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Cowboys for Christ

A father-son duo from Friendship work together to conduct one of the best bull riding and fighting schools east of the Mississippi River
Story by Allison Farley and photos by Morgan Graham 10/1/2021


For the past 16 years, some of the best young rodeo students in the U.S. have attended the annual Cowboys for Christ Bull Riding School in Friendship. Owners Ernie Roberts and his son, Jon, teach both bull riding and bullfighting.
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Hanging at the entrance of Ernie and Jon Roberts’ Friendship ranch is a large wooden sign proclaiming, “Cowboys for Christ.”

It’s an accurate description of what’s inside.

For the past 16 years, Ernie and his son, Jon, have been hosting friends and now rodeo students from across the country for their annual Cowboys for Christ Bull Riding School. 

 “When we built this arena in 2000, we had no idea that a simple practice facility would turn into a place for so many to learn the art of riding,” says Ernie, a seasoned bull riding professional with collegiate and professional titles under his belt. “When Jon was in Junior Rodeo, some of his friends would come over, and we would just buck bulls and help them get better. Over time, more kids would show up, and before we knew it, we had about 15 to 20 wanting to learn the art of riding. It just evolved from there.”  

Since 2005, the school has been held each October, attracting aspiring bull riders and fighters — kids and adults — for a full weekend of training and practice. 

“I have kept this event small for a reason,” says Ernie. “I don't want a young person walking away saying, ‘Well, I didn't get to spend time with the instructor.’ I want each student to get the most out of their time here.”

Each year, an impressive lineup of professional instructors and retired bull riders are on hand to work with students. Staff for this year’s school includes Bud Young, an International Professional Rodeo Association (IRPA) Lifetime Gold Card Member and 36-year Collegiate Rodeo Team Coach, and Cody Custer, an eight-time qualifier in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) finals, PRCA Hall of Fame member, and 1992 PRCA World Champion.

Before the students begin lessons on riding and fighting bulls, they spend a day focusing on the chute procedure and safety of the riders and fighters. 

“We start by focusing on fundamentals and groundwork,” says Ernie. “During their ground school, attendees will work on equipment, make sure they have the right rope, spurs, and gloves. They also learn the chute procedure — how to get on a bull, how to put his rope on him, and how to properly dismount.”

Ernie explains that the students will also have the chance to use bucking machines to show them the proper body position they should use when a bull is bucking or kicking over their head. 

“We help the students hone their physical skills, but we also stress to them that you can actually get mentally prepared for an event and not even be in the arena,” says Jon, an employee of Gibson Farmers Co-op who has a long history in both bullfighting and riding. “It is a reaction, and if you practice enough, you'll do it without thinking.”

Jon says he wants to help emphasize the mental side of this sport in the upcoming workshops.

“Mental health has been a very hot topic in the world the last few years, but not as much in the rodeo community,” says Jon. “When you are rodeoing, riding, and fighting bulls, you're going to have some high times. But along with the highs come some of the lowest of the low times, and I think it is important for these upcoming riders to be prepared.”

After the daytime rodeo workshops are complete, students and their families enjoy evenings of fellowship and fun. 

“On Friday and Saturday nights, we bring some of our community's best musicians to play, and the kids will build a bonfire,” says Ernie. “This gives us a chance to sit around and share bull riding tales until it is time to turn in for the night.”

Christian ministry is a unique and key element of the school as well. Jon, an ordained minister, speaks during each school session in what he calls “Cowboy Church.” 

“This might be the only time a young man or woman gets to actually hear the Word of God,” says Jon. “It has always been a staple of our event to make sure we thank the Lord for keeping us safe and, of course, making sure these kids get to know that our Lord died for our sins so that we could have everlasting life.”

Ernie credits sponsors like Gibson Farmers Cooperative for helping to create a memorable event.

“The team at Gibson Farmers has always been so supportive,” says Ernie, whose wife, Carol Roberts, is a long-time employee at the cooperative’s Newbern location. “We can always count on the Co-op to help make this the best clinic for our students.”

While the Roberts are proud of the young men and women who have left their barn to move on to become world champions — like Corey Bailey and Jimmy Essary — Jon says he is most impressed with the life changes that happen to the cowboys during their three days on the farm.

“It is no secret that riding and fighting bulls is dangerous,” says Jon. “You can die at any given moment, inside or outside the arena for that matter, so the biggest thing we want to try to do is to bring people closer to Christ. If these students can learn a little about riding or fighting bulls along the way, then that’s awesome.”

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