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Bullrider Tanner Girletz at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, July 5, 2012. Girletz comes from a long line of family members that were bullriders. Photograph by Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail (TODD KOROL)
Bullrider Tanner Girletz at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, July 5, 2012. Girletz comes from a long line of family members that were bullriders. Photograph by Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail (TODD KOROL)

Professional bull rider Tanner Girletz has spent his career trying to hold on Add to ...

He insists his job is not that complicated. He simply straps himself atop a one-ton stick of dynamite and waits for the explosion of hooves, horns and hell-inspired mayhem.

What’s not so easy is explaining why he does it. That’s the part Tanner Girletz can’t relay to the uninitiated who ask what he does for a living, then offer up awkward silence when he tells them, “I’m a professional bull rider.”

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Typically, that conjures up a range of misconceptions; that Girletz and his ilk are “just a bunch of crazy cowboys” with no regard for their personal well-being. That doesn’t sit well with the 26-year-old Albertan who got into the sport the honest way, through the family business.

If you want to know anything about bulls, ask a Girletz. They breed them, raise them, sell them, transport and rent them out as rodeo stock. It’s a hard way to make a living but not as dangerous as riding one for eight seconds, and the Girletzs know that, too.

Grandfather Wilf Girletz was a five-time Canadian champion and inducted into the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame. His sons Kevin, Randy and Ray all rode bulls. They also run Girletz Rodeo Stock, the contract company started by their dad that provides bucking Brahmas to rodeos and bull-busting events all over the West. In one stretch, the Girletz brothers produced the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association’s top bull five years running.

As for Tanner, a former Canadian bull riding champ, he begins his sixth quest for a Calgary Stampede title Friday with his mom and dad planning to be in attendance along with his fiancée Brittany Walker. If you’re a Girletz, there is no better time of year than rodeo season.

“It’s not an easy life,” Tanner said while driving about the Stampede grounds doing errands. “We don’t sleep in fancy hotels. A lot of times we’re sleeping in the back seat of a car, hitching a ride to the next rodeo. We pay to play. You don’t win, too bad. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

So why does he do it? For Girletz, it’s all he’s ever known aside from hockey. Originally, he wanted to score goals and play hockey for a living but when he failed to grow a lick beyond 5 foot 6, 160 pounds he cast an eye at the bulls on the family farm near Cereal, in central Alberta, and figured he’d give one a go.

He started off riding steers before graduating to weaker bulls before taking on the stronger, livelier beasts. By the time he was 16, Tanner had ridden hundreds of bulls at home and in competitions and studied his craft carefully.

“I coached him a lot of his career in minor hockey and he always gave 110 per cent,” said Kevin Girletz. “He was the same way with bull riding. We started him on bulls that wouldn’t turn on him because you don’t want to take his confidence away. When his riding improved, the bulls improved. He already knew a lot just by hanging out behind the chutes and watching other guys ride.”

Tanner proved to be a natural, winning at a number of small rodeos before taking his place on the pro circuit as an 11-time qualifier for the Canadian Finals Rodeo. Like his peers, he’s suffered through good times and bad, spins and spills, and considers himself fortunate when it comes to his well-being. His worst injuries have been concussion-related, including “a bad wreck” he suffered three years ago in Iowa when a bull head-swatted him.

To protect himself, Girletz wears a flak jacket and a specially-designed helmet with a hockey-style cage. He has life insurance, and yes it’s costly. His wife-to-be is a dental hygienist. (“In case I get my teeth kicked out,” he deadpanned.) Beyond that, he survives by his wits and never letting his guard down even for a second.

“Some bulls do the same thing every time out,” he said. “But every once in a while you think they’ll turn back to the right or left on a consistent basis and you’ll start to lean and they’ll go the other way and you’ll get thrown. That’s what makes it so interesting.”

And what makes it so rewarding isn’t the prize money, although that helps; it’s the feeling of having ridden that drooling, raging stick of dynamite long enough to know its power without being blown to bits. That’s the rush, the attraction, the reason why Girletz compares a good bull ride to scoring a game-winning goal in hockey or slugging a winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Few can truly appreciate it, but the Girletzs do. They’ve been drawn to it for generations.

“When Tanner started riding bulls, he said, ‘If I can’t ride (like the best) then I’m not going to do it,’ ” said his father Kevin. “I didn’t push him or make him become a cowboy. It’s what he wanted … I’ll be watching him (Friday) even if I have to parachute in.”

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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