Clowning around: It's a serious business at rodeo school


Issue Date: August 23, 2006
Jennifer Harrison

Wanted: Someone to attract, cajole and taunt a 2,000-pound bull. Must be willing to dress up, have fun and be a good sport. Only serious applicants may apply.

In a nutshell, that's what it takes to be a rodeo clown.

To learn the art of clowning around, a handful of eager students gathered at the Lyle Sankey Rodeo School visiting Rio Linda in Sacramento County. They came for different reasons.

"My boys are going to do high school rodeo, so I figured if somebody was going to be out there doing cowboy protection, I'd rather it be me than somebody we didn't know," said Paul Melendrez.

Doug Talbot saw the school as a chance to learn from the best.

"Cory Wall is one of the best bullfighters that I can think of, so I figured this would be a good opportunity," Talbot said.

Wall, a famous rodeo clown whose antics have landed him on ESPN's Sports Center, taught the clear-cut rules of being a rodeo clown. Thirty-five schools in 25 cities are offered through the Lyle Sankey school system (Sankey himself was a rodeo star). Thousands of students pass through every year to learn skills that range from bareback bronco riding to being a rodeo clown.

The main job of a rodeo clown, said Wall, is to distract the bull after a rider has fallen off and give that rider time to get out of harm's way. To do this effectively, one must adhere to a series of lessons.

Lesson number one: Remain calm. Called emotion management, Wall instructed students to slow down and focus on their breathing. "But when you are out there in that arena with that bull and he's looking at you and nobody else, all the sudden your emotions go totally wild," Wall acknowledged.

Lesson number two is athleticism. A clown needs different moves, fakes and a healthy set of legs and lungs to keep up with a raging bull.

Getting into costume—that's lesson number three. "You want to be remembered in this business in order to get rehired, and you want to do something that will make you stand out," Wall explained.

Students were taught what clothes to wear and what makeup to apply. While rodeo clowns offer serious cowboy protection, they also offer comedic relief and audience entertainment.

The final lesson is passion. "We're a lot like schoolteachers—they are good at what they do and love what they do, though they don't get paid much. We make a living, but I could make a living doing something else and not be happy and I'm just not about that," Wall said.

Being a rodeo clown may be a calling, for Talbot perhaps a career calling.

"Couldn't find a better job—cruise around the country and fight bulls and hit rodeos," he said.

(Jennifer Harrison is a reporter in Davis. She may be contacted at j.harrison@comcast.net.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.