If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to grow up around a rodeo, look no further than the Vocu family. The latest episode of VICE’s documentary series Rites of Passage follows Bo Tyler, a 16-year-old bull rider in Montana. With mom Shelly’s family owning a ranch and dad Bo Michael coming from stock contractors, bull riding is in his DNA.
“When Bo Tyler was born, he didn’t miss a beat. He came right on the road with us, and he and his brother have been traveling all over the country since,” Shelly Vocu told VICE over a phone conversation after getting back from a ceremony honoring Bo Tyler on the reservation Bo Michael’s family lives on in South Dakota.
Bull riding is an extreme sport rooted in an equally extreme tradition—and Bo Tyler, who started riding sheep when he was four years old, honed his craft through a passion for healthy competition, as well as respect for animals and family. “We’re lucky and in awe of raising somebody that has found something they’re passionate about at such a young age, because usually it takes the rest of us a little while to figure that out,” Shelly said.
We talked with Bo Michael and Shelly about raising a son unafraid in the face of a bull, a bull rider’s relationship with their animal, and how they met—which Bo Michael described thusly: “And the rest is all rodeo history.”
VICE: What was your experience with bull riding growing up?
Shelly Vocu : My family owns a ranch so I was raised around it. My dad’s actually a rodeo competitor. I did barrel racing, my sister Sharon is an all around champion, and my sister Sheryl is also a barrel racing champion. It was just a part of our life—we didn’t know anything else. We’re so competitive that rodeo just seemed natural to us.
When did Bo Tyler start riding?
Very young [Laughs].
Michael 'Bo' Vocu: We were looking at some pictures yesterday, and one of them was of one of the first championship buckles he ever won in 2005—when he was four. A lot of kids start with sheep and, if they like it, they may go onto riding steers, then junior bulls, and so on. But some kids will ride sheep and then never get on anything again, and some kids will be scared of sheep and make great bull riders. [Bo Tyler] kind of just followed suit and went on every level.
How do you think your experience influenced his?
All of mine and Shelly’s friends rodeoed, so he grew up around it. His mom’s really competitive, I’m really competitive, and he turned out really competitive as well—so rodeo’s his way of competition.
Shelly: Rodeo has always been in our life. We traveled every weekend for it. So when Bo Tyler was born, he didn’t miss a beat‚—he came on the road with us, and he and his brother have been traveling all over the country since. I would say it influenced him without him knowing, because that’s the world he grew up in. There’s also his adrenaline seeking self, which is quite surprising to me—but he’s always enjoyed the big carnival rides and the extreme sports stuff.
Everybody’s aware that bull riding is dangerous, but there are multiple times in the doc that you say that you just can’t think about it that way. How was it raising a son to not have that fear of being hurt?
It’s more about supporting where his passion lies. We’re lucky and in awe of raising somebody who’s found something they’re passionate about at such a young age. Usually, it takes the rest of us a little while to figure that out, and it seems like he’s had that figured out for a while now. His dad and I agreed early on that we weren’t going to try to control what they wanted to do. If they can find something that they’re that passionate about and they know themselves, then we’ll support them fully. You can’t really focus on the fear. It’s always there, but you just don’t really think about it.
What is the relationship with the bull?
Bo: There’s a lot of respect there. Coming from a stock contractor family, there’s an added level of respect. Not only are you a champion for the animal, but you also want to see the better riders do well on them. You care for them, but as a competitor, you have respect for them because they can end your career in a split second. Bull riding today has become more like horse racing: these animals are bred to buck, they’re taken care of, and they’re part of your family.
Did you guys meet through rodeo?
I was rodeoing over the Fourth of July in Montana, and Shelly and her sisters all rodeoed. I knew her sisters and they introduced me to her, and the rest is all rodeo history [ Laughs].
What are some of Bo Tyler’s goals now?
Shelly: We really try to encourage going to college just because we know his career choice in bull riding is an extreme sport. It’s extremely risky and things can go south pretty fast as far as injuries go so we would like for him to have some sort of fallback career. For his education, he wants to go into business so we’ve been looking at colleges for a while now. He’s currently leading the all-around standings in the state of Montana for the high school rodeo division, as well as the saddle bronc riding, bull riding and bareback riding so he’s definitely an overachiever, he’s just so competitive, but he’s looking for a full ride scholarship. He definitely wants to go somewhere warm, but he wants to get his college degree, and at the same time, he wants to go through the PBR (Professional Bull Riders).