Rodeo clowns, better known as bullfighters, risk all to ensure both rider and bull remain unharmed. Robin Esrock learns some tricks from the Calgary Stampede‘s best.

BEHIND THE CHUTES at the rodeo, I meet Dave Sandiland. A schoolteacher by day, he is one of the most popular bullfighters at the Stampede, and a man who has faced down raging bulls for years. While the bullrider’s job is to stay mounted for just eight seconds, the bullfighter’s job is to make sure the bull doesn’t trample and gore the rider when those eight seconds are up.

They do this by literally stepping into that critical moment where the rider is most vulnerable, just after his awkward dismount. Their defense is their bodies — hips, butts, and shoulders that are thrust forward to distract the bull from tearing the rider apart.

Dave shows me his padding: Hockey gear around the hips, shoulder pads, and shin guards too, mostly “to keep my socks up.” There is a make-up wearing clown at the rodeo, a guy who’s job it is to entertain the audience and keep action flowing between competitors. Dave’s role is taken far more seriously.

Dave Sandiland, Bullfighter

Making the wrong decision, or stepping in too late, can have serious consequences for both bull and rider. He tells me how one rider got his boots stuck in the ropes, and was unable to dismount. Flopping around from side to side, Dave and another bullfighter had to untie the rider from a 1900 pound raging bull. Eventually the rider came free, but it was as close a call as any he’s ever had over the years. He carries a protected blade just in case it ever happens again.

Once the bull frees himself of the rider, the way you might throw off an irritating backpack, the beast generally calms down and returns to the chute. “Some bulls can be pretty docile,” says Dave. “They just don’t want anyone to ride them.” Like everyone else I meet in the bullring, bullfighters have a tremendous amount of respect for the animals themselves. They are all athletes, locked in a highly physical contest, where the stakes are high.

But if they charge, Dave is ready with his practiced sidesteps and dummies, using his hands to distract and disorientate. I do my best to charge him and he deftly steps aside, feigning one direction, and then effortlessly going another. I’m no massive bull, with sharp horns, mountains of muscle, and a mean genetic streak.

Over the years, Dave’s learned to read bulls almost better than anybody, anticipating the rider’s form and probable dismount. Which is why a friendly, affable guy holds down one of the most dangerous jobs at the world’s premiere rodeo. He admits it’s an adrenalin rush, and that the Stampede knows how to look after its bullfighters. There is some glory being on the front line. But thankfully there’s no red cape, and certainly no spears or blood. This isn’t Spain or Mexico.

At the Calgary Stampede, the bullfighter is all about saving lives, not taking them.

Feature image by Duncan Kinney