Succession, PBR Style: Riley Gagnon Filling Gigantic Boots as PBR’s Second Director of Livestock
By: Andrew Giangola Wednesday, August 2, 2023 @ 3:19 PM
PUEBLO, Colo. – The launch of PBR Teams in July 2022 thrust the sport into a new era, bringing even more competitive drama and excitement, a host of changes large and small and a critical changing of the guard.
For nearly three decades, one man had been selecting the bulls who dictate each ride. Then in 2022, legendary bull picker Cody Lambert announced he’d be leaving the role of PBR Director of Livestock to become head coach of the Texas Rattlers.
His successor would step into giant boots many people couldn’t imagine anyone filling. Lambert chose Riley Gagnon, a relatively unknown Canadian bull rider.
A year later, with a second successful PBR Teams event at Cheyenne Frontier Days in the books, the report card is in. If Gagnon were a bull, Lambert would probably score him a 45.
“Riley has done an outstanding job,” Lambert said. “The bulls in PBR have never been better. That was really important to me. I didn’t want the PBR to miss a beat.”
With the sport embarking on its biggest change in three decades in adopting team competition, Gagnon faced challenges foreign to the Lambert era.
He’d be the human face of the pen drawn for each team’s five riders across a 112-game regular season, and those teams would be closely scrutinizing the fairness and consistency of the bull matchups at the heart of the sport.
A level playing field – read, a level bull pen – is absolutely essential for fair team competition.
That means the chief bull picker needs to factor in a bull’s bucking style as much as whether he’s an 88-point bull or a 90-point bull.
For example, two bulls might each be deemed an 89 pointer but could be completely different. One could be “soft” – a flashy, fun bull to ride with great timing. The other bull might be worth the same 89 points, but he’s tricky and sneaky, with no rhythm or predictable patterns, and is not a good match for most riders.
Gagnon has to ensure the bull power and level of difficulty is spread evenly across the team draws.
Though he was only 22 when stepping onto the dirt at Cheyenne a year ago as PBR’s head of livestock for the first games, Gagnon already had years of experience watching and raising bulls.
He bought his first rodeo cows to breed for bucking bulls when he was 12, with earnings from riding steers.
He’d purchase others over the years, raising them on his family’s ranch in Innisfail, Alberta, about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, where his mom and dad had cattle.
Gagnon’s mother raced barrels, and as he got older, he started riding bulls, though seemingly spending more time healing from broken bones and surgeries than competing.
Lambert first met the promising young rider at a riding academy held on his ranch in Bowie, Texas: A place where Gagnon would live on and off beginning when he was 15. At his second camp, Gagnon got hurt again.
“He was getting better and better at bull riding. But his body just wouldn’t hold up,” Lambert said.
All the time, Gagnon had a keen interest in the bulls he loved since he was a kid.
“Even up in Canada when I was younger, the older guys would ask me about stock. I’d remember them really good,” he said.
“I found a love for it when I was young. I was very passionate about it. It kind of felt like my calling. There would be bulls on tour, and I’d see ‘em once and remember them.”
Lambert was always looking at video, and Gagnon would help with that.
“Not in a million years, did I imagine I’d have that job,” he said.
That began to change when Gagnon was driving with Lambert to a Velocity tour event in Denver in 2019. Over lunch at a Cracker Barrel, Lambert asked if he’d ever be interested in his role.
“I said it would be a dream job,” Gagnon replied.
Lambert explained that for five years, he’d been looking for his replacement. Did Gagnon really want to be the guy? Would he be all in?
It was like sitting on the rankest bull with the gate about to open. Gagnon nodded his head.
Lambert told him to focus on riding bulls for now, not picking them. But he knew he found his man.
He’d send Gagnon videos of bulls and ask what he thought. The two spent more time together.
“There was a lot to learn,” Lambert said. “I knew Riley well enough that I knew he’d always do the honorable thing. And in this role, that’s really important. You’re going to have to deal with the stock contractors over and over, and the one who didn’t have good enough bulls this week might one day have the best bulls. Sometimes the guy who’s the nicest one of them all won’t have the best bulls available. And one day he may.”
Gagnon soaked in everything Lambert had to share about the bull business.
He also adopted a bit of Lambert’s direct, no-nonsense personality, which didn’t always go over well with the stock contractors, who can be a tough crowd.
But with time, he’s found his own authentic style, more Riley Gagnon than Cody Lambert, earning the bull handlers’ respect.
Listening to Lambert, Gagnon came to realize the bull business is both very simple (get the best available bulls) and very hard (deciding which bull has to stay home and breaking that news to the stock contractor.)
Today, as the sport has grown, the lines for determining which bulls don’t go to the big show are even finer.
“There was a time Cody had to go out and search for bulls,” Gagnon said. “He built it up where so many people wanted to be a part of what he and PBR made. The market got flooded by bucking bulls. You have to find a reason to take one and find a reason not to take one. Having to explain yourself is tough. You want to put the best product in front of the fans.”
Another thing Lambert put in his ear was the huge responsibility ahead.
“The riders and the bulls are what PBR is,” Gagnon said. “You gotta care about it. There are many different sides of the PBR. Without the bulls and riders, none of us have a job. It’s a big role but one that also gives me the feeling of riding bulls. The thing I miss about riding is when you’ve stayed on, you did your job. This gives me that satisfaction.”
And at the same time, because no night is 100 percent perfect across every out, Gagnon is never fully satisfied.
“There are always misfires, that bull you leave at home who you wish you brought,” he said. “That is what keeps me up at night – turning away a bull, and the one I chose over him doesn’t work out. That’s always very frustrating.”
That level of introspection and commitment is one of the things Lambert liked in Gagnon.
“He’s a young guy, but he’s kind of an old soul,” Lambert said. “He wants to do things the right way.”
The livestock director’s goal – put the best product on the dirt – hasn’t changed from when 20 cowboys broke away from the rodeo 30 years ago to form PBR, and one of them, Lambert, started choosing their bulls.
Just as Lambert was intensely driven to do his part to orchestrate the best on-the-dirt competition, Gagnon tries to take something away from each event to make the next one even better.
As he does that, one change in the role is that with the advent of teams, in order for PBR to stay as independent as possible, all the bulls now come through ABBI, the world’s leading DNA registry for bucking cattle.
“We are fortunate to have Riley as our natural first choice for this extremely important role following an intensive mentorship under the tutelage of Cody Lambert, teaching him every aspect of the job,” said Jay Daugherty, President, ABBI. “It’s gratifying seeing Riley carry the torch to ensure our sport matches the top bull riders against the world’s very best bucking bulls.”
Riley Lambert, PBR’s VP of Competition and Judging, echoes Daugherty’s sentiment about a surprisingly smooth transition.
“Riley is the only person for the job,” Lambert said. “He has proven this with his productivity and work ethic, taking the job and running with it at the highest level. I’m grateful to have him on the PBR and ABBI team.”
Following Lambert’s marathon run, Gagnon is often asked about what it’s like to fill those big boots of his legendary predecessor.
“Cody Lambert will never be replaced,” he said. “But if I can do half the job he did, I think we’ll be alright.”