Their funny, painted faces and baggy britches belie the seriousness of their missions. The rodeo bullfighters and barrelmen, often referred to as clowns, are in the arena to save the bull riders after they come off the backs of the big animals with their menacing horns and they often put their own lives on the line.
The bullfighters work on the ground, near the action, and the minute the cowboy comes off the back of the bull, they move in to distract the bull long enough for the rider to get out of the way. Often, the rider is on his knees scrambling or he is running toward to barrel in order to get behind it and use it as protection. The bullfighters, in the meantime, are luring the bull’s attention away from the cowboy and toward themselves.
They are as dedicated as paramedics and other service individuals who risk their lives trying to save others. And they are athletes. They work out and stay in training in order to outrun the bulls and out-maneuver them.
The barrelman in the arena is often a retired bullfighter who no longer feels his reflexes and timing are good enough to be in front of the bulls. He still wants to stay in the business so he works in the barrel. He will pick it up and walk to move the barrel closer to the action so that the cowboy can get to it if he needs it for protection. His job is also dangerous as there have been times when a bull got a horn into the barrel and hooked the barrelman, who occasionally requires hospitalization.
The only difference between Justin Rumford and a stand-up comedian is that he’s doing his job from the middle of a rodeo arena instead of a stage with a spotlight. Rumford, who lives in Ponca City, Okla., is a rodeo clown at events from coast to coast. His job during the rodeo is twofold. He provides the laughs and banters with the announcer. But during the bull riding his more dangerous job begins. Rumford is a barrelman: the cowboy who works the barrel, providing an oasis of safety for bullfighters and bull riders, in case an angry bull decides to chase them.
Rumford grew up in a rodeo family and competed in junior high, high school and college rodeo. He was a full-time steer wrestler but then blew out his knee. While he recovered, he worked as an assistant rodeo coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. After his knee healed, he helped with the Cody (Wyo.) Night Rodeo for three seasons then began as a livestock truck driver for North Platte’s stock contractor, Bennie Beutler of Beutler and Son Rodeo. He never considered being a full-time rodeo clown, but after a few tries as a clown, he changed his mind. “I worked the Pretty Prairie (Kan.) bull riding, and they gave me a good check And I thought, why the heck am I working so hard for not much a week when I can make more than that in a night? So I jumped ship for the clown life.”
And lucky for rodeo fans, Rumford is still clowning and winning honors at it. He has been honored as the PRCA’s Clown of the Year eight times (2012-2019), he is a 3x Coors Man in the Can award winner, and he was selected to work the prestigious National Finals Rodeo in 2014. “I don’t know if I deserve all I have been awarded, but I’m fortunate to accept it. It’s unbelievable!” After working the NFR, he partnered with Boyd Gaming to host a live viewing party at The Orleans Hotel and Casino during the Finals every night.
In September of 2013, he and his wife Ashley became the parents of triplets, daughters Livi and Lola, and a son, Bandy. “I have a 38-foot trailer,” he said, “and I can bring the whole family with me."
Jimmy Lee was born and raised in Lowake, Texas, and spent his childhood in a farming and ranching environment. After high school he went to college and attended firefighting school.
It was there that he developed a passion for helping people caught up in dire situations. He says, “As fulfilling as firefighting was, it kept me away from the cowboy culture I was born and raised in.” Jimmy found his way back to the cowboy life and in the sport of rodeo as a bull rider in his mid-twenties. His career in bull riding was short-lived but routed him back to his passion. By developing his art and athleticism as a bullfighter, the 34-year-old Lee is able to attain both of his goals: helping people and staying close to the cowboy culture through the sport of rodeo. In three short years he has accomplished a lot in his event in both the PRCA and the Professional Bull Riders Association.
Zach Devol -Bullfighter
Zach Devol from Elbert, Colorado is 24 years old and started out as a competitor, entering both roughstock and timed events in the NLBRA. He went on to rodeo for Otero Junior College and found instead that his niche was face to face with the bovine athletes and went on to Miles Hare and Rob Smets bullfighting school. "Riding bulls so long, I could read certain situations and know where the bull's going or the cowboy's going, so I think that made it a lot easier for me."
He qualified for the CPRA finals in 2013 and has worked the finals for the last 4 years. Another big step in Zach's bullfighting career is working the PRCA rodeos and he's in the process of being evaluated to get his card. Every bullfighter, their end goal is to fight at the NFR.