CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Circa) — In the split seconds between when a rider is bucked off the bull to when he can safely sprint to the scaffolding a bullfighter's job is the difference between a man who escapes with a few bruises and death.
The Invisible MVP's
Bull riding, the most popular of the seven events in traditional rodeo, including the country's biggest rodeo nicknamed the "Granddaddy of them all," Cheyenne Frontier Days. Thanks to the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) organization bull riding was able to break away from the confines of the rodeo format to become a standalone sport. PBR is one of the fastest-growing properties in the history of sports with some riders turning into national celebrities with appearances on shows like Jimmy Fallon, Colbert, and Ellen.
Even some of the bulls themselves have been memorialized with statues in their honor at some of the most iconic rodeo stadiums in the country.
But there's a group of athletes who often go unmentioned. Athletes who are so crucial to the sport that without their involvement, bull riding couldn't exist.
Risking their Lives to Keep Riders Safe and Audiences Entertained
Bullfighting is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They're responsible for keeping angry bulls from harming bull riders, some of whom become disoriented or injured after a ride.
“Man, it’s just basically the secret service, man,” said bullfighter Cody Webster. “When somebody’s there to take a bullet, it’s us.”
Webster, 26, was the youngest bullfighter at the 2018 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo working alongside the top two bullfighters in the world, Dusty Tuckness and Cody Sosebee.
Webster may be young, but he's been protecting the world's top riders since 2013 and is considered one of the top bullfighters on the PBR roster.
“My job is basically to protect the bull rider at all costs,” said Webster.
After bulls buck off their riders, bullfighters have split-seconds to intervene and distract the bull just long enough for the rider to make it out of the danger zone.
Clad in his tattered denim overalls, cowboy hat and face paint, said his whole career is predicated on the safety of the bull riders.
“Sometimes it can be as simple as moving in and getting into that bull’s comfort zone, his bubble,” said Webster. “Then there’s times where we literally have to throw our body in harm’s way and take the shot for the guy.”
A Matter of Life and Death
"I think I’m going to be at about 160 performances this year," said Webster. "That’s a lot, and I’ve sure felt it this year. My body is getting tired and beat up, so when we get done (in Vegas), I’m going to go home and get a bunch of cow work and just kind of relax, heal up and get ready for the new year.
Despite all the preparation and training, though, Webster said injuries are inevitable.
“You know, if you do your job any correct at all, you're gonna get bumps, you're gonna get bruises, you're gonna get sore, beat up,” said Webster. “I've had to have my ankle completely rebuilt, had a bunch of injuries, both my shoulders got stuff torn in them, both my knees are tore up, but overall, you know, I'm still held together pretty good and just blessed to keep doing what I get to do.”
Webster is trained to put his body between the bull and the rider, or use techniques such as running off at an angle, throwing a hat, or shouting, so that the injured rider can exit the ring.
“We don’t have a coach that gets up every morning that says ‘You got to do this work out. Here’s the time you got to do this work out in,’” said Webster. “I mean there’s some days we got to work out in the parking lot just to get a workout in.”
When a rider has been hung up, bullfighters face the extremely dangerous task of trying to free the rider, with one team member going to the bull's head and the other attempting to release the rider.
Send in the Clowns
Much like bullfighters, rodeo clowns serve to distract bulls away from fallen riders, albeit in a less hands-on way. Professional rodeo clown Cody Sosebee said he plays to his strengths, not those of his colleagues.
“[Bullfighters] could go to CrossFit games—they’re in that good of shape. And they’re not very funny,” said Sosebee. “I want people to know I’m the clown. I’m funny. I’m not in shape. Those guys are athletes, they’re bullfighters.”
Sosebee sported a giant red barrel around his torso, a bright orange wig and a clown-red nose as he waddled up and down the arena in Cheyenne. The crowd cheered every time he had to duck into the barrel as a bull charged him.
“It’s an 1,800 pound bull coming at you about 20 miles per hour hitting a stationary object,” said Sosebee. “I don’t know anyone that wants that to happen [to them], but it’s part of the job, too, at the same time.”
Webster said taking care of the riders and ensuring their safety really came down to teamwork. While Sosebee took care of the crowd through entertainment, Webster and the other bullfighters focused on keeping the bulls away from riders.
“If you don't love rodeo around where we live, you're kind of weird,” said Webster.
Not in it for the Money
Rodeo clowns and bullfighters can make between $100 and $500 per show depending on level and experience. When full time rodeo clowns work about 60 to 100 shows per year, they can plan to average about $50,000 per year. Rodeo clowns often have to pay for their own travel and usually have to pay for their own rubber-lined safety barrel.