It takes one tough and dedicated hombre to be a rodeo clown.
Entertaining an audience is only a secondary task to the rodeo clown; the primary job is to protect the fallen cowboy from an enraged bull weighing 800 pounds (more or less).
Records of rodeo clowning go back as far as 1889, but no one seems to know for sure exactly when this clown came into being. All that is known for certain is that bull riding became part of the rodeo routine as a bet and a test of cowboy courage, and with the bull riding event came the need for the rodeo clown. (Somebody had to protect the fallen cowboy and tobe smarter and faster than the bull.)
In the beginning, and even when I attended rodeos as a child, the rodeo clown was a "one man does it all type of clown". Today, there are four categories of rodeo clowning; Barrelmen, Bullfighters (Cowboy Protectors), Funnymen, and the Freestyle Bullfighter. Funnymen and Barrelmen are lumped into the same group by some rodeo clowns, but according to my expert authority (Rodeo clown Joe "Tex" Roberts) they are two types of clown with two separate purposes.
The Funnyman often uses a barrel for protection and sometimes not. He is there mostly to entertain the audience; to provide humor, tell jokes, and get the audience involved while the bull is in the ring.
The Barrelman's sole purpose is bull distraction. Let's face it, we'd all rather see that poor clown in the barrel bounced about the ring by a raging bull than the unprotected cowboy who got the bull mad in the first place! (The picture at far left is my internet friend Rodeo clown Festus Alcock.)
The Bullfighters are are also there solely to protect the cowboy (but they manage to entertain us too, don't they?) But the Bullfighter takes the biggest risk. He's the crazy clown who is on foot, rushing the bull, and getting the fallen cowboy out of danger. (usually putting himself in danger in the process). I have read that one rodeo clown, Scooter Culbertson, has reportedly suffered, in the course of a 23+ year career, 24 broken bones, three concussions, a dislocated jaw, internal injuries, and a torn-off ear. And I'm sure that other rodeo clowns can make similar claims. The clown in this picture is a bullfighter.
The Freestyle Bullfighter is an actual competing rodeo clowns, with clowns and bulls each earning points based on how they perform.
Freestyle bullfighting is a true battle between man and beast. One of my sources says that the first Wrangler Jeans ProRodeo Bullfight Tour was held in 1980 formalizing the bullfights and stunts the clowns were performing at that time. According to the original rules, the clown fighter had to remain in the arena with the bull for at least 40 seconds to gain points. (An additional 30 seconds was optional.) Points were awarded for the way a fighter moved around the bull, how well he controlled the action in the ring, how close the bull came to him, and how many risks he took during the fight. The fighter was given the option of ending the fight at any time by throwing his hat in the ring.
Today, according to one of my sources, clowns and bulls are in the arena for 60 to 70 seconds and the clown is allowed to use a barrel. Each can earn a total of 50 points, based on timing, performance (of both clown and bull), closeness of the clown to the bull, and for putting on a good show.
Rodeo clowns who have contributed greatly to the profession include the wonderful Quail Dobbs, who retired in 1998, "Kajun" Kid, Leon Coffee, and Sparky Sparkman.
I Don't know about you, pardner, but my hat's off to these guys. Remember the cardinal rule of the rodeo clown; it's not will they get hurt, but rather when, how often, and how bad.
Just as there are schools for circus clowns, there are schools for rodeo clowns. Check my links page for rodeo clown sites, some of which mention these schools
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