A couple of days ago, I read a story in the Washington Post about a seven year old child named Preston who has a passion for bull riding. In 2021, Preston’s mom, Amanda Paquette, moved him and his brother and sister from Naples, Florida to Independence, Virginia, where there was less concrete and more nature. Amanda’s mother, Dana, also lives with the family.
For some reason, Preston’s father apparently isn’t in the picture. Amanda is a single mother taking care of her daughter and two sons. They have a large vegetable garden, chickens, and pigs. Preston helps tend the garden, and assisted in slaughtering sixteen chickens and two hogs, named Pork and Chop. Preston, who is 4-foot-7 and weighs 75 pounds, has also started learning how to ride bulls. The family lives less than a mile from North Carolina, and they regularly go there to watch rodeos.
Weeks prior to Preston’s first “bull ride” (on a 600 pound bull calf), Amanda watched a fourteen year old boy named Denim Bradshaw ride a bull for the first time. The bull Denim was matched to was twice the size of Preston’s first, even though it was the young man’s first ride. Denim, at just 110 pounds, also wasn’t a very big boy. The bull quickly threw the slight teenager, who landed under the animal. Denim was trampled. He got up, stumbled forward a couple of paces, then collapsed. He died at a hospital later that night.
Amanda’s first instinct, having seen the teenager killed by his first bull, was to forbid her son from riding bulls again. According to the article:
On the night that Denim died, Paquette decided to prohibit her son from riding again, to protect him at all costs. That’s what she told her friends in the parking lot after they had left the rodeo arena and, stunned, tried to make sense of what happened.
But then, the next morning, she had a change of heart. Preston still wanted to ride. Preston had been involved in other sports, mostly coached by “exhausted fathers” who had just gotten off work. But, according to Amanda, they weren’t “teaching” him anything. She wants him to have a male figure in his life who will teach him how to be a man.
In spite of having seen Denim Bradshaw being trampled by his first bull, Amanda has decided to let her son continue learning how to ride bulls. She says:
“It’s heart-wrenching, but I don’t want to put him in a bubble. You have to let them enjoy life.”
“I will stand by him. I want him to do whatever his heart desires.”
Denim’s mother, Shannon Bowman, and her eldest child, Persephone Bowman, have been working on new legislation called “Denim’s Law”, to try to make the sport safer. Even today, Shannon has said she’d let Denim ride if he wanted to; she just wants bull riding to be better regulated, especially for young people. According to the article:
One of the provisions they are pushing would require that all minors riding bulls have six months to a year of training, which a rodeo outfit would need to verify, Persephone Bowman said. Others include mandating that a rider’s experience match the bucking power of the animal they’re on, that rodeo staff weigh all animals the day of competition, and that EMTs and an ambulance are on-site and outfitted with proper medical equipment.
And, Persephone added, government officials should perform regular inspections to ensure rodeos are complying.
In North Carolina, rodeos currently get very little oversight. State law absolves any farm animal activity sponsors from liability when participants are injured or killed. The article states that currently, participants or their legal guardians simply sign a waiver indicating that they know the activities involve inherent risks. Rafter K Rodeo, the King, North Carolina outfit that puts on the rodeos Preston and Denim have participated in, requires that riders understand “it’s an assumption of risk, and the government isn’t going to get involved in you making that decision.”
As I sit here and read this story, I’m reminded of my own childhood, where we were allowed to do some very risky things that are not allowed today. For instance, when I was six and seven years old, we lived near a shopping mall in Fairfax, Virginia. I was allowed to walk there by myself. No one said a word about it. In fact, when I was a child, my mom often didn’t know where I was. She also left me home alone from a pretty young age.
When we moved to Gloucester, Virginia, in 1980, I was allowed to ride in the front seat of the car, without a seatbelt. I was allowed to ride in the back of pickup trucks on major roads. My neighbors’ mother used to regularly allow her kids to ride on the hood of their car as she drove them on the dirt road to their trailer home, after school.
When I first learned how to ride a horse, I didn’t wear a hat (helmet). It wasn’t until I started formally taking riding lessons that I wore a hat on a regular basis. I used to ride my bike to and from the barn, sans bike helmet, and sometimes after dark. I can also remember riding motorcycles without a helmet, and walking alone on the side of busy Route 17, to go to the store.
I am no fan of nanny laws, and I hear what Preston’s mom, Amanda, is saying when she says she doesn’t want to keep her son in a bubble. I still think it’s sheer lunacy to allow a seven year old to ride a bull calf that weighs 600 pounds. Animals– especially livestock– are unpredictable. It’s easy to get hurt or killed, even when you’re dealing with a trained animal whose purpose isn’t to buck you off.
Amanda says Preston is making progress. On his first ride, he lasted one second. Subsequent attempts saw him hang on for two seconds. As of late February, he’d made it to four seconds. He needs to make it to six seconds before his ride will qualify for a score from the judges. Amanda also likes that the cowboys who are teaching her son are showing him things like how to tie laces around his boots properly, so they don’t fly off as the bull calf bucks. He’s learning to be respectful to his elders, calling them “Sir” or “Ma’am”. He’s also been taught not to cry in the arena. Still… these are things that can be taught that don’t involve an unpredictable, uncastrated, 600 pound animal who is being goaded into bucking. Bull riding is a very dangerous sport. It’s claimed lives, and resulted in some pretty significant injuries to include concussions, broken bones and teeth, and internal injuries that can lead to paralysis or death.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems insane to me that Preston wouldn’t be allowed to ride in the front seat of a car, due to the risk of an airbag deploying and killing him in an accident. But he’s allowed to ride bulls, because his mother wants him to “enjoy life”, and have male role models. Says Amanda of the cowboys:
“They jump right in and take him under their wing. Who else is going to teach them how to be a man? I can’t. I’m a lady.”
I don’t know where Preston’s father is. It’s not my business. And I know plenty of kids grow up without their fathers, or male role models. My own husband wasn’t specifically denied access to his dad, but he rarely got to see him, because he lived in another state. Consequently, Bill joined ROTC when he was a teenager and embarked on a career in the Army. He has often told me that the Army served as the father he missed when he was coming of age. Even after 30 years of military service, there are some things he might have learned from his dad that he doesn’t necessarily know. So I can see why Amanda wants Preston to have access to male role models. I just don’t see why Preston needs to be riding bulls when he’s still so young.
One other thing I want to add… that doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with Preston’s situation, but is about father figures and how kids need them. My husband’s ex wife has been married three times. Every time she divorces, she makes her kids divorce their fathers, and tries to replace them with someone else. She did it to ex stepson, replacing his dad with Bill, and she did it to Bill’s daughters, replacing Bill with #3. We’ve found out, from talking to younger daughter, that she missed her dad. There was no reason for him to be kept out of her life, other than Ex’s own selfish bitterness.
Ex stepson reunited with his real dad when he was 21, after Bill stopped paying child support. Ex had repeatedly said her first ex husband was “abusive” and “crazy”. She said the same about Bill. In my one and only communication with Ex, I pointed out that her two exes were supposedly “crazy” and “abusive”. Of course, I know that Bill is not an abuser; I doubt her first husband is, either. But, based on what Ex says, she is either a big, fat liar, or she has terrible taste/luck with men. Seems to me that a good mother with that kind of bad luck/taste would give up on relationships until her kids were grown, rather than continuing to press her luck and risking marrying another “crazy” or “abusive” partner that she claims she has to keep her children from seeing. A good mother, when possible, would want her kids to attach to their actual fathers, rather than a substitute.
I know a lot of single moms feel like they need to give their children a father figure, when the other parent is absent. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, provided the role models consent and are decent people. However, I think ideally, the father figure should be the child’s actual parent, whenever possible. That being said, I know it’s not always possible or easy. My own father was around for me when I was growing up, but I looked to other men for guidance… including the neighborhood pervert, who was nicer to me than my dad was, but was up to no good.
I hope, if Preston continues to ride bulls, he improves his skills and stays safe from injuries. I know kids have their passions. Look at all of the kids involved in gymnastics, and some of the dangerous things required from that sport. Yet we still encourage kids to be involved– cheering them on as they do cartwheels on balance beams, swing on bars, and hurtle, top speed, toward a vaulting table, catapulting themselves into flips. And that’s to say nothing of the physical injuries, mental health issues, sexual abuses, and eating disorders that can come from gymnastics. There’s probably less risk of sexual abuse, eating disorders, or mental health issues that stem from bull riding. However, bulls are a lot less predictable than gymnastics apparati are.
Anyway… it’s just a thought from me on this Saturday afternoon… Crazy, though. He’s not allowed to ride shotgun in his mom’s car, but he’s welcome to try to ride a bull calf. Wow.