Rodeo: A Generational Sport

by Spencer Griffith | Photography by Caitlin Penna

In bull riding, accidents are going to happen. Indeed, when rodeo veteran Eddy Gushlaw instructs new riders at Shady Acres Farm in Hope Mills, that is one of his most important lessons.

“It’s not if you get hurt, it’s when and how bad you get hurt,” Gushlaw explains. “It’s all about how you react and come back from that injury.” Gushlaw, now 47, had to learn that firsthand after a particularly nasty incident at Shady Acres left him with a broken pelvis and ended his career in 2015, much earlier than he ever anticipated. Fortunately at Shady Acres, folks seem to have a way of finding the silver lining in accidents—in fact, that’s how the farm fortuitously found its way into the rodeo world in the first place.   

“My dad was backing out of a gas station and backed into a lady’s car,” remembers the farm’s third-generation owner, Tim Fowler. His father, Bobby, learned that the woman’s son had recently passed away but that she couldn’t afford a gravestone, so he threw a barbecue fundraiser on the farm. At the event, an attendee from Texas mentioned to Bobby that the property—which had been bought for his father to raise horses and grow tobacco and corn—would be an ideal spot to host a rodeo.

After consulting with a friend who had more rodeo experience and giving the idea a test run, Shady Acres soon bought bulls and built an arena, with the Fowlers learning more about the sport as they went. By the late ‘90s, the Shady Acres Jackpot Association claimed over 300 memders, sending its top five performers to the Professional Bull Riders tour stop in Fayetteville each year, while its own rodeos drew as many as a thousand spectators along with world champion riders like J.B. Mauney, Tuff Hedeman and Billy Robinson.

These days, the crowds at Shady Acres are considerably more modest for its Sunday evening practice bull riding sessions—they stopped doing full-on, seven-event rodeos a few years back—as dozens of regulars are scattered around the ring on metal bleachers or the tailgates of pickup trucks. It lends a family feel to the farm, which also hosts barrel racing once a month and regular bull riding clinics, although the bucking bulls—which Gushlaw only remembers canceling for severe weather or Christmas Day—are the main attraction 52 weeks out of the year. There may be less than a dozen riders on a gloomy day or as many as 30 on a particularly nice one, coming from across North Carolina and neighboring states.

A regular during his riding days, Shady Acres was a natural spot for Gushlaw to continue to be involved in the sport by instructing new riders when he was forced to hang up his bull rope. He found inspiration in Archdale’s Jerome Davis, a championship rider who broke his neck inside the ring in 1998 and was paralyzed from the chest down but remains a prominent figure on the bull riding circuit.

“I was wanting to ride until I couldn’t ride anymore,” Gushlaw explains. “If I had to use a walker to get myself up into the chute but I was able to sit down on that bull and ride it, I would do it.” After his doctor explained that continuing to ride after his injury could jar loose the metal plate that was inserted to repair his broken pelvis—potentially severing his femoral artery and causing him to bleed to death in mere minutes—he was left with little choice, though it was still a hard pill for him to swallow. “I could teach these guys and make sure there’s a place where people can come and enjoy the sport, because I don’t think the passion will ever leave me.”

Gushlaw fell in love with bull riding in the late ‘90s after being challenged by a couple of cowboys familiar with Shady Acres and its weekly practice pen that welcomes newbies. At the time, he was working as a bouncer at the Palomino Club in Fayetteville, seeking to recapture the rush he got from jumping out of airplanes while serving in the US Army for seven years.

He was immediately hooked—finding that bull riding filled the void far better than working at a bar—and spent the next half-decade traveling around the region and competing in local rodeos with a group of younger riders that showed him the ropes, rarely taking a weekend off.

“It’s euphoria, like a peaceful high. It’s like sitting in the eye of the storm where it’s calm, but as soon as you call for the gate, it’s crazy and hectic and you’re in the middle of it all,” he offers, grasping for the right words while laughing at his own comparison. “Well, I’m trying to say it’s like getting high, but I’ve never gotten high, so I wouldn’t know—but if you like adrenaline, it’s highly addictive.”

Naturally, teaching riders doesn’t quite scratch that itch for Gushlaw in the same way, although he’s come to appreciate the different rewards it provides. “With teaching, I feel a sense of gratitude and pride,” he says. “It’s almost like I’m a father figure and I’m passing it on.” He was already helping run the bull riding activities at Shady Acres at the time of his accident, so teaching was a natural extension of his role, which expanded further as he transitioned into becoming the voluntary caretaker of the property.

Performing the day-to-day upkeep—and tending to the bulls in particular—has lent him a new perspective as well. “When I was first riding, I admired these bulls, but they were something I needed to conquer,” he explains, reflecting on the increased sense of respect he’s found for the hulking beasts. “Now that I take care of them, I just love them.”

He’s quick to add that he gets plenty of help on the farm from a host of friends—which he calls his rodeo family—and his wife Sonya, the rodeo mom. Lending a hand seems to be the Shady Acres way, after all:  Following in his father’s footsteps, Tim Fowler pooled the money from one of the rodeos shortly after Gushlaw’s injury and donated it to Gushlaw to help with his recovery, so looking after the farm and lending his wisdom to cowboys is one way he can give back to the community.

Being familiar with the rush has helped him learn when—and how—to best lend advice to newcomers. He gives them an idea of what to expect on their initial ride, from first sitting down on the bull to making a safe landing and escape, though he admits that he doesn’t expect them to remember much once the adrenaline hits on their first ride. “I tell them they’re either gonna love it or hate it,” he laughs. “When they come off, they’re either already going to sign up for another ride or they just say that they crossed that one off their bucket list.”

One of a handful of first-timers who were at Shady Acres on a sweltering mid-July evening this summer was Brandon Mills, who made the drive from Gaston, South Carolina and fell into the former camp. “I’m still shaking a little bit, but it was fun,” he admits. “It was a lot faster than I expected and it was rough, but I landed on my feet and hopefully I will every time.”

Like many newbies, Mills spent some time earlier in the afternoon in an adjacent barn soaking up pointers from Gushlaw while practicing on the drop barrel and stationary barrel, tools Gushlaw uses to help teach balance and timing to rookies or fine-tune techniques with experienced riders like Clayton’s Jorden Halvorsen, who has won first-place buckles from competitions as far away as the Fort Worth Stock Show.

Halvorsen rode her first bull at Shady Acres and remembers grinning ear-to-ear the whole time. Like Gushlaw, she remembers being hooked from the get-go and now travels to compete as often as possible. She still returns to Shady Acres regularly, though, and credits the mentoring she’s received there for part of her success.  “Eddy helps me every time I’m here,” she says.

“I’m proud to say I’ve helped her,” says Gushlaw, who claims teaching Halvorsen as one of his greatest accomplishments. He believes that her presence at Shady Acres has encouraged more local women to give the sport a try as female riders are a rarity elsewhere in the bull riding world.

“When I started out here, I didn’t know that there was this big problem with girls riding bulls because they never treated me any different,” explains the 23-year old Halvorsen. “When I started going to other places, they were like ‘girls aren’t supposed to ride bulls’ and I was like ‘well I love it, so I’m gonna keep doing it.’ I’ve been places where they told me I couldn’t ride and been turned down, but it’s just part of it and I’ll be kicking their tail one day.”

Indeed, Liz Moreau of Spring Lake arrived at Shady Acres for the first time this summer and signed up within minutes to ride. “I thought if the boys can do it, I can do it,” she said after confessing that she had originally planned to just observe some of her male friends with more experience. “I never thought I would do this in my whole life, but I’m going to keep riding and get better at it,” she added shortly after her first two rides.

It may not be exactly how Gushlaw imagined his rodeo life playing out, but as long as he’s around Shady Acres, Moreau—like many others—has found the right place to do just that.