Student Features

Bull riding ‘almost like dancing’ says PA Cyber junior

Mar 30, 2016

photo courtesy Jim Sommers Photography

They have names like Little Yellow Jacket, Chicken on a Chain, Dillinger, Voodoo Child, Bones, Hammer and the toughest of all time, Bushwhacker.

Bulls such as these are what high school junior Zach Parker hopes to ride to a college degree and beyond, with the help of PA Cyber.

Rodeo bull riding - staying on the back of an angry, bucking bull for eight seconds - is called the longest ride in sports.

“You have to be in good shape physically, but it’s not a game of strength. It’s almost like dancing. Every move that bull makes, you have to make a counter. Everything happens real fast and your muscle memory takes over,” said Zach.

“These bulls are bred to buck, to be bigger and stronger. They are pure muscle. And they are smart, very smart. The bull feels where you’re at. When a bull does something and gets rode, he tries something different next time.”

A straight-A student just finishing his first year in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, Zach, age 16, lives in the rural community of Conneaut Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania. His parents are supportive, taking him to compete in rodeos all over the eastern U.S.

Riding in both the professional Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association, or SEBRA, circuit and the National High School Rodeo Association, last year Zach was Ohio state bull riding champion; in competition he earned $9,000 in prize and sponsor money.  He was one of 35 bull riders qualifying to compete in the SEBRA championship finals in Murfreesboro, Tenn., last fall.

Based in North Carolina, SEBRA members include experienced riders who have other jobs, and young riders like Zach trying to work their way up to membership in the top adult riders’ association, the Professional Bull Riders Inc., or PBR. There are both past and present members of SEBRA who have competed in the PBR.

“Professional riders can make up to $40,000 in one weekend, riding four bulls,” he said. “The year-end champion gets a million dollars. It’s pretty big.” Zach’s success at a young age has already attracted one sponsor, Tandy Leather.

 About bull riding, he said, “I love it with everything I have. I eat, breathe and sleep it. My goal is to make a living at it, to be in the PBR and become a world champion, to be the best I can be.

“But you can’t ride bulls forever. Yes, I’m working very hard in school. I have to get that ACT score before I can talk to schools about a scholarship.”

After high school he hopes to land a rodeo scholarship and study engineering at schools that have intercollegiate rodeo teams, such as Michigan State University, University of Kentucky, and Murray State University in Kentucky.

Until this school year, Zach had to choose between missing school and missing rodeos. “In one long weekend there can be four or five events. It’s really important to ride. You have to keep up in the standings to make the finals, and there’s big money in the finals. I hated missing school. It’s too hard to catch up. I missed a lot of rodeos.”

Now to go to school, “I just take my computer with me and go to class in the car,” he said. This year he has had all virtual classes except for health – which his rodeo and gym workouts more than satisfy - and a self-paced career explorations class.

His girlfriend Hayley Acker guided him to PA Cyber, where she has been enrolled for several years. Hayley, who wants to study pharmacy in college, and Zach will have been sweethearts for five years as of this June, Zach notes.

Zach grew up riding horses with his family, and began barrel racing and calf roping before age 9. Then came calf riding, then steer riding.

“A 500-pound calf is pretty big to a 10-year-old,” he said. “The first big steer I rode was named Slingshot. He was about like a bull. I was only 11 and he probably weighed 1300 pounds.”

When he started riding bulls at age 13, he wasn’t good at it, he said. “The first couple of times I got slammed.”

Past injuries include a broken hand, a dislocated elbow, a torn wrist ligament, several concussions and uncounted contusions. Admitting that “the risk of death is very high,” he said, “You have to keep believing in yourself because it is so hard, you know how dangerous and hard it is.” Mental toughness and calm are essential, but hard to maintain “when you see the kid that rides before you get knocked out.”

Holding onto a rope with one hand, a rider has to stay on the bull and keep one hand free for eight seconds. Zach said that “even the best guys in the world only ride 60 percent.” If the rider succeeds, judges score the ride based on how controlled the rider was, and how difficult the bull was to stay on.

Zach watches his nutrition and follows a rigorous workout schedule in the gym to strengthen his core, while trying not to add a lot of muscle mass. He is six feet tall and weighs 175 pounds. That’s a little larger than the typical bull rider, giving him a longer reach, but also providing more body for the physics of the bull’s contortions to work on.

Riding a bull is not something you can practice, said Zach, so he simply has to ride a lot, about 100 bulls a year. “It takes such a long time to get good at it,” he said. “When you do accomplish it, there’s no greater feeling.”


(PA Cyber press release, March 29, 2016)

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About PA Cyber

Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.