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The guardian angels of the rodeo grounds

Retired Calgary firefighter says he's "living the dream"

Rodeo always has an element of unpredictability and danger and there’s nowhere that’s more evident that in bull riding.

Typically the event kicks off with a sense of nervous anticipation, accompanied by pulse-quickening hard rock like AC/DC, and an excited announcer asking spectators, ‘Are you ready for some bull riding?’

The chute opens and everyone holds their breath for eight seconds, wondering if the rider can hang on.

Dennis Halstead is not there for those eight seconds.

He’s there for what happens next.

With his makeup and trademark yellow shoes, the retired Calgary firefighter is easily singled out as a rodeo clown, one of those responsible for protecting a dismounted or downed rider.

“It’s my job to make sure that a cowboy’s safe in the arena,” he said. “With my barrel, it’s to make sure that barrel’s in a position so if the cowboy or bullfighter’s in trouble, they can get behind the barrel and I take the hit.”

Dennis Halstead dons his makeup before bringing out his barrel.
photo: Dennis Halstead

And Halstead has certainly taken hits. Over the 20 years of his second career, he’s had a multitude of near misses, including one memorable instance where a bull’s horn came within a hair’s breadth of his face.

Even within the safety of his padded barrel, being hit is like, “being thrown in a dryer, turn the dryer on and then throw it down a flight of stairs,” he said.

Halstead himself has a long list of battle wounds, including numerous broken bones.

“That’s the nature of my business,” he said. “They estimate it’s like being hit by a small truck doing 25 to 30 miles an hour.”

Clown versus bullfighter

There are two key players when it comes to keeping bull riders safe after they’re off the animal’s back.

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Young woman with laptop sitting on the bale on the field. Tractor in background

There’s the beloved rodeo clown and the bullfighter, who sports a cowboy hat and cleats, rather than makeup. A bullfighter will actively draw the bull away after the rider is thrown or dismounts, relying on the rodeo clown, or barrelman, to distract the bull if necessary.

Lyle Sankey, founder of the Sankey Rodeo School based in Missouri, trains both.

“The term ‘rodeo clown’ used to encompass a lot of things,” he said. “It’s kind of morphed now and divided into (these) two groups.

“When you use the term bullfighter, that’s the guy who does the cowboy protection — draws the bull away from a fallen rider and also freestyle bullfighting,” he said, referencing the one-on-one matchup between fighter and bull that has become a form of crowd entertainment and a sport in its own right.

Bullfighting is by far the more popular of the two options at his school, he said. It’s becoming a stand-alone sport, one looking to be on par with bull riding in terms of spectator appeal — and risk.

In freestyle bullfighting competitions, there is no rider to protect and competitors are graded on their daring, willingness to risk themselves, and ability to stay as close to the bull as possible during a 60-second encounter. It has turned bullfighting into a quick-fire, almost dance-like series of dodges, daredevil stunts (including selfies as the bull barrels in from behind), and aerial flips.

The job of barrelman shares that strange contrast of switching between his sometimes life-and-death role and lighthearted clowning.

“Here this weekend I get to blow myself up in an outhouse,” Halstead said while appearing at Ag Ex here this fall.

“I get to ride a motorbike through a wall of fire. Of course that’s all the fun stuff, and then, of course, the serious job is the bull riding.”

Dennis Halstead plays up the comedy angle of his sometimes serious work as a rodeo clown.
photo: Dennis Halstead

Preparing for the job

Sankey’s courses are all three-day clinics, regardless of whether the student is drawn to bullfighting or life as a rodeo clown. For many, that turns into a string of camps that makes up their only formal education. A bullfighter or clown might take a course, return home, get more field experience, and then return to Sankey’s school for another round.

“We deal with the fundamentals, give them the right foundation, the right start, and then students who have more experience or are more advanced, we work with them on what they’re able to work on at that point in time,” Sankey said.

Most of the training programs weren’t in place back when Halstead got his unplanned start in the business at the Calgary Police Rodeo. The annual fundraiser sees police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel, and corrections officers ‘give it a go’ in rodeo events. And that’s pretty much how Halstead got started.

“They had a big-name rodeo clown scheduled and he backed out a week before,” he recalled.

Having grown up around rodeo, Halstead volunteered to fill in.

It was the start of a career that would eventually see him named among the top five rodeo clowns, become a four-time Canadian Professional Rodeo Association entertainer of the year and make multiple appearances at the Canadian Finals Rodeo, RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, and other high-profile events. The 57-year-old spends as much as 10 months of every year on the road, performing as many as 140 times annually.

And he has no plans on putting away those bright-yellow shoes any time soon.

“I’m living the dream,” he said with a grin.

A version of this story previously appeared on the Manitoba Co-operator.

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