David Kennedy relaxes with a horse friend.
David Kennedy relaxes with a horse friend. Jacklyn Wagner

David Kennedy: taking on the world

THE world’s richest cowboys are about to descend on Brisbane to compete in the 2010 Professional Bull Riders (PBR) World Challenge. and 25-year-old local David Kennedy is tipped to be one of the riders to watch at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre next Saturday, May 29.

Reputed to be the fastest-growing sport in the United States, bull riding is often referred to by commentators as the most dangerous eight seconds in sport.

Blessed with movie star looks, the charming and shy Kennedy seems uncomfortable in his emerging role as a cowboy star. He hates having his photo taken, and he’s not too sure about interviews either.

As I talk to Kennedy, it’s clear he’s more comfortable with the horses with which he’s sharing his photo shoot, saying he doubts he’ll ever get used to the attention he’s recently been getting.

For Kennedy, it seems like only yesterday when he first started riding calves from the age of eleven.

“I was a bored kid on the family farm outside of Grevillea, near Kyogle,” he says. “My dad said if I wanted some action, I should try riding a calf and I just loved it. It’s just gone on from there.”

And how. Kennedy continued riding bucking calves, then graduated to bulls which he has been riding full-time for three years now. The 2009 PBR Mega Month was Kennedy’s professional watershed period, catapulting him from nowhere to third place on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Australia standings. From there Kennedy went on to win the prestigious 2009 PBR Australia national title – which is proudly displayed on his gleaming championship belt buckle.

Riding bucking bulls that can weigh up to 1000kg is a sport that requires more than luck and fitness, it takes courage – the kind of courage that is beyond most of us. Luckily for Kennedy, he obviously has plenty of pluck and has a family that is right behind him.

“They’re really supportive, they always have been,” he says.

Kennedy is married to his childhood sweetheart, Hayley, with whom he has a daughter, Pippa, aged two. “I couldn’t do it without Hayley’s support. She’s always there for me,” he says.

For the uninitiated, bull riding is essentially a competition between man and bull. Kennedy relaxes as he takes on the role of explaining to me how his beloved sport works.

“Essentially, I’m riding the bull, and the bull wants to throw me. It’s me versus the bull,” he says.

Which brings us to what makes for an ideal bull.

“I like a bull that kicks hard and springs to the left. I’m right-handed, so I hold on to the rope with my left hand, and balance with my right hand, so a bull that springs to the left is going to work for me,” he says.

“The rider needs to be on the bull for at least eight seconds to score, and he can’t touch the bull, or himself with his free hand. The rider is allocated 50 points and the bull 50 points. A score above 80 is considered excellent and scoring in the nineties is exceptional.”

This puts Kennedy’s talent into perspective, as I discover that his personal best is an amazing 92 points.When I ask Kennedy if he gets nervous before an event, he responds with a definite ‘no’. And then he corrects himself, “Well … an hour or so before an event I do get a bit nervous. And then I go through my ritual, it settles me and makes me feel in control.

“I start by putting my spurs on. But most important is where I set my rope on the bull. If it’s not right, it can play on my mind. If it feels secure, I feel settled.

“As the rider, I’m in control. It’s up to me when I nod my head – when I tell the guys I’m ready for them to open the chute.

“When you do come out of the chute, the cheering crowd can really add to your performance. A good crowd can create an exciting atmosphere. If the first few guys have a great ride, it snowballs into a great event.”

But how does a man take on a bucking bull and win the event? Kennedy believes it’s pretty simple.

“The man who wants to win the most, he’ll be the one to win,” he says.

“Like a lot of sports, once you get to a certain level of competition, we’re all as good as each other. The rest is mental fitness – and a little luck on what bull you draw.”

It’s hard to think of a kicking bull as good, but for bull riders it’s paramount.

“A bad bull is one that doesn’t spin,” says Kennedy, “and a good bull kicks and has a certain rhythm. But you definitely don’t want a bull that wants to hurt you.

“Some of the bulls definitely want to hurt you. Some bulls are really mean. Just last year in the States there was a bull that was well known for injuring riders, but he was retired.”

Kennedy says the bulls are bred especially for the sport, weighing between 700-1000kg and bred to kick.

Kennedy also says that there are misconceptions about how the bulls are treated.

“The guys who breed these bulls treat them like babies, but they do breed them to perform. Bulls love to kick, it’s just what they do, just as horses love to run,” he says.

Bull riding is not a sport you practice, it’s just too dangerous. As Kennedy points out, riding a bucking bull really needs to be worth it.

“There’s too great a chance of injury to risk it for no reward,” says Kennedy, “Getting on as many bulls as I could was my strategy when I was starting out. But I don’t do that so much now. I know how to ride bulls. What I do is I make sure I’m physically and mentally fit. If I’m physically fit, the rest will fall into place and I do that with weights and cardio, as well as jogging and stretching.”

The difference between competing in Australia and the United States, according to Kennedy, is that in the States you’re up against the top 40 riders in the world, and that’s great competition and bigger prize money.

Kennedy estimates that in the past year 60 per cent of his earnings have come from America. Kennedy looks up to Troy Dunn, the undisputed Godfather of Australian bull riding, the 1998 PBR World Champion and the current Australian PBR team captain.

“There isn’t a bull rider in Australia that doesn’t look up to Troy,” he says.

Dunn must be doing something right, steering Australia to its best achievement in the sport, winning third place at the Professional Bull Riders Championship in Las Vegas last month.

Kennedy wonders if other people know how all-consuming it is to be a bull rider.

“It’s my passion, it’s who I am, but I also love horses. I grew up on a farm and my dad still has horses. I just love riding. I love everything about life as a cowboy,” he says.

2010 PBR WORLD CHALLENGE Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Saturday, May 29, 2010. Tickets from Ticketek on 132 849 or www.ticketek.com.au. Tickets: Diamond $124.90, Platinum $80, Gold $60, Silver $40, Silver Child $20.

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