Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rodeo Clown: A Black Man's Odyssey through the American West

Shawn Hayes is an anomaly. In the white-bread world of professional rodeo—an activity as American as Mom and Marlboro cigarettes—he is a stocky African-American athlete with shoulder-length braids, who came to the sport directly from the inner-city, without ever being a cowboy or spending time around livestock. And now he has one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Shawn is a professional rodeo clown—one of those guys you see running around the arena to distract a bull after it has thrown a rider, encouraging the raging beast to chase him instead of stomping or goring the cowboy.

When he’s in the bullring, Shawn dresses in gaudy shirts, baggy pants, and a floppy cowboy hat, and he often has clown makeup smeared on his face, drawing laughs from the audience between events. But the humor ends the instant the bull explodes from the chute with a cowboy clinging desperately to its back. It is a deadly serious business, and any misstep can result in death or serious injury for a bull rider or the clowns who protect him. 

Being a rodeo clown is a highly physical, extremely dangerous occupation, and it only becomes more so as Shawn ages—he is now in his fifties. He is still in great demand for his services at rodeos and bull-riding events across the West and is well paid, but the stresses and strains and injuries of more than two decades in this punishing line of work are taking their toll. Every time he signs up to work another rodeo; every time he steps into the bull-ring and waits for the gate to fly open and a 2,000-pound bull to come bursting out, charging and bucking, he has to ask himself: How much longer can I keep this up? How many more times can I put everything on the line like this? He has some tough decisions to make. He's staring hard at the end of his career—the only work he's done in his entire adult life. At this point, he's taking it one rodeo at a time, just trying to make it to the end of another season.

Shawn loves the world of the rodeo and bull riding and his essential role in the whole spectacle. You could say he’s one of the great enablers. None of this could happen without people like Shawn, willing to place himself in the way of a charging bull to distract it away from a rider. But he knows he’s starting to slow: not something anyone watching him would notice, but something he senses inside. Each morning when he gets up, he feels the throbbing aches of the thousand times he’s been slammed into by a bull or knocked down or tossed in the air or stomped by hooves. But what else can he do? Shawn’s entire self-image and identity are wrapped up in his life as a rodeo clown. He’s proud of what he does. He’s well liked and respected—appreciated for his skills, abilities, and raw courage. Everyone knows him and loves him. But will they still be there if he walks away from the bullring? What will it be like for him to go from being a top professional rodeo clown to a middle-aged black man without a college degree, and without any skills or job experience outside the rodeo arena?

Everything Shawn does is tied up with his career in the rodeo or directly supported by it. His other great love is falconry—training birds of prey to hunt with him. The money he earns through rodeo, and the seasonal nature of the work, enables him to lead a falconer’s dream life in the off-season. He spends months each fall and winter traveling across the West with his two trained falcons in the back of his truck, in search of grouse, ducks, and other prey for them to hunt. And as a falconer, he has few equals. He is a connoisseur in the sport, who flies only the finest birds, trained to perfection to hunt the most challenging quarries in North America. If he had to turn to a conventional 9-to-5 job to earn money, his falconry would be over.

                                                                                                                                           Rachel Dickinson

Birth of a Rodeo Clown

Shawn was completely unaware of rodeo when he moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, in his late teens, more than thirty years ago, and met a family who were at least two generations into the sport.

“My friend Garrett and his brother and father were all bull riders,” he told me. “I used to go hunting and fishing with them. And then one day Garrett showed me these videos of him in the national rodeo finals in Colorado. I saw these two guys running around the ring dressed up like clowns, going right up to the bulls.” Shawn was stunned. “What is that?” he asked, and they told him they were rodeo clowns. “I want to do that,” he said. “No, I don’t think you really want to do that,” said Garret’s mother, laughing.

But Shawn was determined to give it a try, first informally, jumping into the ring with young bulls and basically playing tag with them, then at amateur events for high-school-age rodeo riders, then county and state fair events, and finally the pro-rodeo circuit.

 Super Bulls

At bull riding’s highest level, the bulls, the riders, and the clowns are all superb athletes—professionals in every way, trained and experienced in one of the world’s most dangerous sporting activities. Indeed, a concurrent evolution has taken place among all three. Stock contractors have worked for decades to breed super bulls—tireless, strong, aggressive, and born to buck—and then enhanced their skills using dummy cowboys that the trainer can release with a remote control unit whenever the bull makes a spectacular buck. The rodeo bulls of today are nothing like they were in the past, even as recently as twenty years ago, and it takes a special kind of rider and clown to work with them.

The best of them, like Shawn, are born athletes who could have become professionals in football, basketball, or baseball if the course of their lives had gone that way. They have a level of innate athletic ability far above that of most other people, and they expand on it, training endlessly, lifting weights, and attending bull-riding or rodeo clown schools put on by top figures in rodeo.

Shawn credits his natural athletic ability for his success in a field with few African-American participants. He grew up with basketball legend Reggie Miller, who still holds the NBA record for the most career three-pointers, and played team sports with him in grade school and high school. They are still close friends. But Shawn spent the last couple of years of high school playing football exclusively, which fit his stocky body type better than basketball. He was always agile and light on his feet, which transferred well to the rodeo arena, despite the fact that he had never touched a bull or spent any time with livestock before jumping into the bullring. Shawn improved his abilities by training with professional rodeo clowns, who endorsed him to the rodeo committees and stock contractors who hire staff for rodeos and bull-riding events.

Ride 'em Cowboy!

Bull riding can be almost ballet-like at times—the smooth arc of the animal’s back as it bucks high, twists, and lurches trying to throw the rider from its back; the cowboy flowing gracefully with the bull’s every movement, one hand held high above him. Bull riders have told me how at times they feel so in sync with a bull, time seems to slow down, and they become hyper-aware of everything around them—the color of the clown’s polka-dot shirt, the rough texture of the bull’s hide, the thrilled look on a woman’s face in the audience, in slow motion and magnified—and they seem to know intuitively each movement the bull will make. The eight-second ride seems to last for hours, and they don’t want it to end, they feel so fully in the moment. Experiencing this kind of peak performance is what keeps many bull riders coming back to the bullring, again and again and again. But other rides are as far removed as possible from this image, with the rider clinging helplessly to the raging brute’s back, desperately praying to be saved from this hell, and this is when they need the help of a good rodeo clown most.

When everything goes well in a bull ride, the animal bursts from the chute at the side of the arena and begins bucking immediately, trying to throw the rider off its back. Generally two rodeo clowns will already be in the arena when the chute opens, trying to draw the attention of the bull, getting it to move toward them into the center of the ring where there’s less danger of the bull (or a thrown cowboy) smashing into the surrounding fence, which can be deadly.

The clowns always avoid having a bull “line out” on them—that is, straighten out and charge directly at them, which can be a deadly situation. Instead, a clown will step in toward the shoulder of the animal and get it to turn around and around after him while the bull simultaneously attempts to buck off the cowboy. Eight seconds into the bull ride, a bell or a horn sounds, announcing that the cowboy has successfully ridden the bull and can now dismount and leave the arena. (If a cowboy doesn’t stay on for the full eight seconds, the ride does not count; anything that happens after the eight seconds is not judged.) This is sometimes the most dangerous part of a bull ride.

Ideally, the rider will slip easily from the back of the bull, landing on his feet and running quickly back to the chute or the fence as the clowns distract the bull and one of them attempts to get hold of the piece of rope (called a tail) tied to the bull. But anything can happen. In the worst cases, the bull ride descends into a horrifying melee with a thrown cowboy flipping around like a limp rag-doll, still attached to the bull by one hand, as the clowns desperately attempt to cut the helpless rider loose without being gored or stomped on themselves.

Shawn Hayes has been there . . . more than once. Although rodeo clowns wear protective clothing—a padded vest, a kidney belt, a chest belt, and hip pads—to keep a bull’s horns from penetrating their flesh, it provides minimal protection, and they wear no headgear whatsoever. “When you’re taking a hooking and you can’t get to your feet and your partner’s trying to get the bull off you, you’re supposed to roll into a ball and protect your head, like when you’re in an earthquake,” said Shawn.

“Or like when an atom bomb goes off,” I said.

“Yeah, except a bull’s worse than an atom bomb,” he said, laughing.

Death in the Afternoon

Shawn has been “hooked” by bulls several times in spite of his protective gear. “One time when I stepped in between a bull and a cowboy, the bull took me in his horns,” said Shawn. “Its horn went in between the kidney belt and the chest belt and cracked my ribs. I couldn’t avoid it. I had to take a hooking because that’s my job—to step in front of a bull.” Other times he’s had broken bones, teeth knocked out, and an excruciatingly painful shoulder dislocation. But the worst time for him and the closest he ever came to giving up being a rodeo clown was when a bull rider was killed right in front of him. “It was bad,” he said, staring at the ground and sighing deeply.

The cowboy was thrown the instant the bull burst from the chute, but his hand was caught in the rope cinched around the animal’s chest. And worse, he fell “inside”—in the direction the bull was turning. (Bull riders always attempt to fall on the opposite side so they’re less likely to be catastrophically injured.) “The bull stepped right on his head,” said Shawn. “And the bull just kept . . . boom . . . boom.” Shawn’s eyes misted up. “It was bad. It affected me for weeks. I couldn’t fight bulls.” But with a lot of encouragement from the bull riders he’d protected in the past and their families, Shawn finally returned to the bullring.

Rodeo (especially bull riding) is a world that protects its own, both physically and psychologically. What the participants experience is much like wartime combat—their lives and well-being are entirely in the hands of other people. This is true for the bull rider, who depends on the skill, courage, and determination of the clown, and the clown himself, who depends on his partner to save him if he gets in trouble. Cowards and incompetent people do not endure as rodeo clowns. The rodeo committees and stock contractors quickly winnow them out.

“You can’t kid yourself in this line of work,” said Shawn. “If you’re not ready . . . if you don’t have the skill and the courage, there’s a chance that you or the bull rider could get killed. No one wants that to happen.”

Magnum Force

Rodeo bulls run the gamut from ones that will buck ferociously until the cowboy is thrown from its back, then become relatively docile, to those most feared animals, the “rank” bulls—absolute man-haters that will go after anyone or anything they can get at in the ring. The worse such bull Shawn ever faced was a 2,000-plus-pound brute called Magnum that had been striking fear in riders, clowns, and other bull-riding personnel throughout the rodeo circuit.

“When they buck the cowboy off, most bulls will try to hook you a couple of times if you happen to be in their way, in their line of sight, then they’ll go back into the chute,” said Shawn. “Not Magnum,” he said. “Magnum liked to finish the job.”

Worse, Magnum was a “throw-down” bull—he had figured out how to toss a rider in such a way that he would come down right on his horns. “This bull had become famous that summer for doing that,” said Shawn. On the first day of the rodeo, true to his reputation, Magnum put four men in the hospital—a bull rider, a clown, and a couple of gate men. Shawn was slated to work on the bull-riding event the following day. “I’d never seen that bull before, and the first day it put all those guys in the hospital,” he said. “And it put this big 10-inch hole into our funny man’s barrel. It crushed the thing like it was an aluminum can. And I’m like, Whoa! And this was after it had already bucked off the rider.”

This got to Shawn, filling him with an intense dread, worse than he’d felt with any other bull. “Psychologically, it got into my head,” he said. “Because I knew the potential that bull had.”

Shawn’s worse fears were realized on the first ride, as a young cowboy’s hand got hung up when he was thrown, and Magnum spun around and around, tossing the rider up repeatedly, trying to impale him on its glistening horns. “My partner ran out and straightened the bull’s head, and I went for the tail [the piece of rope tied to the bull] and missed it,” said Shawn. “Then my partner went for the tail, and he missed it, too.” At that point, Magnum spotted a pickup man on a horse about 30 feet away. Shawn knelt down and stayed still so the bull wouldn’t see him. Then, as soon as Magnum started after the horse, Shawn jumped up and yelled, and the bull turned back toward him. Shawn stepped into the bull’s shoulder and grabbed the tail.

Magnum went around and around and around with him, smashing against him with all of its brute strength, as Shawn struggled to release the cowboy, who by then was unconscious and completely helpless. When the rider finally came loose, he fell to the ground in a heap on the opposite side of the bull from Shawn.

Shawn knew he’d only have one chance to distract the bull so the pickup man could rescue the downed cowboy, so he ran straight away from the bull, then stopped and stood straight up facing Magnum, committing the most dangerous act a rodeo clown can do, allowing a bull to line out on him. Magnum bent down and charged ferociously. Shawn turned and sprinted to the bullring fence, throwing himself up and over just as Magnum slammed into it. But the bull rider was safe. A few minutes later, Shawn realized that he had wet his pants.

Raging Bulls

The ferocity and brute strength of an angry bull is almost unimaginable. Two thousand pounds of raw muscle, brute strength, and sinew packed into an incredibly aggressive animal. “I got on a bull one time and was going to ride it,” said Shawn. “But the instant they tightened the rope on my hand, the bull flexed his muscles, and I felt every muscle in his body. ‘I’m not doing this,’ I said. And I got off. I’ve never been on the back of a bull since.” He has nothing but admiration for the courage of the bull-riders. But many cowboys I’ve spoken to think Shawn and other rodeo clowns have all the courage. A bull rider might only ride two or three bulls in a day, for eight seconds each. But a rodeo clown is out there putting his life and limb on the line with every bull, and their most difficult time often comes right after the cowboy’s ride is over. One of the things Shawn likes most about his job is the respect and appreciation he gets from rodeo people, especially the bull riders and their families.

“People really value what I do,” said Shawn. “When I go to rodeos, everyone knows me. I don’t have to drive anywhere, I don’t have to buy food or pay for a room. They take care of everything I need, because they appreciate what rodeo clowns do for them.” He also enjoys the smiles on kids’ faces when he signs autographs for them or gives them a bandana.

It is amazing how fully Shawn has been embraced by many of the rodeo families he has become acquainted with. Recently a family in Nebraska invited him to attend their son’s graduation from Special Forces training in Georgia, at their expense. The soldier was leaving for Afghanistan soon after the ceremony. Shawn told them he would like to come but had a prior commitment. The young soldier then called Shawn up and told him how important his friendship had been to him. “You’ve been like family to me,” he said, “and I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”

“Sure you will,” said Shawn. But he agreed to fly to the graduation.

*             *             *

Shawn is really too old to be involved in such a physically demanding and dangerous activity, and he knows it. But it’s so hard to walk away from. “There are a lot of wives, grandmothers, sons, and daughters counting on me to protect their loved ones,” he told me. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve seen some of these bull riders grow up from young boys to teenagers to adults, and they’re comfortable when I’m in the ring. Even though they know I’m getting older, they still feel comfortable with me being out there.”

To be valued like this is important to Shawn: to be so skilled at something that peoples’ lives depend on. But the clock is ticking mercilessly, and he knows he’s looking at the end of his rodeo career. Will this be his last year? (Most of his family and friends hope so, for the sake of his safety.) And how will it end?