When you’re riding a bull, you need to leave a triangle of space between you and the back of the bull. You squeeze the bull with your knees and all of your leg muscles, and you push on the rope rather than pull it.
That’s how it’s done, according to 12-year-old Cooper James of Tooele.
“They can feel you on their back and how you’re leaning by this much,” he said of the bulls he rides, pinching a 2-inch space of air between his forefinger and thumb.
James, who started competing in rodeo at the age of 3, has won 42 belt buckles and other prizes in rodeo events during the past eight years.
Rodeo is James’ favorite sport. More than that, it’s a lifestyle that involves daily practice and chores, friends that are as close-knit as family, and regular rodeo competitions — including his recent debut at the National Jr. High Rodeo Finals the first week of July.
“I’ve wanted to be a cowboy my whole life,” he said.
James participates in rodeo events all year round. The Utah Junior High School Rodeo Association (UJHSRA) has rodeos between August and May every year. During the winter months, he travels to Heber, Nephi, Duchesne, Price and Ogden to compete in indoor arenas.
“In the junior high division, they have about 12 rodeos each year,” said his mother, Carin James. She also said there are summer rodeos, like the ones associated with Days of ‘47 (the Utah State Fair Rodeo) and Fiesta Days in Spanish Fork.
“Summer is called Cowboy Christmas,” Cooper James said. “There are the most rodeos and the most money you can win.”
He currently ranks sixth in the state association’s saddle bronc division, fourth in the bull riding division, and third in the bareback division. During the last week of May, he qualified for state competitions in all three areas.
“I qualified there (at state competitions) for bareback and bulls,” he said. He ranked in the top four for both divisions, and it was on to Huron, South Dakota, for the national competition.
“We got there on a Saturday night, and I didn’t ride until the following Tuesday,” he said. “I just kind of hung out with my friends.”
His first competition was riding a bareback steer on Tuesday. He got a low score of 39 out of 100 points, unable to maintain his position for the full eight seconds. Wednesday morning, he had his first round of bull riding. The bull he was given was rolling from side to side and jump-kicking right out of the gate. He got a score of 65 and ranked 11th place.
His second round of bull riding came Wednesday evening.
“I got on one of the hardest bulls,” he said. “He long-darted me over the front. That put me out of the short go, the championship round.”
Thursday morning, he competed again in the bareback division, riding a white steer that came out of the gate kicking and jumping. He stayed on and got a score of 41.
“I didn’t make it to the short go for either event, but we stayed and cheered on some of my buddies,” he said.
In spite of not getting the scores he wanted, he had a great time.
“It’s like a brotherhood behind the chutes,” he said. “We hang out, we spot each other, and we video each other. Even though we’re competing against each other, it’s more like we’re competing against ourselves.”
During events, James likes to chat with the younger kids as well as his friends. He gives them pep talks and helps them get on their sheep. Carin James said it’s the culture of rodeo.
“It’s a family,” she said.
Strong social media connections between rodeo families allow Cooper James and his friends to ask each other which rodeos they’re signed up for and make arrangements to meet up when they can. The rodeo families camp together and make dinners together in the evenings with five or six of the rodeo moms cooking together at one time.
There are dances, too.
“We went over one night and watched two of my buddies dancing with their mom and sister,” James said.
They taught him to swing dance. Another night, the Utah boys and Utah girls came together and held their own dance in the camp.
While James feels close to his rodeo buddies, he makes friends wherever he goes.
“I have a lot of friends at school,” he said. “I hang out with everyone. I try to be nice to everyone.”
Besides rodeo, James plays football with the Tooele Ute Football league. He also has to have good grades to participate in the UJHSRA events. The association requires him to keep a 3.5 grade-point-average. James said his dad challenged him to reach and maintain a 3.75 instead. He did it with no problem.
“School is way easy for me,” he said. “I’m in all honors classes and they get boring sometimes.”
“You can go all day and he says ‘what’s next?’” Carin James said. “He likes to move and be doing something.”
In spite of his zest for life, not everything comes easy for Cooper James. Even rodeo has its hard moments.
“I broke my jaw in 2015,” he said. “I broke my leg last year. I didn’t even cry about my jaw or my leg until they asked if I wanted to be done.”
The bumps and bruises are part of the deal. Carin James said her son wears a helmet, vest and chaps when he’s at an event. Watching him grow up in the sport has given her confidence that he can handle the injuries when they come up.
“I’m really comfortable with him because it’s been a process,” she said.
His love of rodeo began when he was a toddler riding the arms of his parents’ couch. He rode his first sheep in a rodeo when he was three.
“I just loved it, so I’ve done it ever since,” he said.
James spends a lot of time getting ready for rodeos. His family keeps three steers, a bull, three horses, a pony, and a donkey. During the school year, he rides his horse after school and practices on one of three bucking machines he has. Then he waters the livestock, walks home across the street to eat dinner with his family, and spends his evening working out.
“I’ve had a six-pack since I was four,” he said.
“He’s very passionate about it,” his mother said. “It’s just something that he wants to do.”
Because he wants to do it so much, he does crunches and sit-ups every day. He can stand on an exercise ball and balance there for minutes at a time. His strong core muscles help him stay on the animals he rides even when they move unpredictably.
He described riding a red bull in a recent competition in Ogden that suddenly spun to the right.
“I told my dad I didn’t even think about it,” he said. James shifted his weight, threw his arm back and stayed on the bull.
His practice pays off in prizes and social events, too. One of those, an awards banquet hosted by the UJHSRA, is coming up in August. During the banquet, young cowboys and cowgirls are given awards based on the number of points they scored during the past year.
If you total all of his rodeo prizes, James has made around $10,000 during the past eight years. He’s spent some of it on chaps, gloves and other rodeo equipment. He displays all of his belt buckles on a large display shelf that takes up half of the wall in his room.
The prizes are great, but they don’t compare with the thrill of just riding.
James described the feeling of time slowing down while he rides a bull. He said he enters a zone where the bull ride becomes a smooth sequence of action-reaction, where his body knows just what to do to stay on the ride.
“It feels like I’m on there for five minutes,” he said. “It’s all muscle memory. If I think, I’m off. My body just does it.”
“I’ve heard him tell his dad when it’s a good ride, it’s almost like he’s floating on the bull,” his mother said.
James said the biggest challenge for bull riders is to stay over the top of the bull where they can balance.
“It’s like dancing,” he said. “You’ve just got to stay as calm as possible. If you’re calm, you can react.”
The biggest life-lesson he’s learned from rodeo so far?
“In bull riding, you can’t give up,” he said. “Just keep trying.”
That’s how he’s looking at nationals. Although he didn’t get the scores he wanted this year, going back to compete again next year is a no-brainer. With his first national competition under his belt and a little luck, next year as a teen, this tough cowboy is ready to make it to the short-go and his goal is to top the competition.
Fans can follow the young cowboy on Instagram at @cooperjamesofficial.