Rodeo always has an element of unpredictability and danger and there’s nowhere that’s more evident that in bull riding.
Typically the event kicks off with a sense of nervous anticipation, accompanied by pulse-quickening hard rock like AC/DC and an excited announcer asking spectators, “Are you ready for some bull riding?”
The chute opens and everyone holds their breath for eight seconds, wondering if the rider can hang on.
Dennis Halstead is not there for those eight seconds. He’s there for what happens next.
With his makeup and trademark yellow shoes, Halstead is easily singled out as a rodeo clown, one of those responsible for protecting a dismounting or downed rider.
“It’s my job to make sure that a cowboy’s safe in the arena,” he said. “With my barrel, it’s to make sure that barrel’s in a position so if the cowboy or bullfighter’s in trouble, they can get behind the barrel and I take the hit.”
Halstead has taken hits. Over the 20 years of his career, the Canadian rodeo clown has had a multitude of near misses, including one memorable instance where a bull’s horn came within a breath of his face.
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Even within the safety of his padded barrel, being hit is like, “being thrown in a dryer, turn the dryer on and then throw it down a flight of stairs,” he says.
Halstead himself has a long list of battle wounds, including enough broken bones and head injuries that he can’t list them off hand.
“That’s the nature of my business,” he said. “They estimate it’s like being hit by a small truck doing 25-30 miles an hour.”
Clown versus bullfighter
There are two key players when it comes to keeping riders safe after they’re off the animal’s back.
There’s the beloved rodeo clown and the bullfighter, who sports a cowboy hat and cleats, rather than makeup.
A bullfighter will actively draw the bull away after the rider is thrown or dismounts, relying on the rodeo clown, or barrelman, to distract the bull if necessary.
Lyle Sankey, founder of the Sankey Rodeo School based in Missouri, trains both.
“The term ‘rodeo clown’ used to encompass a lot of things,” he said. “It’s kind of morphed now and divided into (these) two groups.”
“When you use the term bullfighter, that’s the guy who does the cowboy protection — draws the bull away from a fallen rider and also freestyle bullfighting,” he said, referencing the one-on-one match-up between fighter and bull that has become a form of crowd entertainment and a sport in its own right.
Bullfighting is by far the more popular of the two options at his school, he said, and those looking for clown training get a taste of the barrel at select locations with a separate coach for humour.
The entertainment aspect makes Halstead’s job a strange contrast, switching between his sometimes life-and-death role and lighthearted clowning.
“Here this weekend I get to blow myself up in an outhouse,” he said during this year’s Ag Ex in Brandon. “I get to ride a motorbike through a wall of fire. Of course that’s all the fun stuff, and then, of course, the serious job is the bull riding.”
Preparing for the job
Sankey’s courses are all three-day clinics, regardless of whether the student is drawn to bullfighting or life as a rodeo clown. For many, that turns into a string of camps that makes up their only formal education. A bullfighter or clown might take a course, return home, get more field experience, and then return to Sankey’s school for another round.
“We deal with the fundamentals, give them the right foundation, the right start, and then students who have more experience or are more advanced, we work with them on what they’re able to work on at that point in time,” Sankey said.
The Manitoba High School Rodeo Association follows a similar model.
Few of their competitors want to become rodeo clowns, but bullfighting has drawn some interest, said Art Cochrane, national director for the MHSRA.
Kelly Millward, a past president of the association and former professional bullfighter, has helped spearhead efforts to train those athletes. Millward has put on formal training clinics for the last three years, but taught individually at rodeos for years before.
“We have a bull riding school going at the same time as the bullfighting school, so you’ve got a bunch of young guys learning to ride bulls and you’ve got a bunch of young guys trying to learn how to fight bulls,” he said. “When you do that, we just go in and you explain what to look for when the cowboy’s thrown off, how to move and how to get away from the bull and stuff like that. Lots of this stuff is experience. You can tell them all you want, but until you’re standing in front of a bull and figure it out, it’s a little different.”
Brandon local Scott Byrne is another name in the loose network of bullfighting education as well as being a local legend as one of the men to help the sport stand on its own, not tied with its rodeo clown origins.
Most of the training programs weren’t in place back when Halstead first started taking an interest.
He first started down his road when he was a Calgary firefighter and Calgary Police and Calgary Fire had an annual charity rodeo.
“They had a big-name rodeo clown scheduled and he backed out a week before,” Halstead said.
Having grown up around rodeo, Halstead volunteered to fill in.
It was the start of a career that would eventually see him named among the top five rodeo clowns, become a four-time Canadian Professional Rodeo Association entertainer of the year and make multiple appearances at the Canadian Finals Rodeo, RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo and other high-profile events. He spends as much as 10 months of every year on the road, performing as many as 140 times annually.
A sport of their own
Rodeo protection is still the bread and butter of many professional bullfighters, but the activity is increasingly emerging as a stand-alone sport, one looking to be on par with bull riding in terms of risk and spectator appeal.
Today, freestyle bullfighting has its own competitions. There is no rider to protect, just the competitor, a bull, and up to 60 seconds of close-quarters action. The fighting bulls used are not as heavy, but are heavily muscled in the shoulder with prominent horns. Competitors are graded on their daring, their willingness to risk themselves and ability to stay as close to the bull as possible while the clock runs.
It has turned bullfighting into a quick-fire, almost dance-like series of dodges, daredevil stunts (up to and including selfies as the bull barrels in from behind) and aerial flips as competitors up the stakes.
Much like bull riding, the sport has become a high-stakes enterprise with thousands of dollars sometimes on the line.
Until recently, Daryl Thiessen of Elm Creek was among those competitive bullfighters. Coming up through Manitoba’s Heartland Rodeo Association and Manitoba Rodeo Cowboy’s Association as a bull rider, Thiessen switched his focus at 19 years old.
“I wasn’t doing very good at riding and I was always pretty good at athletics, track and field and hockey and stuff like that, so I figured, ‘Get a pair of cleats and a cowboy hat,’ and away I went,” he said.
Like Halstead, Thiessen did not start with formal training. For the first year, he shadowed more experienced fighters, circulating through amateur rodeos and building up a name so he could sign on with higher-profile events.
Three years after making the switch, he went pro.
“Things really took off from there,” he said, pointing to an eventual appearance at the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association finals in Montana.
He went to the U.S. in 2012 and was active there until he retired this past August.
In individual competition, Thiessen consistently finished in the top 10 of some of the highest-profile bullfighting competitions in North America. Twice, he competed in the Bullfighters Only championship in Las Vegas, among the richest freestyle bullfighting competitions on the continent, as the sole Canadian competitor.
“(Rodeo) is a high-end sport and there’s lots of money that you make and you have to treat it like a professional sport and treat it like you’re an athlete,” he said. “For the young kids coming up, they’ve got to be serious about it. It’s no joke.”
Thiessen is now retired at 27, a move he made at least partly to avoid adding to his already-impressive injury list.
Halstead, meanwhile, is still very much active at over 57 years old.
“I’m living the dream,” he said with a grin this October, already in the countdown for the Manitoba Finals Rodeo in Brandon that evening.
In a matter of hours, the barrel will be out, the yellow shoes would be on and the chute ready to open.
And the rodeo clown would go to work.