I spent two days in the bleachers with the parents, grandparents, and siblings of high school rodeo contestants in Salmon, Idaho. The snack bar served beef, but no beer.
Both days ended with bull riding. The contestants were high school students, but the rodeo clowns, or bullfighters, were the real deal. Big time fighter-clowns, the ones on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, are celebrities. Flint Rasmussen has been immortalized in plastic. The fighter-clowns at Salmon’s high school rodeo might never reach those dizzying heights, but they were pros.
Some fighter-clowns entertain the crowds between bulls. Flint tells jokes and dances. Those at my first rodeo, in Preston, MN, provided bathroom humor. My aunt, who’d brought me to the rodeo, didn’t approve. Decades later, she didn’t approve of my line dancing class; it was “too worldly.”
Salmon’s high school bull riders wore headgear and padded vests. Some pro riders wear brain buckets, too. I couldn’t see what kind of protection the fighter-clowns wore under their baggy clothes, but I could see that only cowboy hats protected their noggins. They weren't shod with matching cowboy boots at the other end: they wore cleated shoes for traction.
Cleated shoes suggest the need to dodge feedback from the crowd, but that wasn’t the case. Salmon's fighter-clowns were the non-entertaining variety. The real job of these rodeo professionals is protecting the cowboys from the bulls. Here’s an example of how they do that, from the Salmon high school rodeo.
This cowboy looks good out of the chute. The fighter-clown in red and black is watching from the right.
Then the rider starts to tip.
He's too far forward now.
A bull rider's nightmare: his hand is hung up. Riders stay on by wedging one hand under their rope, which is wrapped around the bull. If a rider comes off frontwards, their hand can get caught. Red-and-black is putting his cleats to the arena sand.
Both clowns are there to free the rider and distract the bull from attacking him.
Red-and-black fighter-clown jumps over the bull; his hands hit where the rider's hand was trapped. The second fighter-clown, in blue, is nearly hidden behind the bull. The rider hits the ground with his hand still attached to his arm.
Red-and-black slips on landing; Blue sprints to distract the bull from the fallen fighter-clown. The rider gets up and out of the way so the fighter-clowns don't have to protect him, too.
The bull kicks off the rope as the two mounted pickup riders move in with their ropes. Pickup riders can get close enough to bucking horses for bronc riders to grab on for a graceful exit, but this doesn't work with bulls. Bulls charge horses. In bull riding, pickup riders can only watch the drama and then escort the bull out of the arena.