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Bullfighters

Erick Schwindt protects a cowboy
Erick Schwindt protects a cowboy

The monster thrashes as he tries to rid himself of Jack Reisenauer. The huge muscular rodeo bull grunts, snorts and bellows as a constant stream of snot and spittle gushes from his mouth and nose. He whirls toward Jack but can’t quite reach him yet. He plans to murder him in just a few seconds.

Jack would really like to get away from El Diablo, but he can’t – the bull rider’s left hand is stuck in the rigging and every violent swing the bull makes causes the snag to tighten. The slight young cowboy is in real danger and he is helpless. His legs drag ruts in the soft dirt then fly out horizontal as he is jerked along and whipsawed. The Sedro-Woolley rodeo crowd is strangely quiet for a few seconds. They seem to have stopped breathing.
 
Bullfighter Josh Canode, dressed in a comical, brightly-colored outfit with large, baggy trunks and wearing track shoes, steps directly in front of the bull, then quickly around to the other side, causing El Diablo to lose his focus on Jack and stop his motion while he figures out how to deal with Josh. That little distraction gives Jack enough time to free himself and sprint back toward the safety of the bucking gates where he can climb away from harm. El Diablo turns his fury on Josh, who makes a show of toying with the powerful animal to the delight of the raucous crowd. The bullfighter zigs and zags but the enormous bull fails to negotiate Josh’s tight turns and remains a step out of sync. In a move that looks like magic, Josh turns his back on the charging bull and grabs its horns to soften the force as the animal pitches him eight feet into the air. He grins and giggles, lands on his feet and evades El Diablo again while the pickup men shoo the bull into the exit chute. Next rider up.
 
Years ago they called them Rodeo Clowns, but that term is now correctly used for the comedians who don greasepaint and tell silly jokes through wireless headsets over the PA system to keep the crowd warm between events. Nowadays they call them Cowboy Protectors, or more commonly, Bullfighters. It is their job to protect the fallen, or stuck, bullrider from the enraged, well-armed and capable killer. They don’t tell jokes.
 
Yes, bulls WILL kill you and every rancher knows it. Handling such animals is a skill and those who don’t know how had best stay well away. Rodeo bulls are especially ornery as that characteristic is bred into them. Their job, their destiny and their evolution make them powerful fighting machines. Back in the sixties bullriders were more evenly matched and maybe one in every two or three made the buzzer at a rodeo. Scores mattered then and the cowboy with the high score took home the prize money.
 
Those days are gone. Today maybe one rider in ten or fifteen lasts the eight seconds and that lucky guy takes the prize since he is the only one. Most rodeos have no completed rides at all. These days almost everybody who can competently ride a bull is in the PBR and the rest have almost no chance against the highly-bred and trained rodeo stars they find raging in the narrow bucking chute. The bulls have more experience and confidence than the cowboys. They win almost every time. Gold Buckle Rodeo brought a 14-year old bull to Port Angeles and nobody lasted more than two hops. A great bull knows his job and he is good at it.
 
Of course, bullfighters don’t really fight the bulls at all. A friend once suggested that they ought to call them "Bull Attention Getters" or "Bull Dodgers." They do all that and more, but they do it with a purpose – to save lives. A bull ride is a terrible thing to experience (they tell me) and I know from events in my own life that striking the ground suddenly and unexpectedly will cause most people, no matter how athletic, to lose focus for a few seconds.
 
"Get up! Get up! Get up!" yells the bullfighter to the dazed rider. "Run off!" Then he does what nobody should ever be asked to do: he puts himself into the shrinking gap between the angry bovine and the stunned cowboy rolling in the dirt. He makes himself the object of interest and draws the huge animal away. Cowboy protection services.
 
I talk with Erick Schwindt and Maurice Reed, the bullfighters working for the stock contractor at the Port Angeles Rodeo. They are both quiet, soft spoken and thoughtful men. Erick tells me he has been doing this job for ten years, Mo has been at it for four. They are not brash, but neither are they matter-of-fact. They have a keen sense of saving lives. They are quite clear that their own are in jeopardy.
 
"Have you ever been injured?" I ask. "Oh, yeah. Broke bones, dislocated shoulder, scrapes, all that." Mo hesitates a moment, then tells me "Last year a bull got the better of me. Got me down and whacked my head real good with his horn. Everybody thought I was gone. But you know, compared to getting up on the back of one, I still like my chances better on the ground."
 
All rodeo performers are athletes, but no one outshines the bullfighters for gymnastic ability. Their moves are dancers’ moves, Jackie Chan moves. They use quickness, agility and a deep understanding of bovine psychology to gain a mastery over their powerful adversary. Bulls are not stupid, and they can run quite fast and jump very high. They are massive, though, and the martial arts moves of a skilled bullfighter are hard for them to match. But one small mistake and the bull brings his mass, power and speed to bear with potentially devastating results.
 
As we chat, the stable of dangerous rodeo bulls is resting just across the low fence. They kneel placidly, chewing their cud and looking like nothing more than harmless farm animals. They make cow noises and manure piles. But later…
 
If you want to see artistic photos of bullfighters, bull riders, bronc riders and all the other amazing athletes in rodeo, then check my Facebook page at Facebook.com/BiffleFrenchPhotography. You can see all my rodeo photos from the whole year on my website www.BiffleFrench.com.