The role of the rodeo clown in professional events has changed to focus on entertainment while protecting the bull rider is now the task of the American bullfighter.
There is much debate between historians on when the first rodeo actually occurred. Cowboys of old often competed against each other for bragging rights about who was the best bronc or bull rider; who could rope a calf or pull down a steer faster. Spectators began gathering around the corrals to watch and towns in the frontier began to have yearly events. When the events became more organized and spectators started paying; the need for entertainment was inevitable. People grew restless and bored between competitions. Thus the rodeo clown was born.
Probably the first rodeo clowns were cowboys telling jokes to the crowd; however, they evolved to painting their faces, wearing baggy pants and colorful shirts, and adding props such as trained ponies or dogs. The purpose of their job was to entertain the crowd between competitions. They bantered with the announcers and cowboys and usually had well practiced routines.
The Job of the Rodeo Clown Evolved to Bullfighting
The rodeo clowns’ job soon included protecting the bull riders from possible injuries by making themselves the targets for the charging bulls once the rider was either thrown or jumped off after a successful eight second ride. The rodeo clowns used barrels to help protect themselves and became adept at using the barrels as props for their entertainment routines; showing their athletic abilities by diving into the barrels. Those who did most of the “barrel skills” in a clowning team were referred to as barrelmen. Clowns and barrelmen further proved their athleticism by dancing around the bulls and at times leaping the bull’s head inches away from the dangerous horns in order to distract the bull from a downed rider. The focus was always to position themselves between the rider and the bull.
The evolution of the rodeo clown continued and though there are still clowns and barrelmen who perform for the audience; in professional events, the bull riders are protected by what are now referred to as bullfighters. The bullfighters are not there to provide entertainment; their primary purpose is to protect the cowboys riding the bulls. They make themselves targets, get the attention of the bull, and are usually the first to help a cowboy hung up in the bull rope.
Attire of the Bullfighter
The bullfighters do not wear face paint and though their clothes are loose, it is not baggy like that of the clown or barrelman. They wear loose-fitting jerseys and shorts, which allows for maximum movement; and also makes a bigger target for the bull as bullfighter Frank Newsom so eloquently put it, “The bull might think he’s got you, when he’s just got your shorts.” A vest worn under the outer clothing, features hard plastic outer shells on the front and back and features break-away construction in the event of a hooking. The bullfighter also wears foam padded garments underneath the outer layer to keep their muscles warn and loose and to provide extra protection.
Bullfighters and Rodeo Clowns are Professional Athletes
The profession has become specialized to the point that there are now schools for rodeo clowning and bullfighting. However, most of the current bullfighters started young as did their predecessors, and learned the art from mentors. These men are agile and quick and have a keen sense of what the bulls are going to do. Much like the fire fighter or policeman, the bullfighter must be willing to jump into a situation that may end his life. He is there to protect and serve the cowboy.
Dickies is the official sponsor of the bullfighters in the Professional Bull Riders Association (PBR) events. Elite bullfighters have years of experience and are trusted beyond measure by the cowboys they protect. Each year, the top 40 bull riders on the PBR tour vote for the bullfighters they want protecting them on tour and in the year-end finals in Las Vegas. Currently the PBR Dickie team includes 20 year veteran Joe Baumgartner, 16-year-veteran Frank Newsom, 10-year-veteran Shorty Gorham, and 15-year-veteran Darrell Diefenbach.
In any sport injury is a possibility; but perhaps even more so when facing a rampaging 1200 pound bull. Pat Atherton, retired rodeo clown repeats what he was told by the old-timers, “When working with livestock it isn’t a question of if you get hurt; it’s a question of how severe the injury. You always want to do what you can to reduce the severity of the injury.” Good advice for the dare-devils who put their lives on the line for the bull rider.
- Woerner, Gail Hughbanks. Fearless Funnymen The History of The Rodeo Clown. Eakin Press: Austin, Tx. 1993.
- Sheffield, Tommy. Best Supporting Actors Rodeo Clowns. Wildhorse Press: Walnut Springs, Tx. 2007