BY NAOMI INMAN
On a warm summer day in 2003, John Houston set four-year-old Justin Houston astride a small red calf. Little legs, barely the diameter of a baseball bat, clung to the bovine frame.
Soft dusty hands held the braided rope of grass and leather. His bright eyes and confident but cautious smile gave his dad the go-ahead.
Ready to ride.
Even that first bumpy ride around the field in sleepy Coquille, Oregon, made Justin’s dad a half pint proud. “From the first time he got on, he just put his head down and went forward,” says Houston. “All I’ve ever had to do is give him the tools. He’s the one who’s always had it in his heart to do this, so I won’t take any of the credit.”
Pretty impossible though. Justin always tips his hat to Houston. “My dad started me out at four years old and I’ve loved it ever since. He’s taught me everything I know: more than I can ever thank him.”
Twice the Fun on Double Dose
An explosion of double-digit G-forces on a bull named Double Dose lifts 18-year-old Justin Houston two body lengths above the Albany fairground arena. It’s stop number four on the Coastal Farm & Ranch Challenge of Champion’s Tour (CCT or The Tour).
Justin’s magenta shirt sleeve and free hand wave in rhythmic and controlled action as Double Dose delivers a full rotation to the left before an abrupt pivot clockwise, lifting and extending his hind legs in an attempt to free the flank rope.
Each time Double Dose’s forelegs hit the ground, his hips swing a 120-degree arc, legs punching the air above the arena in a formidable flick toward the stands. His own hips flexing and centered, Justin maintains close contact with the bull through the qualifying eight-second ride.
Suddenly, the bull touches his horns to the ground, reversing his spin in a counter-clockwise twist. It does the trick. The eight second horn sounds. And Justin, still in the air, pulls the rope’s tail to release his grip, using the bull’s momentum to dismount the off side. He lands chest-first on the earthen floor before scrambling to get distance from the bull.
Two bull fighters give Justin an attaboy hug and slap. In moments, Justin’s score — the first qualifying ride of tonight’s Tour — pops up on the screen: 90 points. A fine score to win both the night, and Justin’s first-ever back-to-back win on The Tour. At the close of the rodeo, Justin steps into a ring of fire to win the Albany buckle.
Three Generations and Counting
Among the most dangerous organized sports there is, half of all rodeo injuries occur in bull riding. One in 15 rodeo bull rides ends in injury. It’s no secret that bull riding isn’t for the faint of heart. Not the faint hearted boy. Or dad. Or mom. “My mom does get nervous, but she knows that I love the sport and she’s behind me 100 percent,” Justin says confidently.
His confidence is deeply rooted in family. At least three generations of rodeo mastery undergird every split-second reaction hardwired into Justin’s 145-pound frame. His dad was a bull rider. His mom Stacy Houston, his uncles, Mike Houston and Sam Storts, grandmother Melody Storts, and grandfathers Jerry Storts and Chum Summers — all competitive rodeo athletes in riding, racing, and roping.
Baby sister, eight-year-old Harley Houston, has won several buckles and saddles in barrel and flag racing. Older brother, Brayden Houston, was a state champion high school team roper.
Unlike the abundance of athletes in less-terrifying sports, up and coming bull riders are few and far between. Justin is the only bull rider in Coos County (that he knows of). The decision to ride bulls competitively is often made well before age 10, with family support and an uncanny combination of bravery, common sense, and rigorous athletic training.
By his Freshman year of high school Justin dropped all other sports: football, wrestling, and track. “I knew that I wanted to put my heart into bull riding,” he quips. His daily training involves three full hours of weight training, cardio, balance training, barrel practice, and bareback riding; punctuated with weekly bull riding sessions with good friend, Dawson Branton.
And then there’s the mental game.
“I try to stay calm, relaxed, and focused,” Justin explains. “Over the years, I’ve had to experiment with my attitude… and learned the happy medium between calm and confident. And believing in myself — that there’s not a bull that can buck me off.”
His worst ride ever? Last September he was crunched in Condon, Oregon, when he got hung-up on the bull. “He stepped on my chest and my head, knocking me out and puncturing my lungs,” he recalls quite matter-of-fact.
For three months he pushed through to a full recovery and achieved his goal of starting The Tour by January. His goal now? He’s aiming for the top three standings for the CCT Finals. He aims to reach the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas (NFR) and compete at Professional Bull Riders (PBR).
A Humble and Promising Future
CCT founder Jason Mattox (a retired champion bull rider), says Justin has all the makings of a future buckle at PBR and NFR. “Justin’s the one to beat and you’re gonna hear his name a lot,” he vaunts, just moments before the rodeo. “He’s a great asset to our tour. He lives, eats, and breathes bull riding. He’s a role model to younger kids. We’re looking forward to the future of that kid.”
Dad, John Houston, echoes Mattox. “Justin’s strongest character trait is the humbleness in him,” says Houston. “No matter how good he does, he always goes back to square one, to learn more and show kindness to all the kids and everyone around him.”
Minutes before entering the Albany arena, Oregon Family Farmer found Justin outside the bullpens. He’d just drawn his poker chip to match him with Double Dose, the bull he’d had his eye on. He flashes a shy grin when I comment on the champion buckle he earned on Duck Butter in Hermiston one week earlier. In characteristic humility, he turned the spotlight back to CCT founder Jason Mattox, who has mentored many young bull riders on the Tour.
“I’m here because Jason’s had a huge influence on my career,” said Justin, “more than I can thank him.”