By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BIG SKY – In its fourth year, the Big Sky PBR – held July 30 and 31 this summer – carries on a tradition hundreds of years in the making.

The fastest growing sport in the U.S. can trace its roots to the haciendas in 16th century Mexico. Bull riding, originally called “jaripeo,” was a variation of bull fighting held during Mexican contests measuring equestrian and ranching skills.

In the early days of jaripeo, the contestants would ride the bull to death, but it later evolved into an event where participants rode until the animal tired and stopped bucking.

By the mid-1800s, these contests became popular in Texas and California as Hispanic cattle ranchers brought their traditions north. H.L. Kinney, a promoter and former Texas Ranger, is credited with staging the first organized Anglo bullfight in the U.S. at the Lone Star Fair in Corpus Christi, Texas. Jaripeo was held as a secondary event at this show but was so popular it made newspaper headlines as far away as New Orleans.

At the same time, steer riding was being featured at Wild West shows. These castrated animals were more easily handled and transported and were considered safer.

There were no standards for bull riding exhibitions until the Cowboys’ Turtle Association was created in 1936 after cowboys protested over treatment they received from a promoter at the Boston Garden Rodeo. The new organization brought increased popularity to rodeo and bull riding and in 1945 changed its name to the Rodeo Cowboys Association and later the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975.

In 1992, 20 bull riders broke away from the rodeo circuit and created their own organization. Believing that bull riding could draw a crowd without sharing the bill with the other rodeo events, they each contributed $1,000 to create Professional Bull Riders, Inc.

Now, more than 1,200 riders around the world are PBR members and last year the organization paid out $9 million to riders at more than 300 events around the country. Some animal rights groups contend that all this money is being made at the expense of the bulls.

“Electric prods, spurs, and [flank] straps are used to irritate and enrage animals in rodeos,” according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ website. “When the flank strap is paired with spurring, it causes the animals to buck even more violently, often resulting in serious injuries [to the bulls].”

The flank strap is a braided rope placed around a bull’s flank, just in front of the hind legs, to encourage bucking. It does not bind the testicles as some critics claim.

The bulls kick their hind legs out at the height of their bucking action in an effort to dislodge the flank strap that helps create a more uniform bucking performance. Bull riders wear spurs that are required by PBR’s governing rules to have dull, loosely locked rowels – the wheel-like part of the spur attached to the riders’ heels – to help a rider maintain balance by giving him added grip. “The spurs do not cut or scratch a bull’s hide, which is seven times thicker than a human’s skin,” according to PBR’s website.

Electric prods have not been used on the PBR circuit for several years. Most PBR bulls are worth at least $10,000 and the stock contractors treat the animals fairly to ensure that value only increases. Bull riding has come a long way since the jaripeo contests, yet the soul of it remains: eight seconds of man versus beast.

Big Sky’s event may be young relative to the long history of bull riding in the U.S., but its early success is thanks to a concerted group effort.

“The Big Sky PBR is truly a community event and it would not happen without the support of our amazing sponsors,” said Eric Ladd, CEO of Outlaw Partners, a sponsor of the Big Sky PBR (and publisher of Explore Big Sky).

The 2014 event has more than 40 sponsors from local Big Sky companies like the Yellowstone Club, Lone Mountain Ranch and Haas Builders, to regional sponsors including Billion Dodge, Murdoch’s and Hall and Hall Ranch Brokers, he said.

“There are some fun sponsorships this year including Lone Pine Builders’ high point ride on July 31, Montana Living’s Mutton Bustin’ and Fay Ranches’ clown barrel in the center of the arena.

“We could not be more thankful for everyone that comes out to make this event happen.”

On June 9 at 9 a.m. MST, tickets go on sale to watch these animals square off in Big Sky Town Center against some of the world’s top riders. Visit explorebigsky.com/bigskypbr to get yours.