Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

words: Andreas Rottenschlager
photography: Jim Krantz

You can be a hero regardless of how ridiculous you look. Bullfighters in absurd costumes stop fallen rodeo riders being killed by charging bulls

Josh Daries’ transformation begins on a sunday morning in a stifling trailer on the edge of the rodeo in Clovis, California.

Daries is 26 years old, slim, and has aquamarine eyes. He slips on a jockstrap and wraps bandages around his wrists. He then ties a body protector made of hard plastic onto his upper body and, with both arms fully outstretched, rotates them to check that it’s on properly. This first part of his transformation is the normal part. 

Josh Daries

Daries works as a bullfighter at up to 50 rodeos a year. The make-up is part of the sport’s history. It harks back to a time when bullfighters entertained the crowd as rodeo clowns

For part two, Daries climbs into a pair of washed-out jean shorts. They are three sizes too big for him – XXL – and the ends are frayed. Then he fishes an orange batik shirt covered in dabs of russet pink watercolour paint out of his trunk and buttons it up over his body protector. All that’s needed now to finish the job is some make-up. Daries draws purple circles under his eyes and onto his chin which he colours in using white finger paint. He takes a selfie with his iPhone to assess the results… Perfect. The transformation is complete. Daries is a gladiator in a clown outfit. His working day starts an hour from now.

Daries, a former bull rider, is a bullfighter and a bodyguard for rodeo cowboys. When a bull bucks its rider off, Daries offers himself up as a more enticing target, giving the cowboy time to get to safety. When it all goes according to the script, at least.

If things don’t go to plan, the cowboy either gets caught up in the retaining straps and gets dragged along by a 900kg bull or he’s lying unconscious on the floor, in which case a second bullfighter has to distract the bull while Daries hurls himself at the cowboy to protect him, hoping that he doesn’t get trampled to death himself in the process.

“If the bull catches you with its hoof, it can break your ribs”

Bullfighters are the quiet heroes of any rodeo, colourfully dressed men in huge trousers risking their lives to save cowboys. The reason bullfighters still wear outlandish outfits today is because their predecessors, the rodeo clowns, used to entertain spectators with gags back in the early 20th century. “It’s part of our history,” says Daries as he clambers down out of his trailer in his painted shirt and white make-up.

In the arena

Bullfighter Josh Daries at the rodeo in Clovis, California: “If you’re not scared, you’re crazy”

Daries arrived in Clovis, a farming town at the foot of Sierra Nevada, a four-hour drive north of Los Angeles, two days earlier in his Dodge pickup truck. This town of 100,000 people is rodeo mad. Competitions have been held here for more than 100 years. A cowboy adorns the Clovis official seal.

With 20 minutes to go till the rodeo begins, Daries is standing by the side entrance to the arena and stretching his adductor muscles. “Quick legs are my life insurance,” he explains. Daries has to charge at the bull’s rear at an acute angle so that the huge animal will have to turn round before it can take up pursuit. Centimetres here make all the difference. “If it catches you with its hoof, it can knock you out or break your ribs,” Daries reveals. In 1989, rodeo rider Lane Frost died after a bull attacked. The broken ribs he suffered had severed an artery.

Daries has been lucky so far: two knee operations and various dislocated joints. Two years ago, a bull slammed its left horn into his chin. Daries was dazed and could barely stand – but he soldiered on. Five minutes to go. Daries gets down on one knee and prays. “God, protect me, my colleagues, the rodeo riders and all the animals in the arena.” 

Bullfighters are the quiet heroes of any rodeo

There are three bullfighters today. Daries’ colleagues are wearing canary blue and tulip pink. It is the final of the main event: bull riding. The Clovis rodeo is 150m by 40m and the longer sides are flanked by steel stands. There are 7,000 spectators here and pop music is blasting out of the loudhailers.

At the bull rodeo, riders have to stay on the bucking animals for eight seconds with only one hand on the reins. The judges give scores based on how elegantly the riders ride and how wild the bull is. The Clovis Rodeo forms part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association series, and there’s $300,000 in prize money up for grabs this weekend.

On the rodeo ground, Daries and his colleagues have begun dealing with the riders at a rate of knots. The man in the tulip-pink shirt dashes around between snorting bulls. The bullfighter in canary blue drags cowboys out of the danger zone. For the riders, the danger is over in eight seconds. But for Daries there are another 19 riders to go. The sweat ruins his make-up.

For the riders, the danger is over in eight seconds. But for Daries there are another 19 riders to go.

A bull called Crystal Deal provides the most spectacular throw of the afternoon. It bucks and stomps hard on the ground. The cowboy holds on tight, but it’s no use: he goes flying off the beast’s back after 4.2 seconds. His colourful bodyguards are on hand immediately. Canary man gets the rider upright. The cowboy totters into the safety of the enclosure.

The rodeo winner goes on to receive a cheque for $5,696. But what about the bullfighters? “Not as much as it should be considering the risk,” says Daries. His reward is no one getting injured. Occasionally a cowboy buys him a beer.

Two hours after the rodeo, Daries is back at his Dodge, freshly showered and wearing a neatly pressed denim shirt. He has transformed himself back into the person he was before. And what has three years of life-threatening work wearing clown costumes taught him? 

“You can’t tell how brave a man is by what he’s wearing.”

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