on, Too Sexy, hurry up. Come on, calf," the senior Mr. Bellows shouts from the open window of his truck.
He stops his pickup and jumps out. He reaches in the flatbed for a bucket of feed, then shakes it. At the sound of feed rattling, five bulls appear on the rutted dirt road, with Mr. Bellows' son and daughter-in-law bringing up the rear.
"Come on, Pumbaa," he shouts.
The bulls are starting to learn the routine, but they are hard to dig out of the brush.
A retired telephone company manager, the elder Mr. Bellows has been working his 740-acre ranch since 1977. He began with cattle and sheep. Then the bulls.
"Come on, Blue Bell. Come, Brockle. Come on, Ringo. Come on, Butterfinger," he calls, as the horse riders make another sweep for the stragglers.
Mr. Bellows buys the bulls young. One out of five will be a good buckin' bull. But don't bet on it.
"You can tell if they want to do it," says Mr. Bellows, a lanky man with a ruggedly handsome face. "A lot of these bulls, if they
weren't here, they'd already be in somebody's freezer."
Felix prefers people
Some bulls have charm. Others are aloof or plain mean. Some behave well in the company of other bulls. Others prefer people. Take 3-year-old Felix.
"He's ornery with the other bulls. He can jump 6 foot straight up," says Mr. Bellows, as he guides the truck down a slope. "With humans . . . he doesn't have an ounce of buck in him."
On a summer Sunday afternoon, about 20 young men in chaps, Western-style shirts, cowboy hats and spurs gather beside the rodeo ring at the Bellows' ranch. One rider's girlfriend is fussing with a video camera; someone else will help run the bulls into the chute. A small crowd has gathered to watch this afternoon's romp. Some of the spectators have brought chairs; others perch on the fence for a better view.
Tami Bellows sells hot dogs and drinks from the back of a pickup. A medic (and former bull rider) is on duty. The rodeo clown is limbering up.
The participants have drawn their bulls. They are waiting their turn to ride. If they're lucky, an eight-second, knee-gripping, spur-digging joy ride will follow. If their luck holds they can earn enough points to bring home a fancy brass buckle.
"A lot of people think you just hang on and make ugly faces for eight seconds," says the younger Mr. Bellows, a rodeo judge and former high school bull-riding coach. "But there's body position and an art to being in the right spot at the right time."
When the bull bucks, it moves like a rocking chair. The bull has got to come up to come down. As the bull's shoulders rise, the rider wants to reach forward, Mr. Bellows explains.
But the rider should pick a spot on the bull's neck and focus there.
"Watch that the whole time," Mr. Bellows says. "If you look away, you land where you look."
A pair of horns may appear menacing, but protective vests have reduced the potential for injury. Beware of hoofs -- "The feet are going to kick a hole in you," Mr. Bellows says.
"You never want to get off a bull [that is] standing still," he adds, "cause they'll wait for you to get off and spin around and get you."