It was a couple of years ago, in the middle of a high and wild bareback riding competition, that Buck Lunak found himself on the dirt, under the crushing weight of a 1,200-pound bronco. The bucking beast lost his footing and flipped over, landing on top of the young Indian-cowboy.
“The pressure just exploded my liver and kidney,” he said.
Now, a dislocated hip, a shattered ankle and several years later, the citizen of the Blackfeet Nation is one of America’s rising stars in the bareback riding competition.
He’s also one of the only Native American riders traveling from one competition to another. He said his indigenous parentage is certainly a “conversation-starter” with non-Native rodeo-goers and that they eagerly query him about his ancestry.
Lunak, now 25, has to date accumulated $42,082 in career winnings with his prowess on a bucking bronco, Jim Bainbridge, senior public relations coordinator of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, told ICTMN.
There are seven events at a given rodeo competition, Bainbridge said, which includes steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie down roping, bull riding, bareback bronc riding and barrel racing – the last being a women’s event.
Lunak, who has been a member of the PRCA for seven years, competes exclusively in the bareback riding competition and is ranked in the top 40.
Earlier this year, Lunak was in the top 20, he said, and hopes to rise again, which isn’t a stretch, seeing as Lunak is lauded for his talents and is only in the “winter run” stage of the 2014 season. There is still the spring and summer competitions ahead of him, he said.
Consequently, Lunak spends a large amount of time on the road with fellow bareback riders, traveling from his home in Florence, Montana, down to a competition in Austin, Texas, then zipping west to California before heading back home, only to hit the road again several weeks later.
But this is his passion, Lunak said. He comes from a long line of riders (his dad was also a bareback rider) whose skill may be due in part to a long legacy of Blackfeets traversing the expansive prairie. “Native Americans are great horsemen,” he said. “So it kind of goes hand in hand with a cowboy.”
When he mounts a spirited bronc—some of them weighing more than 1,400 pounds—Lunak said he tries not to think too much during the ride. His mind doesn’t completely go blank, but he let’s his body and his muscle memory take over.
“You can’t really think. If you’re thinking you’re already too slow,” he said. “You have to train your mind and your body just to react. You want to slow [your thoughts] down. You kind of know what, with muscle memory, to do.”
After the ride, he’ll head back to his hotel and unwind, but invariably readying his body for the next go at a bucking bronc. He’ll do crunches and sit-ups, and, while on the road, he and his fellow riders will stop off at a park and exercise at a playground, utilizing the poles for pull-ups and a track for a run, if there is one.
“It depends if the weather is nice. You just have to get creative,” he said, explaining that exercise is therapeutic. “You feel better. It takes the soreness away and prevents injury. In order to do this, you have to stay physically fit and injury-free to the best of your ability.”
Lunak has an estimated 70 or more competitions left this year, and he hopes that by September he will regain his position in the nation’s top 20 bareback riders. Until then, he’ll continue to aim for the win as well as the rush.“We’re adrenaline junkies,” Lunak said chuckling. “You kind of got to be to do what we do; to be strapping yourself to a 1,200- or 1,400-pound animal, and you’re just saying, ‘Bring it on.’”