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Cowboy Protection Teams: More than just a clown in a barrel

July 10, 2021 GMT

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — If you ask a bull rider who their best friend is in the arena, there’s a good chance they will say it’s the rodeo protection team.

With their brightly colored clothes and painted faces, these guys are anything but clowns. The rodeo protection team are often the first and last line of defense when it comes to a cowboy’s safety, especially that of bull riders.

The job of rodeo protection teams began in the 1900s with rodeo clowns. Rodeo promoters hired cowboys to dress as clowns to entertain audience members in between competitions.

As rodeos began to incorporate aggressive Brahma bulls in the 1920s, promoters needed people to distract the bulls and protect riders. The position eventually transformed into the rodeo protection team that we see on arena floors today.

As the position and skills of the trade developed, so did its title from rodeo clown to the now more commonly used terms “bullfighter” or “rodeo protection athlete.”

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The primary job of the rodeo protection team is to protect a fallen rider from a bull by distracting the animal and providing an alternative target for the bull to attack. These distractions allow the rider to get to safety on their own or with the help from others.

At some rodeos, the bullfighters are one aspect of the event, protecting the riders from the bulls, while the barrelman provides humor and comedy for the crowd.

“The rodeo clown is the sole entertainer for the rodeo. He keeps the crowd involved and he’s the barrelman. The bullfighter’s job is strictly to protect the bull rider and the bull during the 8-second ride,” explained Chuck Swisher, a rodeo protection athlete. “It doesn’t really intermingle that much anymore. You’ll see us help the rodeo clown with his act or something, but for the most part, we have our job and they have their job.”

While members of the rodeo protection team don’t don clown attire, some still paint their faces and wear bright, loose clothing.

Getting on the back of a bull for an 8-second ride is crazy. However, it seems crazier to get in front of one. But for Swisher, being a bullfighter seemed a lot less scary than being a bull rider.

Swisher became interested in the sport of American Bullfighting when he was around 14 or 15-years old after learning that his own dad rode bulls at one time.

“He did it before I was born and retired. I came across a photo of him or something and I thought I should ride bulls,” Swisher said. “So I found this photo and I thought ‘I want to be a cowboy like my dad’.”

With a newfound passion for rodeo, Swisher ditched his Vans and skateboard and picked up a pair of cowboy boots and a hat and headed for the bull riding ring.

“My parents got me all the stuff to ride a bull, but when it came down to it, I was too scared,” he said, laughing. “I was way too scared to even get on one.”

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Swisher was then inspired to look into the bullfighting aspect of rodeo after talking with a senior at his high school.

Swisher attended a bullfighting school that taught him the basics of the sport and what to do and what not to do.

“It’s funny because when I first started fighting bulls, the first time I got run over my mom started crying because she was so nervous,” Swisher said. “And my dad, he was standing right next to her laughing.”

He then began working junior high and high school rodeos, perfecting his craft and honing his skills.

“It was cool because I worked the same level of rodeos as my age. So when I was in middle school I worked middle school rodeos, and then high school and then college,” Swisher said. “Then when I was 21 I got my PRCA card.”

The bullfighter honed his skills by seeking out practice pens and other means.

“Where I am from, everybody has a bucking bull and a bucking chute in their backyard,” he explained. “Then we made this thing called a bullfighting dummy that looked similar to a wheelbarrow with a bull’s head on the front and we’d chase each around with it, forever it seemed like.”

Swisher has been fighting bulls for 15 years now. If you attended any of the rodeo events at the Greeley Stampede there’s a good chance you saw the guy in action.

The bulls used in bull riding are completely different than the bulls used in American Bullfighting events.

“You’ll see us throughout this week fight a Mexican fighting bull,” Swisher said. “The bucking bulls are bred to buck while the fighting bulls are bred to be mean and fight.”

Mexican fighting bulls are smaller and faster than bucking bulls and they are extremely smart.

“The Mexican fighting bulls become so smart so fast,” Swisher said. “It’s crazy because the first time you fight them, it’s like playing with a kid because that kid doesn’t know a lot. But then, that kid grows up and practices.

“It’s like that bull is out in the pasture with his buddies watching films of us, so the next time you fight them, he knows everything I’m going to do,” he added.

Two of the fiercest bulls Swisher said he’s faced over his career have been The Spaniard, which he has fought twice, and What’s Up.

“What’s Up had one horn that was like 3 or 4 foot long and I was a young kid and for some reason he was the only bull I knew,” Swisher said. “Once I got there I thought ‘if I can draw anything but him, I will be fine.’ And sure enough, when they opened the gate all I saw was this horn poke out.”

As the sport of rodeo has continued to grow in popularity, Swisher and his fellow bullfighters stay busy crisscrossing the country going to rodeos and promoting American Bullfighting events.

When not working rodeos, Swisher helps mentor and teach the future generation of American Bullfighters and protection team members through his rodeo camp, Riding on Faith.