The clouds roll in and the mood darkens as eight one-ton assassins are caged in their chute. Some are grey in colour, some are black; some even have the tips of their horns sawed off to make them less dangerous. You look at those horns close up, from behind the chute, and your guess is it has only made them madder.
Standing in the arena, Scott Byrne waits for the mayhem. It comes with an eruption of anger and streams of whip-snapping drool as the bull known as Bombs Away drops its rider, then turns to run him over.
Byrne puts himself between the bull and bull rider. He dekes one way; the beast goes the other, before trotting off to its pen. The rider leaves without winning a nickel. Byrne readies for the next explosion.
They call themselves bull fighters, not rodeo clowns, and you can tell the difference when you watch them in action. There is no grease paint on their faces, no water-spraying plastic flower pinned to suspenders straps. They don’t tell jokes. They don’t hide in barrels and they don’t sit at a poker table and let a bull crash through them. Oh yes, that’s been done.
What bull fighters do is protect bull riders. In rodeo parlance, they are the secret-service men. They stay in the background until needed, then rush in to take the hit.
“In a nutshell, mentally and physically, you have to want to put your body on the line for someone else,” Byrne explains. “It’s really a game of close calls and quite a bit of luck … Honestly, I love it.”
The man who tangos with bulls was born in Saskatchewan, operates a horse-boarding business near Brandon, Man., and at 42 is considered the dean of his rodeo profession. Today, Byrne makes his 12th appearance at the Calgary Stampede, “the greatest outdoor show on earth.” At his first, he says he stood in the infield dirt hours before the show started and stared at the huge grandstand. “I almost crapped my pants,” he recalls. “I was so nervous.”
Since then, Byrne has garnered the intestinal fortitude and savvy to keep bull riders from getting seriously skewered. Naturally, he is drawn into a conversation about the hits he’s taken over the years, including the one last summer in Ponoka, Alta, when a bull stomped on his face.
It was a hoof that caught Byrne under his right eye, ripped open a slice of his upper lip and smashed the orbital bone to the point where his face was swollen beyond recognition. He can touch his forehead and still feel a tingling sensation in his cheek.
Of course, that was nothing compared to what happened several years ago in Lethbridge, Alta. A bull hit him so hard it broke five of Byrne’s ribs and bruised a kidney. He was stretchered off the field and felt this strange warmth overtaking his body. He figured he was dying.
He took the next day off. The day after that, he was back in the arena, putting his broken chest to the test.
“All the bull fighters make you feel pretty safe,” says Tanner Girletz, the rider who was planted by the despicable Bombs Away. “But when you have the elite guys, like Scott, you feel you can bear down and go harder. He reads stock better than anyone. He can remember bulls and how they react.”
So you ask Byrne how he does it and does it so well. (The “why” question comes later.) Does he keep a running journal on which bulls do what? Does he play the percentages? Is there such a thing as bull fighting analytics? He chuckles and says he has learned to expect the unexpected; that it is better to react than to try and out-scheme a raging Brahman.
The safest move is to get “in the pocket” – more rodeo parlance, this time for standing next to the bull, in tight by its shoulder so the bull fighter can grab one of the horns and steer it away. The rationale is simple: Bulls don’t have a great turning radius. What they do have is power to spare. On a straight-line dash, the four-legged beast will beat the two-legged cowboy every time.
“We also do a lot of hand touching on the bull’s head,” Byrne continues. “When you touch bulls, nine times of 10 they want to throw that off their head. They’ll bay up a little bit. That buys us that second or half a second to get in the pocket or get away.”
He was a lousy bull rider in his day, but too infatuated with rodeo life to let it go. Having an uncle who was one of the best bull fighters of his generation made for too good an opportunity to waste. So Scott went to Ryan Byrne for help.
Ryan Byrne spent 25 years fighting bulls and remains the only Canadian to have worked the prestigious National Finals Rodeo in the U.S. He wore the face paint because it was tradition. Clowns in the early 1900s wore it. Jasbo Fulkerson wore it when he became the first man to hide inside a barrel then get knocked around the infield. The legendary likes of Rex (Mr. Smooth) Dunn, Leon Coffee and Flint Rasmussen all wore makeup while they dodged disaster.
Ironically, few of them wore anything more protective than a knee brace.
“I don’t think there’s much difference,” Ryan Byrne says of bull fighting then and now, “except for the opportunities. There are more indoor rodeos and so many more rank bulls that bull fighters can make a pretty good living at what they do … My boys are enjoying it.”
Jesse and Bo Byrne are bull fighters; younger brother Tanner is a bull rider. At the 2014 Calgary Stampede, cousins Jesse and Scott will offer up their protection while Tanner will ride. All the Byrnes share the same desire to be where the danger is.
“That’s what I’m always asked: ‘Why? Why are you a bull fighter?’” Scott Byrne says. “It’s an addictive sport. I’m always a little nervous before the chute is opened. But when that bull comes out, it’s an adrenalin rush. It’s hard to describe unless you’re out there doing it.”
With his ankles taped, knee braces on and his chest protector pulled snug, Scott Byrne does some stretching behind the chutes. The rodeo announcer tells the Innisfail crowd, “This is the toughest eight seconds in sports,” alluding to the amount of time a rider has to stay on his bull before looking for a soft place to land.
On this cloudy afternoon, Byrne is working with fellow bull fighter Scott Waye. It’s a Yoda-Luke Skywalker type of arrangement. Inside the arena, Waye feeds off Byrne’s confidence and experience. Out of the arena, Waye takes in Byrne’s worldly advice.
“He’s a businessman,” Waye says. “He told me right from the start that I should be thinking about what I’m going to do when my bull fighting career is over because it doesn’t last forever.”
When the last bull has been dispatched to its pen, Byrne and Waye shake hands, then mingle with the fans exiting the Innisfail grandstand. Everyone is in agreement: This was a good day. The rain held off and no one got hurt, not even the bull fighters.