South Kitsap man turns bulls into ‘pro athletes’

The lot only is five acres and sits just a few miles off State Route 16, but its openness and quiet serenity create a country feel. It’s not exactly destitute, though. Wander through the yard — if the dogs don’t make their presence known first — to the electric fence where Joe Swinney stores his family of bulls. Behind the wires are the 1,920-pound Smilin-Sugartooth Shorty, Captain ’n Krunch (1,700 pounds), Tornado Blanco (1,000), Cinnamon (1,600), the mother, and the first heifer she and Shorty produced, Thunder Cloud (800), who was born last month.

Joe Swinney began raising bulls to compete in the Professional Bull Riders and American Bucking Bull

Joe Swinney began raising bulls to compete in the Professional Bull Riders and American Bucking Bull

The lot only is five acres and sits just a few miles off State Route 16, but its openness and quiet serenity create a country feel.

It’s not exactly destitute, though.

Wander through the yard — if the dogs don’t make their presence known first — to the electric fence where Joe Swinney stores his family of bulls. Behind the wires are the 1,920-pound Smilin-Sugartooth Shorty, Captain ’n Krunch (1,700 pounds), Tornado Blanco (1,000), Cinnamon (1,600), the mother, and the first heifer she and Shorty produced, Thunder Cloud (800), who was born last month.

For Swinney, 51, it has been a blessing.

In 2001, he tore the meniscus in his left knee while working as a union carpenter in Tacoma. He hasn’t worked since the injury and said he might need surgery to replace the knee.

Three years later, a friend and his wife were expecting their first child and their bull, Shorty, needed a new home.

Swinney happily obliged. After all, his first job had been taking care of a barn and training horses when he was 14.

“It was in my blood,” he said. “I stuck with it my whole life.”

Swinney has rode brahma bulls before but said he isn’t skilled at it. Instead, he specializes in raising them to compete in the Professional Bull Riders and American Bucking Bull, Inc. circuits.

It’s a career that Swinney can make a living on — he said a top-48 placer with one bull can earn a minimum of $50,000 per year.

It’s not exactly easy money, though.

“The guys spend eight seconds on the bull and they’re done,” Swinney said. “They’ll tell you the hardest job in the business is a stock contractor.”

He points toward his once-straight metal gate as an example. Swinney said the manufacturer told him it was the strongest one his company could produce, but Shorty has given it a distinct curve by rushing it several times.

At his former residence, neighbors used to yell, “Cowboy Up,” to get Swinney’s attention when Shorty hurdled the fence and wandered through the yard.

Swinney maintains a person must be “loving and adventuresome” to raise bulls.

“You can’t have an anger-management problem because every once in a while, you’re going to be on the short end of the bull,” he said.

It also is an investment. The 800-pound hay bales he buys at $70 each to feed them last a little more than a week. Swinney also has to keep his beef cattle at a separate ranch from his “professional athletes.”

“If they see you slaughtering a bowline, they’re going to wonder when they’re next,” he said. “They’re smarter than people give them credit for.”

And friendlier, too.

“Most people think bulls are just mean,” he said. “But if you show them love, respect and consideration, they’re just sweethearts.”

That doesn’t mean they aren’t ornery at times. Swinney said Shorty now is eligible to compete in the PBR because he’s 4 years old.

Getting him to those events can be a challenge at times, though. He uses a hose to spray water around his neck to move him to the trailer.

And if the water hits his head, look out.

Shorty has come after Swinney when that’s occurred and “tossed me around for a while.”

The PBR competes at locations throughout the United States, and when Shorty arrives, Swinney expects him to be desirable because full-blooded brahma bulls are rare.

He said he just needs to use a grinder to get Shorty’s horns to regulation length to avoid spearing before he’s ready.

“If you look at PBR, almost all the bulls are crossed with brahma because they have the longer legs, they’re more agile and they have the hump,” Swinney said. “Shorty and his boys can clear a 5-foot fence standing still.”

From a distance — or even inside with the family — Swinney watches and talks to the bulls with a smile. After all, it beats the alternative.

“Instead of going stir crazy, I’m raising my bulls,” he said. “I guess they were destined to come into my life. It’s been a godsend that they’ve come along.”

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