By: Justin Felisko August 08, 2014@ 06:00:00 PM
PUEBLO, Colo. – When Hairihen arrived in Brisbane, Australia, in mid-June, the native of Inner Mongolia stepped off the plane wearing fashionable jeans, sneakers and a cowboy hat with a sticker emblazoned on the front.
He could barely speak a lick of English and PBR Australia General Manager Glen Young and stock contractor Rick Ruhland could only help but wonder how things would all turn out over the next six weeks.
Was it possible to teach this talented horseback rider and archer, who is also a skilled wrestler, the ins and outs of bull riding in such a short period of time despite the language barrier?
Could they help this passionate Inner Mongolia countryman succeed at bull riding?
Only time would tell.
Hairihen, who will compete during PBR China events in Nanjing and Shanghai next month, was born in Bayannao’er, Inner Mongolia – an autonomous region of The People’s Republic of China. He grew up on the Urad Prairie on horseback and by the time he was 17 years old, he was competing in equestrian events with the Inner Mongolia Sports Team, where he became one of the team’s top riders and archers. In 2007, he placed first in Group Equestrian Events at the Guangzhou National Minority Games and then won first place in Group Equestrian Events at the 2011 Guizhou National Minority Games.
Hairihen also developed into quite the trick rider and has been able to perform a variety of creative moves such as a handstand on the back of a horse.
Photo courtesy of Glen Young, PBR Australia.
Still, there was always something about bull riding that intrigued him since seeing it on TV as a young boy.
“I have been dreaming to ride a bull since watching the American cowboy on TV,” Hairihen said in a translated interview through PBR China’s Rebecca Wang. “Mongolians are a people that enjoy challenges and worship heroes. So as a Mongolian, I would enjoy the challenge of a bull riding competition.”
He faced obstacles immediately once he arrived at Ruhland’s Australian ranch in South East Queensland, where he spent six weeks living with Rick, his wife, Judy, and the rest of their family. Seeing as no one knew Mandarin, Hairihen had to communicate through a translator application on his cell phone. It was also the first time he had ever traveled outside of China.
Ruhland started slowly with the training process, using plenty of visual demonstrations to try and get his lessons across. He would go over the basics of bull riding, such as positioning, posture and other movements that are necessary to make the 8-second mark.
As time went on, the former bull rider immediately saw glimpses of potential thanks to his pupil’s history on horseback.
“He has a good natural seat from a lot of horse riding,” Ruhland said. “He is very well balanced and has a natural physique for bull riding.”
Ruhland added that when a first-time bull rider gets on his first 20 or so bulls, normally everything happens so fast that the athlete is stuck trying to figure out how to adjust his body to the unnatural movements of the sport.
Hairihen, although, adapted quicker than expected.
“The mind is just a blur because everything happens so fast,” Ruhland explained. “He took to it really quickly and I think that is from being a horseman and it wasn’t such a transition to his mind to do those basic moves he had to do because it probably all slowed down for him a lot faster.”
Rick Ruhland works with Hairihen on proper bull riding technique in Australia. Photo courtesy of Glen Young, PBR Australia.
The 25-year-old quickly got to experience the brute power and strength that accompanies a bucking bull, even if he was still only attempting practice bulls.
Along with every bull came a greater adrenaline-rush.
“I rode my first bull in Australia. That particular bull is relatively small in size, which reminded me of riding a wild horse in my hometown, and it was very exciting,” Hairihen said. “The bull riding sport, being as adrenaline-pumping as it is, became the fuel that drives me to improve my game.”
However, Hairihen was at first taken aback by the sport and its fierceness. Early in the training experience he was taught the tough lesson that bull riding comes with bumps, bruises and sometimes injuries. He even became hesitant after his first hang-up.
This is when the language barrier made things challenging for Ruhland. He was trying to explain to Hairihen that to be a bull rider one has to have a passion, determination and a burning desire to get back on. You have to fight through that pain to reach the 8-second mark – it is part of being a cowboy.
Hairihen admitted, “There was once I injured my leg during training, and I was very concerned about the possibility of sustaining other injuries in the subsequent trainings, which became a source of additional pressure and vexation.”
Eventually his fear began to dissipate, especially once he began to meet other bull riders – including Ryan Dirteater and Skeeter Kingsolver – when he competed at the PBR Australia Cup events.
“He saw the top cowboys make good rides and he got to watch them guys getting on first-hand and that really helped too,” Ruhland said, “seeing those guys getting there hand in, shutting their hand and really having to dig and go.”
Hairihen attempts to ride during a PBR Australia Cup event. Photo by Double Dee Photography.
Hairihen actually even went on a run with Dirteater one day when the Built Ford Tough Series rider saw him stretching outside. Dirteater admits the aspiring bull rider has ways to go, but the effort is there.
“I saw him making good recoveries,” Dirteater said. “The bulls weren’t much he was getting on, but still he was making recoveries. From one weekend to the next he was really improving.”
The left-handed rider began to feel more comfortable after witnessing how other cowboys handled the pressure of riding close to 2,000-pound animals.
Hairihen added, “I’m much better now.”
Entertainer Matt Merritt was in Australia for two events and came away impressed by Hairihen’s potential and believes the rookie bull rider may be able to ride a few bulls next month. Merritt remembers learning about Mongolia’s rich history in horseback riding when former PBR bull rider Cord McCoy was on the CBS reality television show “The Amazing Race.”
Merritt then posed the question: “Can you imagine being a guy that gets dropped off in a foreign country and you don’t know how to ride bulls in the first place and you are there to learn that and go back to your country and show everybody what you got?”
Hairihen fell in love with the sport after climbing aboard some of Australia’s rankest bulls in Cairns, Newcastle and Sydney even with that kind of pressure waiting for him back home.
“The experience of being part of a fantastic event and hearing the crowd cheering me on as I rode the bull made me fall in love with the PBR game,” he said.
The bull riders had fun with Hairihen, as well, during his stint in Australia. They even taught the Chinese cowboy how to tip his hat and say, “Hello pretty lady, my name is Tuff Dundee.”
James Wang, CEO of Xinniu International Sports Culture Company, came up with the nickname before Hairihen arrived in Australia.
Even though he didn’t successfully make the 8-second mark at the PBR Australia Cup events, he did cover roughly 50 percent of his practice bulls, according to Ruhland.
Hairihen has been competing in wrestling, horse racing and other competitions at the Prairie Nadam Fair in Xinlinhot, Inner Mongolia.
He has been working out two hours a day ever since returning from Australia in preparation for the PBR China events and is looking forward to what his bull riding future may hold.
“As the first Chinese professional bull rider, I am very proud of the prospect of representing Inner Mongolia and China in the future events,” Hairhen said.
Ruhland believes that if Hairihen gets on enough bulls in China, he will one day make the 8-second mark at an event and could potentially be an international star.
For now though, Hairihen is just like any other cowboy.
“You could just tell he was a cowboy at heart,” Ruhland concluded. “Even though he is from China, he loves the outdoors, loves being on a horse and working with animals and cattle and stuff. Really, just like any other cowboy.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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