Shaunagh Connaire was a John Schofield Trust mentee in 2012 with Evan Davis as her mentor. She has worked as a freelance journalist for Channel 4, PBS Frontline, BBC World and CNBC over the past five years. During her year on this scheme she moved from news to documentaries where she became the associate producer on Channel 4 Unreported World and various Dispatches investigations. Last year Shaunagh made her first film as a reporter where she travelled to Sierra Leone to document the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever recorded in ‘Surviving Ebola’. Her latest film America’s Cowboy Kids airs on Channel 4 on Good Friday 3 April at 7.30pm.
The 10-year-old Cowboy
He barely passes my waist. Yet he braves bucking bulls ten times his weight. He has brilliant blue eyes and an infectious smile that he only exhibits after answering my questions with a ‘Yes ma’am’.
This is Lance Lara. A ten-year-old bull riding world champion from a rural backwater in Texas. And I’m here with my director Hugo Ward making what feels like a very unique Unreported World film for Channel 4.
‘I expect more from myself’ he tells me one Saturday after falling off a bull during a TYBR (Texas Youth Bull Riding) competition. Lance is not only battling to stay at the top of his league but he’s also trying to win money to supplement his family’s rodeo fund. Last year the Lara family spent nearly $15,000 taking their three children to bull riding events. But Lance and his family know this is not just a sport. Bull riding can be a road to a lucrative future where the professionals earn millions.
With high reward comes high risk. Bull riding has been described as the most dangerous organized sport on the planet and according to medics within the industry, one in fifteen rides ends in injury. Even the rodeo community acknowledges that ‘it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hurt but when and how badly’.
Vickye Turner has been a rodeo medic for thirty-seven years. Before Lance’s next ride I visit her in the medical room. She admits that she’s already attended to fifty young riders that morning. I’m shocked, but it gets pointedly worse. During her time in this position, she’s seen two young riders die from their injuries. And although Lance has had a few close encounters, it sounds like he’s been lucky. One time ‘I was hanging upside down and next thing I knew I was on the ground, stepped on’. A steer, which is a castrated bull, stood on his neck. But like any self-respecting cowboy Lance proudly tells me that held back the tears in the arena and waited to cry in the back pen.
Bull riding is the fastest growing sport in the US. It has evolved to become a multi-million dollar business, but it’s not just the riders who are cashing in on its success. It’s quickly becoming a saturated market for bull breeders who are selectively breeding more aggressive and more athletic animals. While watching PBR (Professional Bull Riding) on TV one evening, Lance’s dad TJ tells me that the breeding system has gone so far that soon the riders won’t be able to stay on the bulls. It will no longer be a bull riding competition but merely a bull bucking competition. But Lance has eight more years before he gets to this professional level.
TJ, previously a bull rider, is determined to see Lance go to the top. He trains his kids every evening after work and takes them to compete every weekend. It often looks like tough love but TJ says taking part in rodeo is a good way to keep the family together. I probe him about the risks he takes with his children but he says that ‘Life is dangerous’ and explains that if his kids weren’t bull riding they may be ‘running the streets’ like some of Lance’s older brother’s friends, who are already in trouble with the police.
During my two weeks with this cowboy community, I tried to rationalize the gambles parents were taking with their kids. I compared bull riding to other, more familiar sports like rugby or hurling but I never really understood the point where the benefit outweighed the danger for them. What I did recognize was that this sport is a part of the fabric of a culture. It’s a tradition passed on from generation to generation. And for the Lara family its part of their DNA.
‘America’s Cowboy Kids’ airs on Unreported World on Channel 4 on Good Friday 3 April 2015 at 19.30.