So you wanna be a writer, huh? Gonna sit yourself down and type out all them great stories swirling around in your head, spin epic tales, write great literature? You’ll attend literary soirees, sip sherry, and give deep, thoughtful interviews to literary journals. Yessirebob, it’s the writer’s life for you!

OR…you’ll probably want to pay rent and buy food and stuff, so you end up writing whatever goofy gigs come your way. Between about 2001 and 2009, I wrote fourteen nonfiction books for the school library market for publishers Rosen and Chelsea House on topics ranging from history and biography to science and technology. The goofiest of ’em all, though, had to be The World of Rodeo: Rodeo Clowns for Rosen in 2006, about 8,000 words on history and workings of the profession.

Read and learn!

RodeoClowns_coverIntroduction: The Most Extreme Sport

Before anyone ever heard of extreme sports, the cowboys who have been riding bucking broncs and wild bulls and roping and wrestling savage steers in rodeos have been practicing them since the 19th century.

What could be more extreme than sitting bareback atop a bucking 2,000-pound bull, holding on to nothing more than a thin leather strap? How much more dangerous a sport exists than one where a man stops and brings down a 700-pound raging steer with his bare hands?

The answer can be found in the very same rodeo arenas where the skilled cowboys exercise their amazing athletic abilities…in the form of rodeo clowns, one of the most dangerous jobs in one of the worlds one dangerous sports. While the rodeo clown may seem like a ridiculous figure in garish make-up and an outlandish costume, he is, in fact, far more than a character to be laughed at. He is the royal jester of the rodeo arena whose job, in addition to keeping an audience laughing at his wild antics, is to protect the cowboys from the hoofs and horns of the bulls.

The rodeo clown’s hijinks may look easy, but under the silly outfits and make-up he is a trained athlete entrusted with a life and death mission every day he is in the arena. The rodeo clown’s job is, in reality, no joking matter.

Chapter One: From Roundup to Show Business

Though no one can truly say when and where the first organized rodeo was held, it is known that they began as long ago as the 17th century in Mexico, or, as it was then known, New Spain. To these early Spanish settlers, who arrived in what is now the Americas two decades before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the earliest rodear, a Spanish word which means to encircle, or surround, were simple cattle roundups, when the grazing cattle were rounded up and brought to one central market location. After the long, lonely months on the trails, these vaqueros (from the Spanish words for “cow” and “man”) would use these occasions to hold impromptu competitions. They would show off their skills at roping and riding and breaking wild broncos. “There were few things (the vaqueros) couldn’t do from a saddle,” Kendall Nelson, a photographer who documents the life of today’s working cowboys, told a reporter for

These gatherings spread north from Mexico into what was to become the Texas territory of the United States and then across the American West. “All of the skills, traditions, and ways of working with cattle are very much rooted in the Mexican vaquero,” Kendall Nelson said. “If you are a cowboy in the U.S. today, you have developed what you know from the vaquero.” Part of what these cowboys learned was the way of the rodear. The first organized rodeo is believed to have been held on July 4, 1864 in Prescott, Arizona, followed by another contest on the same weekend in 1869 in Deer Trail, Colorado, where an Englishman named Emilnie Gardenshire, cowboying for the Milliron Ranch earned the title “Champion Bronco Buster of the Plains” and the prize of a new suit of clothes for a fifteen-minute ride on a horse named Montana Blizzard. In modern rodeos, riders must stay on a bronc for a mere eight seconds, but the original cowboys simply rode a horse until he, or the horse, gave up.

The Western entertainer Buffalo Bill Cody, originator of the Wild West show, began using the term rodeo for his shows, which included roping, riding, bronco-busting, and bull riding. And, once the humble rodeo went from cowboy competition to a popular form of entertainment, it began to need more than just cowboys to keep the show moving. It was here that the rodeo clown was born.

Send in the Clowns

As rodeos began charging admission to spectators, the organizers needed to keep the customers entertained and happy during delays or in the slow periods between events. The first rodeo clowns were cowboys who could amuse the audience with their antics, such as Tin Horn Hank Keenan. Tin Horn Hank began his career in rodeos in 1912 as a cowboy soon after he found he possessed a talent for getting laughs from an audience and became one of the earliest known clowns on the rodeo circuit. His son, Carl, born and raised on the rodeo circuit, would learn how to trick ride and rope, and would join his father’s act as Little Tin Horn.

Charley Schultz of Clayton, Mew Mexico discovered his ability to make people laugh when he donned an old circus clown suit and pointed hat to entertain neighbors at a Fourth of July picnic in 1914. Inspired by the laughter, he spent the rest of his life as a rodeo clown.

The clown quickly caught on and began appearing in rodeos across the West. In the 1915 rodeo season, the Miller Brothers & Arlington 101 Ranch Real Wild West show introduced three clowns, Bill Caress, Billy Lorette, and Joe Lewis. Lorette returned to the 101 Ranch Show again the next year. To earn a steady income, these clowns would also appear in Wild West shows—different in that they featured reenactments of famous Western cowboy and Indian battles and exhibitions of cowboy skills rather than the competitions common to rodeos. It would be several decades before the rodeo would supplant the Wild West show as the more popular form of entertainment.

The earliest clown at the Cheyenne Frontier Days (Cheyenne, Wyoming) was Dan Dix, whose antics were typical of these early entertainers. As described by Robert D. Hanesworth in his book, Daddy of ‘Em All: The Story of the Cheyenne Frontier Days, Dix a former circus clown, would attempt “to get his mule to move by pulling and jerking on a rope fastened to the halter. In response, the mule laid down. Dan then talked nicely to him and everything was rosy again.” While perhaps not the most sophisticated of acts, in the days before TV, radio, and films, these simple entertainments were enough to keep the crowd enthralled and, over time, the acts became more complex, with such early stars of the arena as Homer Holcomb and Red Sublett and his trained mule Spark Plug combining clown antics with increasingly dangerous stunts of daring-do.

Laughter and Danger

For the first decade or so of rodeo clowning, the baggy pants, painted face clown was concerned largely with getting laughs. But in the late 1920s, the Brahma bull was introduced into the bull riding event.

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The Brahma Bull

In his book Rodeo, Back of the Chutes, Gene Lamb wrote, “The Brahma bull can claim credit for a lot of employment in rodeo, because without him there would be no need for the clowns. Up until the 1920s bull riding was not a predominant event in rodeo. The ‘bulls’ might be real bulls, they might be range cows, they might be good sized steers; in fact, they might be anything that could be remotely considered a ‘bull.’ With the development of the use of the Brahmas in the bull riding, the event began to assume more importance in the arena. There will always be much argument as to where the Brahmas were first used, and by whom. They are usually accredited to Verne Elliott, who has been in the rodeo stock contracting business for about forty years. Verne used a couple of the Brahmas at Fort Worth, Texas, in the ‘20s, then took some elsewhere when they proved to be crowd pleasers.”

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What made the Brahma bull so popular was its ferocity. In a 1954 article in the rodeo trade publication Horns & Hoofs, editor Ethel A. Hopkins called them “the meanest animal on Earth. It is…nearly a ton of concentrated dynamite. An animal with the strength of Samson, cunning of a fox, sight of an eagle, speed of an antelope, and the vile heart of a Black Widow spider.”

Brahma bulls will charge at the rider after he’s been thrown or jumps off at the end of his qualifying ride. These one-ton behemoths will actually go out of their way to attack anything that gets in their path. To save the bull riders from serious injury, the rodeo “bullfighter” was born. These bullfighters differ from the traditional Spanish bullfighter, or matador, whose objective is to kill the bull in a manner determined by the traditions of the sport. The rodeo bullfighter’s job is to distract the bull long enough to allow a downed rider to get to safety. At the rodeo, the bull lives to be ridden another day.

Homer Holcomb, a clown working for Elliott at the time, is believed to have been the first of this courageous breed of clown. He would race out into the arena after the rider has been thrown or jumped and make himself the bull’s target while riders on horseback corralled the irate beast out the exit gate, back to the pens. “Often the clown’s skill makes the difference in whether the cowboy goes to the next rodeo, hospital or a morgue,” wrote Sam Savitt in his book, Rodeo—Cowboys, Bulls & Broncos. Those skills usually involve little more than the performer’s own wits and skill.

Bullfighters are often teamed with a barrelman, a specialty originated by Jasbo Fulkerson. The barrelman remains, literally, in a barrel in the arena during the cowboy’s ride, emerging only to distract the bull if needed, then retreating back into the barrel for protection from the charging animal.

F.J. “Scooter” Culbertson, a professional rodeo clown, bullfighter, and barrelman told the website, “Getting hit by a bull is like getting hit by a car going twenty miles an hour. It’s not if you are going to get hurt. It’s when and how bad.”

And yet it is a job rodeo clowns and bullfighters do on a regular basis, all the while keeping the audience entertained and laughing.

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