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Published September 04, 2011, 04:59 AM

Teen bull rider gets chance at Virginia county fair

FISHERSVILLE, Va. — The black and brown brindled steer snorts and grunts, mucus foaming from its nose, as it digs at the ground. It's ready to go.

By: Spencer Dennis, Associated Press

FISHERSVILLE, Va. — The black and brown brindled steer snorts and grunts, mucus foaming from its nose, as it digs at the ground. It's ready to go.

So is 17-year-old Zane Armentrout.

Zane gives a nod of his head, the gate swings open, and a controlled chaos ensues: it's rodeo and bull-riding time at the Augusta County Fair.

The bull is bucking wild. Zane's body contorts and jerks until all that can be seen is a blur of color and determination.

"It's intense," Zane said a bit before his ride. "You got to clear your mind and focus. And get pumped, like a fighter. You've got to take the fight to the bull."

Zane, who grew up on a cattle farm near Staunton, rode his first bull when he was 12 years old.

"My mind was racing I was completely scatterbrained. I was sweating a lot," Zane said. "I don't know what makes you do it the first time, but you just nod your head and then — boom! — you're gone. I don't know what makes you nod your head, but you do."

The second time he rode he was knocked unconscious.

"I landed right on my temple," Zane said. "And got knocked out cold."

That was the first — and last — time that his mother watched him ride.

"She covers her eyes now," he said. "I still feel like this could really put me in the hospital. You have that in the back of your mind.

"But I don't really think about it. What helps you get through it is you think about all the fun with your friends and all the girls you get after."

But Zane wasn't introduced to bull riding by watching it on cable television and dreaming of girls.

His father, Leon, did a bit of bull riding himself when he was younger. Between rides, Zane performs as clown named "Scooter" with his 8-year-old brother Zeb, "Spud," and a miniature bull named Peanut. This is an affair for the whole family.

"It's a great way for the family to do something together," Leon Armentrout said. "And I tell you, it's more exciting than soccer or basketball."

Zane has ridden thousands of bulls since. He has won bounties and awards ranging from ribbons to belt buckles the size of his brother Zeb's head to cash prizes.

Competing isn't cheap, or easy.

"You can probably stick $1,500 to $2,000 into an outfit that's pretty nice," Leon Armentrout said. Standard gear includes a helmet, protective vest made of thick leather and padded with foam, and chaps.

Before a ride, Zane spends about 20 minutes stretching out. He makes sure to stay fit between rides.

"Bull riders need to stay light or there'll be too much pressure on your arm that's holding on to the bull," Zane explained. "About 145 to 160 pounds is a good weight for a bull rider."

Zane has a purple-and-green bruise about the size of a cantaloupe on his thigh. He has never broken a bone, but he's come close several times.

Still, he is quick to say what the most difficult part is.

"It's the mental," he said without hesitation. "To climb over that chute on top of a 2,000 pound animal that doesn't care what you do, or what you have, or about anything. Just get over there and tie your hand on. That's the hardest part."

The way Zane sees it, riding bulls isn't just about being foolhardy enough to get on a bull.

"It's more about physical (preparedness) than just being crazy," he said.

Zane prepares for races with the help of his dad, who is an encyclopedia of bull riding.

"Bull riding came from ranchers," Leon Armentrout said. "They were basically daring each other, 'Hey, I got a bull I bet you can't ride.'

"It's all about practice, knowing what you're doing, and confidence. I teach the 12 second rule. If you want to make it to eight seconds, you should count to 12 because it's like being on a tornado, you can't really keep track."

Zane has made it to the coveted eight second mark "a bunch of times," has competed in the national bull riding finals in New Mexico, and won several competitions.

But he sounds like a kid who just does it for the thrill. And the girls.

"A lot of my classmates they play basketball or soccer and stuff," Zane said. "Well, I can ride bulls. I feel pretty cool walking into a class as the only bull rider in the entire school. It kind of sets you apart."