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Helen native teaches Northerners to ride bulls
Gowan says he can teach 'how to be a psycho for eight seconds'
Romeulo Campos, a professional bull rider from originally Brazil now living in Massachusetts, brushes his glove while his daughter, Isabella, looks on. Campos is training at Let R Buck Bull Riding School in Canaan, Conn. owned by J.W. Gowan of Helen. - photo by JUNFU HAN

Click here to see a slideshow on J.W. Gowan’s bull riding school in Connecticut, produced by Junfu Han of the Republican-American of Waterbury, Conn.

CANAAN, Conn. — Anticipation hangs in the ring, suddenly calm and quiet. That lasts just a moment, until, after a deep breath, the rider offers a slight nod. The bucking chute opens, and all hell breaks loose.

A monstrous black bull named Scotty heaves his half-ton body out of the gate and into the dirt arena, trying with all his might to buck the rider, James Wilson "J.W." Gowan, originally from Northeast Georgia.

Ten other riders watch the angry bull twist and buck.

They are taking notes.

This is the first step of learning at Let R Buck, which bills itself as New England's only bull-riding school.

A love affair between a Georgia cowboy and a Connecticut native led to this unlikely location for a cowboy classroom. In four years, Gowan has taught more than 300 people the fundamentals of bull riding, and he and his fiancee, who runs the school's business side, maintain a waiting list of 1,000 students from around the world.

Gowan's ride lasts about two seconds before the cowboy flips his left leg over and rolls off the bull. He lands on all fours and bolts as Scotty nearly kicks him as he continues to writhe, sending clumps of dirt flying. Dust coats Gowan's black T-shirt, protective vest, blue jeans and brown hair.

A 30-year professional bull rider, he is sturdy at 6-feet, 230 pounds and moves with confidence in his strength. His square-jawed face is tanned and weathered by most of his 44 years spent in the sun, aboard horses and bulls.

He was born in Gainesville and raised between Dahlonega, Cleveland and Helen before moving away in 1988. He still has family he visits in the area during the holidays, though.

Gowan lights a Marlboro Red and inhales deeply.

The bull rope, the long cord that wraps around the bull that riders hang onto, was too loose, he explains. If he continued the ride, he risked pitching over Scotty's head. Eight seconds is considered the minimum length of a competitive ride.

"You have to be smart," Gowan tells his students in the deep accent of his native Helen. "It doesn't hurt to get bucked off. If the situation isn't right, you get off and live to ride another day."

He takes another drag from his cigarette, and holds out his hand to a student. It's trembling. Touch it, Gowan tells him.

"That's the adrenaline, that's the feeling you should have when riding these animals," Gowan said. "We'll teach you how to use that adrenaline. We can't teach you how not to be afraid, but we can teach you how to be a psycho for eight seconds."

Gowan's partner and business manager, Cyndi Cappabianca, 45, grew up riding horses in Colebrook, Conn.

They met at a horse show in New York. He moved to her ranch along South Canaan Road in 2007.

Cappabianca, who owns a hair salon in Avon, appreciated his longtime dream to open a bull riding school.

He wanted to teach proper fundamentals and to foster camaraderie among a growing circuit of New England riders.

According to Gowan, when he moved to Connecticut, the same year he and Cappabianca opened Let R Buck, there were 10 regular bull riders in the Northeast. Today, there are about 150, he said.

"I love my cowboys," Gowan said. "We treat all of our students like family. We are trying to change this sport, bring back the friendly competition that it was in the old days."

Cappabianca offered her horse farm, and the couple began promoting the business nationally, through word-of-mouth and the Internet.

"There aren't many bull-riding schools in general," Cappabianca said. "When you want something bad enough, you'll travel for it."

Let R Buck has 14 current students, the youngest aged 11, Cappabianca said. Gowan will teach any age, as long as the student is in good health, willing to learn and signs a waiver.

"It's a dangerous sport. You have to have an edge when you ride," Cappabianca said. "But we're confident in what we teach, and if the rider is confident in his skills, then we don't have to worry as much."

Gowan taught himself to ride at 14 on his grandfather's Florida farm. He rode blindfolded to get a feel for the animal. It's not a technique he uses with his students, who pay $300 for a weekend or $175 for one day.

The school offers a three-weekend course designed to teach students enough skills to compete in amateur rodeos, Cappabianca said.

So for $900, students spent each weekend in two six to eight-hour sessions on Saturday and Sunday. They're taken from equipment setup, to watching, to riding. By the end of the first Saturday, most students are on the back of a bull.

During a class, Jared Jordan, 20, of Great Barrington, Mass., climbed onto a bull as Gowan talked through instructions.

"I rode a little last summer, but these guys have helped me improve fast," Jordan said. "I learned pretty quick what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. J.W. doesn't mess around when it comes to riding."

Gowan, friendly and joking outside of class, turns stern when teaching. Safety is primary. He does not let people ride if his instructions are not heeded. His words come fast and furious, like the ride itself.

"Spit on him," Gowan barks. "Now focus on that spot. Get your elbow on him. Hold your block. Pull it back toward you. Slide it and let it ride ... pump with him, pump with him ... don't forget to exhale when that chute opens."

Four seconds of frenzy, and Jordan slides off the bull.
Bull-riding is about technique, Gowan said.

The rider must understand the movement of the bull, and move his body in relation to the animal. Bucking bulls are bred from lines of cattle with a natural tendency to jump and kick when agitated.

The added weight of a rider, and a rope called a flank strap, which circles the bull in front of its hind legs and creates pressure, inspire bucking.

"It's like going to a salad bar and eating too much," Gowan said. "You want to get that belt off as fast as you can."

Outside the ring, Gowan says, his 10 bulls are docile. Each has a name — among them Iron Man, Shrek, Murder Inc. — and each has a unique personality.

"They're just like any other hoof and paw animal, just like humans, actually," Gowan said. "Just creatures of habit. If you treat them right, they'll be good to you, and a bond develops between human and bull."

But in the ring, after a rider's deep breath and a nod of his head, Scotty and the rest will do everything they can to send any rider hurtling into space.

The Times contributed to this report.