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Posts Tagged ‘rodeo’

Photo: Dave Shafer.
Rodeo clown and “barrelman” Brandon Dunn.

When my husband worked in Minnesota, the colleague who ran manufacturing was in his free time a bull rider. He seemed impervious to danger and injury, but he was young. Eventually, he was obliged to retire.

As dangerous as bull riding is, those in the know might tell you that the role of rodeo clown is more so.

W.K. Stratton says at Texas Highways, “This was one of the rodeo axioms my mother taught me as I was growing up. … Always respect rodeo clowns: They’re the best athletes in the arena, and they save lives.

“[That] perplexed me when I was young. Clowns were the guys who strutted around dusty small-town rodeos in ragged outfits while carrying out groanworthy banter with the event announcer. Sometimes they performed tricks with dancing burros or hoop-jumping dogs. Other times, they might drive around in a tricked-up old car with an exploding muffler and a radiator that could spew water like Old Faithful.

“The athleticism of rodeo clowns was lost on me until I got older and realized their work is just as dangerous and exciting as the bull riders they’re employed to protect. Working in teams, their job is to distract an enraged bull from attacking the rider who’s just been catapulted to the dirt. The clowns working on foot — as opposed to manning a barrel — have come to be known as bullfighters. …

” ‘A human’s instinct is to run away,’ says Weston Rutkowski, of Haskell, one of the best bullfighters in the business. ‘That’s the worst thing you can do in this particular sport. A bull’s got four legs. We’ve got two. So they’re going to run you down in a straight line.

‘You have to be ready to move in the moment a rider starts to fall off. If you don’t come in until they hit the ground, you’re four steps late.’

“While their job has little in common with the matadors of Mexico and Spain who share the ‘bullfighter’ name, rodeo bullfighters must also overcome basic safety impulses. …

“Bullfighting runs in the family for Brandon Dunn, a rodeo clown from the North Texas town of Petrolia. Dunn fought bulls until injuries from a car wreck in 2003 robbed him of his speed. Now he entertains audiences as a clown and barrelman, working in tandem with his 17-year-old son, Brendall Dunn, a bullfighter. The father-son team works about 20 rodeos a year.

“ ‘It got to where I was put together by bailing wire and duct tape, and I just couldn’t fight bulls anymore,’ Dunn says. But that didn’t dissuade Brendall, who worked his first rodeo at age 12. Brandon says he has coached his son carefully.

” ‘There’s a mental maturity you have to reach, no matter how athletic you are,’ he says. ‘We would bring him up with some slower and older bulls and transition him to faster bulls. Now he’s fighting anything that comes out of the chute.’ …

“As a hotbed for rodeos, Texas has produced a prominent line of influential clowns. Ralph Fulkerson, a bull rider from Midlothian, 25 miles southwest of Dallas, changed the game when he switched to bullfighting in the 1920s. He developed a cornball humor act that involved his mule, Elko. After numerous injuries, Fulkerson came up with a way to protect himself by introducing the clown’s barrel to bull riding. His first barrels were made of wood reinforced with metal. Fulkerson would draw the bulls away from the bull riders and toward the barrel. Then he’d hop inside the barrel and allow the bull to bang away at it with its horns. …

“The sport went through a radical change in the early 1990s when [Tuff Hedeman, a four-time world champion bull rider] and other top bull riders broke away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) to form the Professional Bull Riders (PBR). The speed as well as the bucking and spinning ability of the bulls increased dramatically.

“Bullfighters have adapted accordingly. At some rodeos, the trappings of the rodeo clown have disappeared. Bullfighters’ work has become so refined that it developed into a sport itself—freestyle bullfighting, in which bullfighters show their stuff while challenging real fighting bulls. The Bullfighters Only (BFO) tour showcases their skills — no bull riders involved. … Judges score fighters on technique and wow factors, including leaps over the bull.

“The jalopy-driving rodeo clowns of my childhood in the 1960s would be dumbfounded by what occurs at BFO events. These bullfighters practice acrobatics reminiscent of the Minoans: They’ve been known to jump completely over a bull and perform flips. Though some of the participants wear clown makeup in homage to the past, freestyle bullfighting has an X Games vibe.”

See some great photos at Texas Highways, here. And if you are interested in the rodeo life, try getting a copy of the wonderful Chloé Zhao movie The Rider.

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