"We'll need to see proof."
I was enrolling in Harper's World Championship Rodeo School. It was a three-day, $200 course in Iowa, La., a few miles east of Lake Charles. This seemed a perfectly logical way for me to do some original research. Rodeo clowns risk their lives and limbs to keep bulls off fallen bullriders or simply to entertain the crowds, but I knew so little about them that when a colleague of mine, while watching her first rodeo, asked, "What's with the guy in the barrel?" I hadn't a clue.
All I knew about the guy in the barrel was that he told corny jokes. And, like a hermit crab, he could pick up the barrel and walk around while still inside it. What was the barrelman's raison d'être? What did it feel like inside a barrel being attacked by a bull? Surely even I could withstand that. How dangerous could it be?
I was not without rodeo credentials. When I was young and fearless, I entered several rodeos in Wyoming. Twice I was bucked off horses after the briefest of stays, and twice I was a rider in one of rodeo's crazier spectacles, a wild-horse race. But bulls are a different kettle of fish. A horse, even a wild one, will hurt a cowboy only by accident, out of panic, and will do everything it can to avoid a fallen rider. Bulls, however, love to injure cowboys, and at 1,500 to 2,000 pounds they are amply endowed to do so. They will stomp on riders and hook them with their horns. And bulls are surprisingly fast and agile.
About the only thing a bull likes to abuse more than a fallen cowboy is a fleeing bullfighter. I had no intention of auditioning for that role. But the man in the can—I could play that part to perfection.
That was my thinking, anyway. The first morning of rodeo school I counted eight other bullfighting students, 40 bullriding students, three bullfighting instructors, 60 bulls—and no barrels. Where were they hiding the barrels? I surveyed with envy the protective gear of my fellow bullfighters, who ranged in age from 14 to 22. Two or three were wearing what looked like flak jackets, the sort used by NFL quarterbacks. Several wore protective cups. One had hip pads. I had brought nothing but sweatpants and borrowed soccer cleats. It had never occurred to me that this school was BYOB—bring your own barrel.
"Every one of these bulls can outrun you and catch you," one of the instructors told us. "But every one will take a fake. Make it a good one. That's a lot of hamburger coming behind you."
These words were spoken by either Ronny or Donny Sparks, the identical twins from Texarkana, Texas, who taught our bullfighting course. Ronny was the 1992 and '93 Wrangler World Champion Bullfighter. Donny has been runner-up three times. Tall, thin and 30, these two have the easy grins and mild manners of normal cowboys. Nothing in their demeanor suggests that turned loose in an arena with a bull, smeared with greasepaint and wearing baggy pants, the Sparks twins are certifiably insane.
That became increasingly clear as we watched films of the Sparkses performing in competitions. Rodeo bullfighting is completely different from Spanish bullfighting. There are no capes and swords. The rodeo clown stands in the middle of the arena, a bull is released from its chute, and for 70 seconds the bullfighter plays a game of chicken with the bull. He taunts the beast into charging. He dodges and scurries for his very life, the closer to the bull the better. He runs in tight little circles, just ahead of the bull's menacing horns. The only defense the clown has is a lone barrel in the center of the arena, an island of protection behind which he can hide when he needs a rest. As soon as he does so, the bull usually attacks the barrel, sending it tumbling into the panting bullfighter. Then the chase resumes.
It's great theater, and for the past 15 years or so bullfights of this sort have been scored by judges. The more risks a clown takes, the higher his marks. The Sparks brothers are best known for jumping over bulls, literally hurdling the beasts as they charge. "A lot of guys can fight bulls better than me," says Ronny. "But no one can jump them better." It is an act of pure madness, and an imperfect science at best. Once, in Pasadena, Texas, a bull lifted its head while Donny was in midhurdle—the definitive compromising position—hooking him by his baggies. They tore off clean as a whistle and hung, rose-colored, from the bull's horn. Ronny has broken his back twice, his tailbone twice, and a collarbone, a shoulder, a wrist, several ribs and an ankle once each. Donny has had a cheekbone broken, his teeth knocked out and his left shoulder reconstructed. The brothers don't even count fractured fingers and toes.