Rodeo Star Gary Leffew on the Mental Ride

“Anything I’ve ever achieved, I wasn’t any good at it when I first started,” says Gary Leffew, one of the most famous bull riders in the world whose Bull Riding School has turned out more than a dozen World Champions.

And what Leffew has achieved is quite a lot. Aside from sculpting young athletes into unstoppable powerhouses, his own credits include everything from 24 trips to the Winner’s Circle at elite rodeos and training Luke Perry for his role in 8 Seconds, to a stint writing for HBO’s Deadwood and a working partnership with Johnny Knoxville on MTV’s famed series Jackass. And let us not forget his standing as Gold Buckle World Champion Bull Rider (1970) and a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

“Without knowing how the human mind works, you’re a victim of what people say to you and what you’re saying to yourself,” Leffew explains. “It’s kind of who you become. We all end up so far short of our potential because of how we've been molded.” So, integral to the holistic approach of The Garry Leffew Bull Riding School is the instruction on how to break free from debilitating mental thought patterns.

Raised in central coastal California, Leffew didn’t get on a bull until 19-years-old. “All I’d dreamt about was riding motorcycles, but my dad said, ‘A motorcycle is the most dangerous thing in the world — ride bulls, it’s safer!' The adrenaline rush he got after his first ride was enough to hook him. “I said, 'I don’t care if [the bulls] drags me through hell three times, I’m going to learn to do this.'”

His rodeo career shot off with a start, quickly surpassing each goal he set for himself, eventually ending up 10th in the world by 1966. Suddenly his career took a nosedive in 1967, when he experienced a six month stretch of being unable to stay atop a bull. Shocked and stunned, Leffew turned to a friend who recommended a book by Maxwell Maltz called Psyco-cybernetics. “It changed my life! This book started my journey into the mental side of riding bulls and taught me  — and a lot of other negative bull riders — that riding is really a mental game. "

It was at this point that Leffew began meditating and “riding bulls every day in [his] mind.” “I got in that ‘feeling spot,’ experiencing what it was like to ride and win over and over again,” he says. “By the time I got on my first bull [after the six month slump], I had the best ride of my career, and then went three months without getting thrown off.” 

The Gary Leffew Bull Riding School debuted shortly after this breakthrough, in 1969. “We turned heads around,” he laughs, referencing the straight arm technique his school teaches versus the older style of lift and reach. “But we started turning out champions at every level.” 

Amid drills, cross training and stretching, everyone at Leffew’s school partakes in daily mediation to encourage a lower level of consciousness for riders. He references researcher Anna Wise and the four types of brain-waves: beta, alpha, theta and delta. Wise studied these patterns in animals as compared to humans, and based on her studies, Leffew believes that the best partnership comes when both animal and human are operating from the subconscious and unconscious mind — i.e., the theta and delta brain-waves, or a state of near-enlightenment, which is only sometimes achieved by true zenmasters and yogis.

“The goal is to dance with [the bull],” Leffew says. “When you’re dancing, you become one with the person you’re with. As you move, you move in one unit. That’s the way bull riding is when you get down on theta and delta. You’re so mentally in tune with them, you go there together — and it’s a euphoric experience. The rankest bulls I ever rode in my career were always the easiest rides.”

“That’s why we meditate every day because I want [the students] to get down to that level,” explains Leffew of his school's curriculum. Together students and coaches work hard to, as he puts it, re-hardwire the subconscious mind for a more calm, positive outcome. “It’s really fun to start working with a kid, make a change in his mechanics and mental attitude, and see him succeed."

“If you're willing to suffer through the temporary set backs, there's nothing you can’t achieve," he says. "When you're constantly dreaming about fun things, good things show up in your life.”


Gary Leffew offers 3-day, 4-day and intensive bull riding workshops. Learn more at Hotman Rodeo Gear.