Being a rodeo clown is no laughing matter. This is a lesson Jackson Bassett learned right away after he was “tossed” by the very first bull he faced off with in a rodeo arena. Bassett became a rodeo clown or “bullfighter,” as many prefer to be called, about a year ago. He’s learned a lot since then, and odds are he won’t make himself vulnerable enough to be tossed again.
The idea of Bassett being a bullfighter started off as a joke when some of his friends in college began spreading a rumor among classmates that he was a bullfighter by trade. After a few weeks of playful joking about the matter, one of Bassett’s fellow classmates, Dillon Edensen from Humbolt, S.D., asked Bassett if the rumor was true. As it turned out, Edensen really was a bullfighter and had been one for a few years. Bassett and Edensen became fast friends and later became roommates. When Edensen encouraged Bassett to give bullfighting a try, he jumped at the opportunity to try something new.
“We got to be super good friends after that and he helped me get the stuff I needed to get started,” said Bassett. “I got bored sitting around at school and it seemed like something fun to do. I didn’t want to get fat and lazy and I figured this would help me to stay in shape.”
According to Bassett that necessary equipment includes a good pair of cleats, hip pads, a protective chest vest and a good dose of courage. Bassett was a cross-country runner in high school, and the ability to run fast is a skill he notes as “helpful” when running away from angry bulls.
To get started, Bassett watched films of bullfighters in the arena. Later, he took the techniques observed from watching the films into the arena during practice sessions. Bassett was fortunate at the time to be attending a college with a rodeo team that allowed him to practice his newly learned bullfighting skills during rodeo team practice sessions.
“I didn’t know what to do at first,” said Bassett. “I kind of just stood there, but through practice I learned what to do and where I needed to be.”
Although there are actually schools that train bullfighters, Bassett decided to forego any formal training, learning all he could from other experienced bullfighters like his friend Edensen and from bullfighter Chip Jensen. He frequently took advantage of the opportunity to practice with his college’s rodeo team and basically learned through trial and error.
According to Bassett, his number one job is to “protect the cowboy until he gets up off the ground.” He does this by first getting the bull’s attention and then luring him away while giving the downed bull rider a few moments to get up off the ground.
“Some bulls know their job and just buck the rider off and walk away, they’re smart, they’re athletes and they know what is going on,” explained Bassett. “There are some who don’t do that and those are the ones we look out for.”
Rodeos generally have two or three bullfighters in the arena during the bull riding events at the rodeo. Some like to entertain the crowd with clownish behavior, while others wait quietly in the sidelines until their services are needed.
Bassett tries not to think about getting hurt and he doesn’t consider himself to be much of a daredevil.
“It’s just one of those things you don’t want to think about,” he said. “I suppose bullfighters do get hurt sometimes but I just don’t think about it. It’s scary but at the same time it’s fun. You’re right there on the edge but you’re always prepared to react.”
The meanest bull Bassett has ever faced is a bull named “Sunshine.”
“Sunshine has a bit of a temper and he shows that temper from the time he gets off the truck to the time he gets back to his pen,” chuckled Bassett. “We all know that’s how he is, so we are on our toes with him the whole time.”
As for the one bull who “tossed him” during his first rodeo, Bassett chalks that up as a learning experience.
“I saw him coming and I really didn’t know what to do,” said Bassett. “It all happened so fast, I didn’t really have time to be afraid. He was only my 10th bull (besides practice bulls). I know better now.”
Bullfighters play a critical role in protecting cowboys in the rodeo arena. Bassett takes that responsibility seriously.
“Some people like to call us clowns or whatever but really our job is cowboy protection,” said Bassett. “Once the bull rider falls off, we try to get between him and the bull because he needs some distraction from that bull until he is up off the ground. So that’s what we do, we get in there and get the bull’s attention. Then we need to get out of his way.”
For Bassett, every bull he faces off with offers a new and exciting challenge.
“Some of those bulls are crazy,” explained Bassett, “and some are nice.” Bassett thought the bulls at the Mustang Days rodeo in Lovell last weekend were of the “nice” variety compared to some of the bulls he has faced off with in Cheyenne.
Bassett performed his duties as a bullfighter recently at the Days of ‘49 Rodeo in Greybull and last weekend at the Mustang Days Rodeo in Lovell. He plans to be in the arena again at the Cowley Days Rodeo on Saturday, July 21.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t really say you’ve done it, until you’ve actually done it,” said Bassett.
By Patti Carpenter