The gate of the bull chute crashed open. A wild bull burst out into the rodeo ring, its hooves pounding in the dirt. A cowboy hung onto its back with one hand, his free hand flung high. The bucking bull kicked dirt into the air, twisting, jumping and shaking. The cowboy was not trying to control the maddened beast between his legs. He was just trying to last the distance with as much style as he could muster.
The bull was spinning round to the right. Suddenly the rodeo clown darted forward. He ran in front of the bull, inches from the flashing horns. The bull saw the clown through the flurry of dust and abruptly swung back after him. The clown was too quick and the massive bull lost him.
The change of direction made the ride more difficult for the cowboy on the bull's back. But it wasn't a vicious move on the clown's part. It was part of the show. It meant more chances for the cowboy to show his style, more points for his performance, and the closer he got to winning the big money.
It was a savage grunting ballet that lasted eight seconds. At that moment, after eight seconds of physical mayhem, the timekeeper's whistle cut through the dust-laden air.
It was the moment of release – and the most dangerous time of all. The clown made another pass in front of the enraged bull. The cowboy was right-handed and wanted to get off on the right. The clown pulled the bull in the other direction so it would be moving away from the cowboy as he landed.
The cowboy waited until just after the bull kicked his hind legs high. Otherwise he would have been shot straight onto the sharp disembowelling horns. The bull's rear end dropped. The cowboy slipped his gloved hand out of the riding rope around the bull's midriff. He kicked his leg over and dropped to the ground. The rope fell with him. The rider's grip was all that had kept it in place. Thanks to the clown, he had to take only two or three steps and he was in the clear.
* * * * *
The role of the clown in the rodeo arena is to help cover the gaps. The clowns put on acts while the set-up in the arena is being changed. They keep a few impromptu acts for when things go wrong – when an animal is hurt, or the show stops when a broken gate needs repair. They help to rescue cowboys when they become tangled in the riding gear, or are thrown and injured. Their presence makes it all seem less alarming.
The wild bulls take the most nerve and skill to control. And, in the last few years, the number of bullriders entering the rodeos has rapidly increased. As a result, a new breed of clown is emerging which concentrates solely on bullfighting. These clowns are specialists. They are hired for one event only – the bullriding – and their job is twofold. They have to incite the bull to give its best performance, and they have to rescue the cowboy if he gets into trouble.
Miles Hare, from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is one of the best of the bullfighting clowns. He is young, only 24, but he is at the top of his profession.
Miles is constantly flirting with serious injury, teasing, harrying and distracting the wild rodeo bulls. And if the cowboy stumbles, Miles has to go right in there and get the bull off him. The only way he can do that is to offer himself as a target.
Although he rarely gets involved in the comedy routines of the other clowns, he is strongly aware he is an entertainer. So he has added an extra spectacle to his act. Sometimes when the moment is right, he doesn't dodge the charging bull. He heads straight for it and jumps right over its full length. He jumps the bull out of exuberance, for the excitement of it and to give the audience a thrill.
One night in Omaha City Miles spotted a big red bull with a white face hunkered in the corner. As soon as he saw it Miles knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he was going to have to jump it. The bull was heavy, 1,800 lbs maybe, with savage hooked horns too long to be safe. It was standing in a bad place too. If Miles got knocked behind it he would be trapped. The bull wasn't even charging him, which made it harder still. The jump would have to be longer and higher.
But this was it. If Miles didn't jump this one he wouldn't get another chance. So he went over to the bull and jumped.
In the end he cleared it cleanly. The bull even helped. It just waited until the last minute and fell under him. Miles was home free. He shouldn't have done it, but it worked.
These days he is not so reckless. His youthful enthusiasm has given way to a more calculated approach. Miles recognises that the bullriders depend upon him, but the crowds pay to see spectacular action and he owes them their due as well. He does not seek out bulls to jump any more, but he is always ready when the time comes. It is always a last-minute, split-second decision.
* * * * *
A young cowboy enters a small drafty hut behind the arena inside the Houston Astrodome in Texas. He carries a cardboard cup of coke and ice in his hand. Although he shuts the door behind him, the sound of 45,000 people under that vast roofed-in arena can still be heard through the thin slats.
Miles is sitting by a makeshift bench putting thick greasy clown makeup on his face. His hair is long, sticking out over his collar and ears. His beard is thick and full. His eyes are deeply set under a strong brow. He has a tough wiry body.
The cowboy asks him, "D'ya have any of that Black Velvet?"
"Sure do," Miles says, and pulls a bottle out of his case. The cowboy pours a generous measure of bourbon into the coke, then grabs a wire coat hanger and stirs the drink.
It is a tradition of the clowns' room to have a drink available. A lot of cowboys don't have anything to do except party. But Miles is always careful to keep his partying and pleasure separate from his business. He is too much aware that he doesn't get a second chance if a real mean bull heads his way.
And he is sensitive about his image. He doesn't want the general public to think he has to drink to get the guts to fight bulls. Because it isn't true. He doesn't need drink to build his confidence. Miles just ties on his shoes and gets out there.
In fact he prefers the hooking bulls, bulls with a bad disposition. He says, "I thank the Lord for mean bulls, for I wouldn't be making money without them."
The cowboy picks up his drink and heads for the door. "It's not for me," he says. "It's for a girl I've got waiting out there."
Miles brightens up noticeably. "Well, get her friend and we'll have us some fun," he says.
"You wouldn't have any trouble getting a girl."
"By the time I've finished and cleaned up, I get to all the dances late," Miles says ruefully. "All the girls are taken and I get the fat one in the corner."
* * * * *
Miles carefully tapes each hand to give it strength and support. Then he straps a steel knee brace to his right leg. It has two steel pins strapped to his upper and lower legs, with a metal joint helping to support his knee. He looks like a polio victim. He has always worn the brace in the arena since he suffered a serious knee injury some time ago.
"I've not been injured that much," Miles says. "I've broken ribs a lot, and my tailbone. I broke my shoulder last year. That's going to happen when you're thrown 12 feet in the air. If you don't land on your feet you're going to land on your head.
"I was back at work the next week but I wasn't too effective. It was a good 30 days before I felt I could do what I should be able to do. Other than that I've done pretty well."
It isn't bravado, Miles is matter-of-fact. He is much more worried about injuries that will take him out of the ring, take away his livelihood.
Only the big rodeos – and not all of them – pay a clown his full fee when he is injured. And the contestants don't get paid at all. There is always someone going around collecting for a less fortunate cowboy. It fosters a fatalistic attitude. They drive themselves on because if they don't perform, they don't get paid.
"You'll find a lot of people working hard in this business," Miles says. "If you can, you go out there and perform well because you're going to be sore anyway. People working in these rodeos have a high pain tolerance level.
"I break a finger now and then on a horn," he says. "A worse injury for me is a muscle bruise. I'd rather break a rib than bruise my legs where I do my running.
"Blood! People think: Oh my God, blood! The worst injury is where there's no blood. I've found most of the bad injuries are maybe broken necks and not so much blood. Or a rib punctured through a lung. A lot of bad injuries are blood free."
One of the cowboys who has called in for a drink says, "Me, I find it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time. The way I look at it, I'm here for a good time, not for a long time."
* * * * *
Bullriding is the most dangerous event in the rodeo. But the champions are casual about it. Don Gay from Mesquite, Texas, has been World Champion bullrider five times. "Getting stepped on by a 2,000-lb bull is rather hard on a guy," is his laconic comment.
Gay weighs only 145 lbs. He is small, only five foot seven, and has a round boyish face. Although he is 26 he still looks like a teenager. But he is tough.
Last November a bull hooked Gay under the arm. It took 70 stitches to get him back together. And he has just had a month off because he tore a groin muscle at El Paso. As Miles Hare says, it is the bloodless injuries that keep you out of work.
"I haven't been at home as long as that for as long as I can remember," Gay says, adding with typical cowboy wryness, "I could get used to that."
Bullriding is strictly a show event, not one that is part of the everyday work on a ranch. It started back in the 1880s when vaqueros rode the bulls as a daredevil spectator sport. It stayed popular, according to Gay, "not because people want to see someone get hurt, but they like to see it close."
It is dangerous, but there is money in it. Gay first became World Champion bullrider at the age of 20 in 1974. That year he earned a record amount of more than $30,000. Since then he has more then doubled his annual income, pushing it to the $62,000-dollar mark. Now 26, he has already earned well over a quarter of a million dollars.
Like all rodeo regulars, he has to work hard for it. He goes to 150 rodeos a year. That's around four a week. He often flies in just for his own event, then flies out the next day to another show.
It is a punishing schedule, but he takes it as a matter of course that if he doesn't compete often, he won't stay in top condition.
Miles Hare started young too. Born in Nebraska and raised on a horse ranch, he has been around rodeos all his life. At 13 he started fighting bulls for his father who produced rodeos. When his dad dropped out of the business Miles contracted out on his own. He joined the Professional Rodeo Circuit Association and in 1977, at the age of 22, he was the youngest clown ever selected by the riders for the National Finals Rodeo.
* * * * *
Miles pulls on a tight girdle to protect his ribs. His hands and ankles are strapped up, his knee brace is in place, and he wears spiked shoes.
The rest of his garb is a bit more clownish. His denim trousers are cut off short with long tatters, his boldly striped shirt is dirty and he wears a battered hat on his head. All that stops his instant arrest for vagrancy is his vivid clown makeup.
He goes out into the yards by the arena with a jaunty bowlegged stride, he puts his hands on his hips and looks around at the crowd packed on the terraces of the Houston Astrodome.
"Ahhhh, 50,000 people," he murmurs to himself.
He breathes in deeply. All those bodies and faces and noise, the dust rising in the air, the smell of the sweating horses and the uneasy bulls shifting in their pens – it makes him a little heady.
Every night he checks out the bulls. The rider needs to know about only one bull, but Miles has to know them all.
Every bull has its own personality. Miles looks them over as carefully as football players scout the men they play against. He looks to see how quick each bull is, how bad-tempered it is. He watches for any movement that will tell him what the bull is thinking. Bulls have a technique, a certain pattern, just as a boxer does. Some bulls go two jumps then always turn to the right. The most difficult are the bulls that have no set pattern whatever. There is no way of preparing for them. Because the bull has a mind too. The bull makes the decision which way you go and where you end up.
Sometimes Miles chats to the stock contractor about his bulls to find out what he can. But this is near the end of the rodeo and he knows most of the bulls by now. Tonight he just checks out which ones he is dealing with before he goes to see what the bullriders want him to do.
Don Gay, the current World Champion, hasn't been on a bull for a month because of his groin injury. He is going to do his best. The way he looks at it, even if he doesn't win anything it will help him to get back into shape.
"I got a bull that didn't have a real good night last time," Don tells Miles. "This bull usually goes to the right. Try and bring him round to the left instead."
This manoeuvre should make the bull work harder and get the rider more points. A spinning bull is more difficult to ride because of centrifugal force. The rider has to use his head more. It takes more effort and a higher number of physical movements to handle.
If the bull changes direction it is even harder to ride. The cowboy has to stay upright and keep his free hand high.
* * * * *
Another top rider is Doug Brown. He is a good-looking, slim and very fit veteran of the rodeo from Silverton, Oregon. Although he is 33 Brown looks much younger. It seems to be a characteristic of the top bullriders.
Brown thinks they look young because there is no outside pressure and they keep pretty much relaxed. There are no social pressures, no one puts on airs. They help each other and they are doing what they want to do.
Brown knows what it is like to be out in the real world. He was World Champion Bullrider in 1969 – more than ten years ago. Although he was making a good living, he decided to retire and open a bar/restaurant in Silverton.
He soon found out it was a different world. "I didn't realise it was so competitive," Brown says. "You're not protected by your ability to ride any more. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, people don't care about you."
He also found there was a void when he was not riding. To replace that surge of adrenalin he took up skiing and motorbike riding. But the biggest void, the friends he had made, was much harder to fill.
At 33 he knows his form has probably reached its peak. That means he is still pretty good. He can last the distance 75 to 80 percent of the time and he was rated third best money-winner last year. He is determined to continue as long as he is earning enough, which, barring serious injury, should be for some time yet.
Brown considers Miles to be one of the most capable bullfighting clowns in America. He feels pretty confident when Miles is out there.
"I'm going to let this bull try on his own," he tells Miles. "If after two jumps he goes to the right, stay back on him."
Miles nods. The directions are always the way the bullrider sees it, his left and his right.
"If he hasn't got into a spin, make a pass. Just wait two or three jumps, then help him a little if you have to," Brown says. "But if he does it by himself, you can stand back and let him go."
* * * * *
Make some effort, make some money. It's a phrase Doug Brown has off pat. He is warming up in the dusty area, behind the bull chutes, exercising his legs, back and shoulders. All the time he is building up the pressure inside him, driving himself on. He is thinking of the technique he is going to use with this particular bull. He pictures in his mind what the bull is going to do. He blocks out all personal and financial worries. They have no place here. It all comes down to eight seconds of intense physical effort so he can't let his mind off the job for an instant.
He is constantly looking for any little key that will give him an edge, that will produce the maximum rush of adrenalin.
He drives himself to the point where he starts to sweat. He prefers that. When he is hot his muscles are looser. Otherwise he knows he hasn't prepared himself enough.
It is nearly time to go. Brown climbs onto the bull chute and drops down onto the back of the bull. The bull snorts and shifts under his weight, but it is trapped by the confining walls of the chute.
Brown grips the handhold braided into the surcingle, the riding rope that goes around the bull. He wraps the rope tightly over his gloved right hand, pulling it with all his strength as tightly as it will go. The rope is all that keeps him on the bull, and his grip is all that keeps the rope in place. When he is satisfied, the rope is so tight he has to force his fingers shut around it, one by one.
He unconsciously takes a deep breath, checks in his mind that everything feels right. At that moment someone pats him on the back and says, "Bear down."
The encouraging words are enough to give him the boost he needs. It is the key he always looks for.
He is ready to go. He nods to the official. The gate crashes open and the bull leaps into the arena. After two or three jumps Brown realises he has underestimated his bull. It is going to be a harder ride than he thought. Miles doesn't have to come in and urge the bull on. It is as mad as hell and going strong.
The bull spins to the right. Then it jolts back on its tracks, spinning the other way.
React, react, react, all the time. Every second, every jump. It is not conscious thought any more. It is instinctive reaction stemming from years of work.
The bull's front end is very narrow and it kicks its back legs high. There is a strong force pushing Brown over the bull's head. Brown hustles his feet, especially the left. That gets him more points.
Make some effort, make some money. React, react, react. Hustle the feet and keep the free hand high.
The bull heaves his flanks, kicks and twists in the air. His little red eyes glare wickedly through the dust.
The timekeeper's hooter blasts out the eight seconds.
Then Brown makes his mistake. He tries to get off too soon. The bull's narrow front end drops. Brown is forced over its head. A horn hooks him behind the knee and flips him over.
He hits the ground right in front of the bull. It can't help but see him. There is no doubt the bull is coming for him.
Miles isn't there. He stayed out of the way because that was what Brown wanted. But when Brown gets into trouble it takes a little time for Miles to get back there.
Brown sprawls in the dirt. He gathers his limbs together, keeping his eyes open. A flashing hoof drops right in front of his head. The bull is going to step on him. Brown hugs his face in his arms.
The bull turns back round, trying to get on top of him.
Miles doesn't have time to be nervous. He tries to get the bull's attention. At last he gets its head up. He fakes a run to the side and takes the bull with him.
Miles can't outrun the bull in a straight line. He turns it, spurs on more power, and gets the bull to throw all its weight onto one side. Once it is committed, Miles reverses back. He is quicker than the bull. He cuts around it in the other direction.
He works hard, but was it enough? Miles looks back at Brown anxiously. Brown just looks up and shakes his head. The bull has missed him. He is OK. He scrambles to his feet and walks away.
Miles is relieved. As far as he is concerned, he gets out of that tricky situation smelling like a rose.
* * * * *
Don Gay's bull takes a lot of work too, but it is a straightforward run. Everything goes according to plan.
The bull comes out cleanly and, bucking furiously, swings to the right. For Gay it is a hot ride. After a few seconds Miles makes his move. He goes in, takes the bull's attention and turns it back.
Gay is pleased. Because of Miles the bull makes a lot of turns, a lot of moves. That means more points.
Gay is left-handed, so when the hooter goes, Miles brings the bull back round to the right again. Gay grabs the tail and makes a clean get-off. After a couple of steps he is out of trouble and in the clear.
The tension isn't over yet for him. He looks up at the scoreboard, waiting for his score to flash up.
When it comes he is disappointed. He gets 70 points, making his total 140 out of 200 for his two rides. Normally Gay is always in the top 12, but tonight he doesn't think that score is high enough. The finals are a couple of days off and there are still some rounds to go. Until they are done they won't know who has made the top 12 scores.
Brown has done a little better, scoring a total of 145 points. It may be enough.
Brown has a cold beer and relaxes. He is flying to Florida the next day for another rodeo. He will have to fly back the day after if he makes the finals.
Miles has already disappeared. The event is over and he wants to get to the dance early tonight.
* * * * *
Sunday night, the night of the finals. Thousands of Texans crowd the terraces of the Houston Astrodome. Almost all of them – men, women and children – wear fashionable cowboy boots and stetsons.
Don Gay has missed the finals by two points. Doug Brown has earned a place but an injured knee has put him out of action.
The bulls stamp irritably in the chutes. They have saved the meanest bulls, the toughest fighting bulls, for the finals.
Tonight Miles isn't planning to jump. He never does. He has to take care of the cowboys so he has to take care of himself. But if things look good he might have a jump – if he gets as near as he needs to be.
It is a good show. The largest, toughest bull of all gets a big buildup. He is huge, he must weigh more than 2,000 lbs. He looks mean, with big hunched shoulders, a green-brown colour and bloodshot eyes. His rider lasts barely two jumps before he is thrown.
A cowboy with a broken shoulder tries to win some money but he is thrown as well. He falls in a heap and stretcher bearers carry him off.
A cowboy falls and gets kicked by a bull. When Miles moves in the bull jumps sideways and kicks Miles in the kidneys. It hurts him, but not too much. The cowboy is clear and can walk away.
Then Miles gets his chance to jump a bull.
It is a Brahma-Angus cross. It looks so easy. It comes at him clockwise at a 45 degree angle which is just what Miles likes. He cuts it off and jumps.
When it is a clean jump there is nothing to it. The bull's horns don't even touch Miles' backside as he goes over.
Miles lands on his feet and scampers off, his arms in the air. The crowd roars with delight. The bull lumbers towards the gate, confused by the sudden disappearance of its target.
Suddenly it is over. People start streaming for the exits as soon as the bullriding finishes. Few wait to hear the results. They are not interested. The injured have been carried off and there is no more action.
For the cowboys too it is over. A few stand around in the bowels of the Astrodome, yarning and sipping cold beer. Most of them have already packed up and left, including Miles. He is already heading for tonight's party. The last thing he wants to think of is the next rodeo, hundreds of miles away in some other city.
Otago Daily Times
, New Zealand, 1979