By the time Cain Smith wraps and cinches his left hand, nods his head and the gate swings open, he’s already in the zone.
The silent zone.
“From the time I climb over the bucking chute and climb on, I don’t hear a thing,” says the 18-year-old bull rider who graduated from Pendleton High in June and will attend Walla Walla Community College this fall on a rodeo scholarship.
“I don’t hear anybody talking to me, not the announcer, nothing. I’ll watch the videos and see my dad on the bucking chute, leaning over and hollering at me to hustle and keep my feet down. You can hear him on the videos, but I don’t hear a thing during the ride.”
It’s just part of a wild adrenaline rush that Smith has been experiencing since the day he climbed on his first Brahman bull in the summer of 2006 at the tender age of 12.
“There’s no other feeling like it,” he says. “Just knowing you rode something that really doesn’t want you on its back and is doing its hardest to get you off. The greatest part is after the ride I go get my bull rope, run back and my dad is the first one I see and he gives me a big, old high-five.”
Chad Smith, who grew up in Eugene, rode barebacks and wrestled steers at Blue Mountain Community College in the late 1980s before going on the professional circuit. He gave up his pro career when Cain and his two younger siblings began to take an interest in rodeo at an early age.
Sixteen-year-old Dally Sue, who will be a junior at Pendleton High this fall, competes in goat tying and breakaway roping, and she also team ropes with her older brother. Calgary just turned 13 and specializes in the timed events.
Cain had not yet celebrated his third birthday when his parents put him on a sheep for the first time in a Mutton Bustin’ competition. He graduated to calves in the first grade, to steers in the third grade and eventually to mini-bulls.
Then came the big moment at a junior rodeo in Ellensburg.
“It was the summer before I went into sixth grade, and it was a full-grown, big bull,” Cain remembers. “He was the biggest bull I’ve been on so far, and I was scared because I had never been on anything that big before.”
How scared, he says, isn’t for publication. But it had something to do with a bodily function and his cowboy boots.
“But I figured it had to happen sooner or later,” he says.
“So, with some persuasion from my dad and others, I got on. And I rode him the full eight seconds, bailed off on my feet and ran as fast as I could to the fence. He wasn’t mean or anything, and I ended up second in that rodeo.”
Chad also rode bulls, he says, until he was in high school and realized that at 6-foot-4, he was probably a little too tall for the event. So he has an appreciation for his son’s dangerous ambition.
“He loves it,” Chad says. “He lives and breathes it. He also ropes calves and team ropes, but he seems to have a natural ability for riding bulls and likes it more than anything else.
“We do worry about it,” Chad adds. “And I can tell you, the first time he got on that bull, that’s when my wife and I were frickin’ nervous. Because that bull was huge, and Cain was about 4-foot-11 and weighed maybe 40 pounds.
“So that day put a pretty big grin on my face.”
Besides, Chad says, “You can get hurt crossing the street.”
“There’s a saying in bull riding: It’s not when you get hurt but how bad you get hurt.”
Karen Sue, Cain’s mother, actually worries more when her children are team roping,
“She says there are five different brains working in team roping — the two ropers, two horses and the steer — and they’re all thinking different things,” Cain explains. “In bull riding, there’s just the rider and the bull.”
Still, trying to read a bull’s mind is tricky, at best. And that puts a premium on a rider’s technique.
“When they jump, you go out over the front and drive your shoulder and upper body toward the bull’s head,” he explains. “Don’t get leaned back. And when they kick, get straight up as best you can and meet the kick.”
And if they spin, which is usually the secret to a good bull ride?
“That’s when you use your free arm for balance, and that depends on which arm you ride with,” he says. “I ride left-handed, and I am getting good at riding bulls when they spin into my hand, which is my left hand. I am getting better at riding bulls that spin away from my hand to the right, but I need to get a lot better.”
Needless to say, the bull has the final say.
“You can’t make a bull do anything,” Cain says. “They are 2,000 pounds of trouble tied up inside a leather bag. And they will do what they want.”
Not surprisingly, the young bull rider has already experienced his share of hard knocks.
“I’ve been stepped on numerous times, knocked out a couple of times, and I pulled my groin once,” Cain says. “Mostly little stuff, like concussions.”
Reminded that professional athletes in other sports sometimes miss weeks of playing time — in some cases, months — recovering from concussions, Cain offers a wry smile.
“You don’t get paid if you don’t get on,” he says. “You don’t get paid for riding the bench in bull riding.”
Cain endured his first serious “wreck” last July after riding a rank bull called Buckhorn in a practice pen in Benton City.
“I had just made a good bull ride on a practice bull,” he remembers. “After the eight seconds, I jumped off, not in the safest spot, but far enough away that I didn’t think I would get hurt.
“But the bull came back around and ran me over. I got to my knees and he turned around and ran me over again. Then he ran over one of the bull fighters, ran me over again, got another bull fighter and got me again and threw me into a fence.”
From there Cain was able to crawl over the fence and escape further abuse. But he suffered a back injury that not only interrupted his rodeo season but also messed up his senior year as a football player and wrestler at Pendleton High.
After seeing doctors and physical therapists over a period of months, he was sent to a spinal specialist in Richland. An MRI determined he had three bulging discs in his back.
“He told me that I shouldn’t wrestle but that I would probably be all right by February,” Cain says. “He said that if it hurts, don’t do it, and if it doesn’t hurt, go for it. And I’ve been going for it ever since.”
Cain obtained his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association permit last October, as soon as he turned 18. And in his very first professional rodeo in March, he placed fourth in Salina, Utah, and earned nearly $500 toward the $1,000 he needs to become a full-fledged member of
His high school rodeo career has included trips to the High School National Finals in Farmington, N.M., and to the Silver State Rodeo in Fallon, Nev., in both bull riding and tie-down roping. In June he tied for first place in Oregon’s state bull-riding finals and qualified for July’s high school nationals in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Although he considers himself a better bull rider than a tie-down roper, he’s serious about his calf-roping skills as well.
“My focus has been on bulls, but I really like tie-down roping, too,” Cain says. “If I can, I want to do both at the professional rodeos. I just need more practice to get better at it.
“I don’t rope fast enough right now to compete with the big guys. But I feel like I’m riding bulls good enough to make it with the best
That’s something he’s been trying to prove this summer at professional rodeos throughout the Northwest. His No. 1 goal is to qualify for the Columbia River Circuit finals, and he’s working hard to achieve it.
“It takes a lot of dedication to be a good bull rider,” Cain says. “You don’t just wake up and say it. It takes getting on a lot of bulls and a lot of practice and knowing you are going to get your head drilled into the dirt before you figure it out.”
One of Cain Smith’s stops this summer will be the Labor Day weekend Frontier Days Rodeo in Walla Walla. It will be a great opportunity for area rodeo fans to turn out and cheer on this up-and-coming bull rider.
Even if he won’t hear you.