From Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Free shipping for new subscribers.
The bull riders at Cheyenne’s Frontier Days rodeo wear jeans, chaps, cowboy hats, spurred boots and numbers pinned to the back of their black protective vests. Not Dusty Tuckness. Standing by the gate where the stadium’s guts bleed out into a maze of animal pens and lounging cowboys, he wears an open buttondown, suspenders, torn blue jean cutoffs with mesh shorts underneath, bulky knee braces and neon green cleats that say “JESUS” on one heel and “SAVES” on the other. All he shares in common with the riders is a cowboy hat — but underneath his brim, where they wear pursed lips and steely eyes, he wears wispy streaks of white and red grease paint.
Tuckness is 29 years old, around five-foot-ten, quietly athletic in his baggy farmstead attire, with a crooked smile and brown eyes that are slightly cow-like in their immutable calm. Ten feet behind us cowboys sip Coors atop bullpen gates, the day’s work over, the air cool and sweet with cattle yard smells. It’s impossible to tell, looking at his eyes now, that just an hour ago Tuckness was saving some of the toughest men in the world from a severe mauling.
Tuckness is a rodeo bullfighter. He is not a matador; he does not use a cape or a sword. Nor is he a rodeo clown; he is not funny, performs no skits, tells no jokes. His job is the keystone of the modern rodeo: keeping bull riders alive.
The rodeo bullfighter’s job description is to distract and absorb the hulking, charging, pinwheeling Brahma bull of American professional rodeo competition, which weighs upwards of 2,000 pounds and has been bred to buck with all its might. He is called upon almost every “go-round” or ride, since riders almost always end up in the dirt with the bull bearing down on them. As another five-time bullfighting champion, Rob Smets, has said, the work can be boiled down to “presenting the bull with a better target than the rider.” This is the bald-faced truth of this job — that
Tuckness is less a distraction and more a swift streak that is occasionally leveled, gored and trampled.
He takes this fact with a shrug. “There’s times we get hooked, run over, stepped on, thrown in the air,” Tuckness says. “I guess that’s really why we have a job.”
Tuckness is very good at his job. He has been named the World Champion Bullfighter five times in the last five years, so, in fact, he is probably the best bullfighter on the face of the rodeo-riding earth. But even on his best days, like today, he faces down a bloody mangling.
In the final round of the day, while pulling a bull away from a downed rider — his hands in the bull’s face, his legs doing a quick backstep away and to the side — Tuckness had been caught by a wicked sideswipe of the horns and rag-dolled into the shadows of the stadium’s exit chute. The announcers gasped and the crowd drew a collective breath. But then, after half a verse of Van Halen’s “Panama” had screeched its way out of the grounds’ loudspeakers, there was Tuckness, upright, trotting back into the bullring to defuse the next 2,000-pound bomb of animalistic fury. Business as usual.
There are no theatrics after a bullfighter’s successful “save,” no celebration dances, no points scored, no gags for laughs, hardly any opportunity for the crowd to salute his work. Most often Tuckness walks over to the rider whose life he just preserved and hands him the cowboy hat he lost during his ride. Then he turns to ready himself for the next bull.
Only now, in person, can I see that Tuckness’s face has been bruised and scraped by his run-in with the bull’s horns. One cheek blows out like it’s holding a plug of chaw. “I’ve broke a handful of bones, had my shoulder fixed,” he says. “It kinda comes with the territory, so you gotta learn to fight through the pain. I’ve worked with broken bones before. You’ve just gotta have some mental toughness and push through it.”
Kanin Asay, a bull rider and good friend of Tuckness’s, can relay a whole lot of hurt in a short amount of time. His worst injury happened in Oregon in 2008. “The bull was bucking, knocked me off, and tore my ear partway off,” he says. “I had a left eye fracture, a skull fracture, a brain bleed, six broken ribs. It ruptured my spleen and hyperextended my knee. And that all happened in about six seconds.”
Tuckness wasn’t bullfighting at that rodeo, but he was there when Asay came home from the hospital. The two grew up together in Wyoming’s amateur rodeo circuit. When Asay’s mother died in a sudden horseback riding accident several years ago, Tuckness helped him through it.
Tuckness’s devotion to others is not questioned among the rodeo community; neither is his commitment to his calling. He had a chance at a different life. Out of high school, he was offered a scholarship at University of Montana Western to play football. Weeks before school began, Tuckness’s coaches found out he was bullfighting on the side. They told him if he kept it up they’d pull his scholarship. That was the end of his college football career.
Asay has to put on headphones to talk to me over the phone because he’s having trouble hearing out of his right ear. It was ripped 75 percent of the way off a second time in an accident a few weeks ago, when a bull kicked him in the head as he was thrown, then stepped on his helmet. Three hours of surgery and 200 stitches later he was fixed up and ready to keep on riding for the rest of the season — another 20 to 30 rodeos. He’s currently 15th in the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rankings.
In bull riding, injuries like this are par for the course, and they are occasionally deadly. Lane Frost, the best bull rider in the world in 1989, was driven into the ground by a bull at Cheyenne, breaking his ribs and piercing his aorta. He died on the stadium dirt at the age of 25. Riders die every year in what the industry calls “freak accidents,” but to the casual onlooker who sees the carnage a normal day of rodeoing brings, it seems death should be much more prevalent than it is. Bullfighters are largely to thank.
That’s not understood by those outside of the rodeo community. “There are two things I get a lot when I tell people what I do,” says Tuckness. “I say bullfighter, and they say, ‘Oh, you ride bulls.’ I don’t know if I’m talking too fast sometimes; I said bullfighter. They’re like, ‘You fight the bull.’ So you go back to the rodeo clown to try and paint the picture.”
Tuckness’s father, Timber Tuckness, went by rodeo clown, barrel man, or funny man, though he was a bullfighter too. He wore suspenders and “baggies” and a smile painted on his chin. He sometimes wore a fat suit with a bikini and fake blowup breasts, and performed a routine where he danced the YMCA with a set of puppets dressed as the rest of the Village People attached to him by dowel rods. This was rodeo clowning before Dusty Tuckness and a new wave of bullfighters tore away its humor: full makeup, funny acts, saving lives in between.
This duality persisted from rodeo clowning’s birth in the 1920s to as recently as the 1980s. As Gail Hughbanks Woerner, a rodeo historian and the author of Fearless Funnymen: The History of the Rodeo Clown, tells me, prior to the 1920s the rodeo clown’s job was to keep the paying audience entertained during downtime in the show with skits and jokes. No death-defying was necessary; the steers the cowboys rode were of the mundane sort, bulls pulled from American stockyards. Then, in the 1920s, came the introduction of Spanish Brahma bulls — the muscle-rippled monsters with humps associated with rodeo today. As opposed to the common steers before that, Brahmas would “just as soon kill you as look at you,” says Woerner. They revolutionized bull riding, but their ferocity during and after the ride quickly made organizers realize they were a few go-rounds away from a dead cowboy. Clowns, already employed and flamboyant in their costumes and manner, with nothing else to do while the riding went on, were the obvious choice to distract the bulls.
The clowns began pulling double duty as entertainers and lifesavers. “It was from one extreme to another. He was making a fool of himself the rest of the rodeo, but during the bull riding, he had got to stand out there and put his life on the line,” says Woerner.
The first bullfighter to ditch clowning didn’t do it purposefully. Wick Peth, a rodeo clown in the 1960s, “had a good eye for a bull,” Woerner says. “But one time an announcer said he was about as funny as a funeral in the rain.” Peth’s athleticism and skill dodging and disrupting the bulls earned him respect and jobs in spite of his humorlessness; eventually, more and more rodeo clowns became specialized for either humor acts or their bullfighting skill.
Today Tuckness is the star of a new class of bullfighters that’s dropped clowning entirely. The rise of the bullfighter has coincided with the decline of the rodeo clown. Modern rodeos employ at least two bullfighters, and often three. The funny man or clown has become a separate entity, far away from the melee, cracking jokes and bantering with the announcers; he may as well be in the booth.
As fans and riders become more entranced by the serious side of the sport, humor’s place is eroding. “When I started all this 30 years ago, not all the rodeos had more than one bullfighter,” says Woerner. “They all have them now regardless of the size of the rodeo. So the money is obviously going toward having two away from funny.” Some rodeos, including the world championship, forego clowns entirely.
The two professions are no longer seen as one and the same. “A clown, he’s the one who entertains the crowd,” says Clayton Savage, a pro bull rider in the PRCA. “He’s the goofball out there for entertainment. The bullfighters — well, I wouldn’t even call ‘em bullfighters. I’d call ‘em lifesavers.”
Bullfighters are freelancers, booked by individual rodeos and negotiating their own fees. Reputable sources say the best, like Tuckness, can make up to $1,500 per performance; one source estimated that Tuckness, last year, made at least $100,000 on fees alone. During rodeo season, 11 months out of the year, Tuckness will work almost every day.
So maybe it’s no surprise he doesn’t want to be associated with skits and fat suits with bikinis and fake breasts like his father was. And yet, he still wears face paint. “I got a little old school in me,” Tuckness says. “You’ll see guys nowadays, they’re wearing just jerseys and shorts. They say, ‘We’re athletes, so we dress like athletes.’ Me, I could have a ball cap, shorts and tennis shoes on and I’d still go out. Just growing up with it, following some of my heroes, they always wore the baggies and the grease paint. That’s where people will still tie us back to rodeo clowns. It doesn’t take any athleticism away from me.”
Tuckness’s decision to call himself a bullfighter is also a smart business choice. He’s got the right title for the direction the sport’s taking. “[Bullfighters] are heroes to those fans, and they know how hard they work because the announcer tells everybody,” Woerner says. “If it wasn’t for these guys, there wouldn’t be bull riding.”
How exactly Tuckness protects bull riders without becoming a smudge on the dirt is a hard thing to get out of him. Asked about the specifics of his profession, Tuckness closes down, cowboy shy with a touch of exasperation — the mark of a man who finds his work so natural that its basic techniques are obvious as a bull’s need to buck. The best bullfighters make their job look easy. To the unlearned eye, it seems the fighter simply waits for the rider to be bucked off, then sandwiches himself in the no-man’s-land between the cowboy and the bull, drawing the beast’s attention by sheer proximity. The bull, following its new target, tends to lose interest once the bullfighter dodges away once or twice. Things happen fast on the arena dirt. The escape from the bull looks like the cut-work of a backyard footballer, amateurish and improvisational, if lightning quick.
The actual textbook technique, Tuckness says, is in fact very simple: make a circle. “You have to stay out front of that bull’s shoulder. In order for a bull to move forward his butt end’s gotta get around, so you gotta make that circle, be tight, be aggressive, keep step with that shoulder.” This is the Spanish bullfighter’s intent, too. But with a cape he tricks the bull into orbiting him; the American bullfighter must do his own legwork, a reversal that puts the athleticism onto the man and not the bull. The Brahma bulls aren’t quite as quick as the Spanish fighting bulls, because they are bigger by several hundred pounds on average. But they are still, as Asay tells me, “like 2,000- pound cats.” Tuckness’s repertoire of escape moves are all bounded by this basic principle. Watch him work and you’ll see spins, double moves, jukes, and the occasional dive. On occasion he simply escapes in the same direction as the bull, its heavy head prodding him along like a wave pushing a body surfer. Asay compares the technique to bull riding itself: by making the right “counter move” at the right time, both professions can negate the bull’s power. Tuckness makes his work look like a dance, water flowing around an angry, horned rock.
Tuckness begins each rider’s attempt by holding a ready stance five to ten yards away from the action and reading the bull and its rider as they tango across the dirt. Nine times out of 10, Tuckness says, bullfighters can anticipate where a fallen cowboy will land to within a six-foot spot. Things happen too quickly to think. There are no pre-planned plays. “It’s just like a linebacker reading a running back,” he says. “[The linebacker] can’t be like, ‘he’s going left.’ No. He’s reading that, so he’s gonna flow over there. The guys that do it right and don’t hesitate and get in there and take a shot — those are the guys you see succeed.”
His timing, when he does decide to “flow over there,” has to be perfect in order to hit “the gap,” or the area between the fallen rider and the bull, at the right moment. Once there, Tuckness does what he needs to get the bull’s attention and keep it away from the cowboy, including grabbing its horns or waving a hand in its face. “There’s times when you see a bullfighter step in and get ahold of their head,” Tuckness says. “Sometimes that’ll pick that bull’s head up, so it has a bigger range to see, and it really locks onto you.”
The instincts required to do this are second nature to someone who’s played among angry bulls since the age of 12. But that’s not enough. Tuckness works out five to six days a week when he’s not working. He’s developed specific regimens with trainers from NFL teams to keep in perfect shape for his work — a manner of evasion much like that of a running back who doesn’t have an offensive line and must evade a linebacker 100 times his size, all the while protecting a defenseless player, immobilized on the ground. “You can’t be out of shape out there,” he says, pointing to the arena. Part of his job is understanding how a bull reacts to certain stimuli. This includes watching footage of past rides and evasions to learn a bull’s habits and peccadilloes — which way it will spin, whether it tends to trot off after a ride or cause havoc.
Commitment to the job seems simple but breaks down fast in the face of a one-ton bellowing charge. Tuckness is beloved by bull riders of all types — they’ve voted him the best bullfighter in the world for the past five years — because he applies this consistency to saving each and every bull rider who enters the ring. Some bullfighters will only lay themselves on the line in front of a charging, living locomotive for the very best riders; not Tuckness.
“Your percentage is a whole lot higher for getting away when Dusty is in the ring,” Asay says.
The final inch that has earned Tuckness the Best Bullfighter title is mental. He says he feels no fear when he is in the ring protecting cowboys. Considering the injuries he has sustained, and that he is up against a perturbed animal the weight of a Mazda Miata, this is hard to believe. But when questioned on the matter, he takes on a tone that says: You’ve seen me work — you’ve seen me willingly put myself between a hulking muscled creature and a supine form without an instant of hesitation or an ounce of regret. What the hell else do I have to do to prove it to you that I’m not afraid?
“You get guys saying you’re crazy,” he says. “I don’t really feel that I’m crazy at all. Sometimes it’s kind of an insult. In a sense, crazy people really don’t know what they’re doing. We’re trained. We’re professionals.”
The difference between a good bullfighter and a great bullfighter is this: a lack of fear, or at least an utter lack of hesitation in the face of fear. Otherwise, Tuckness says, “you sit there and go ‘Ooh, that might be a little risky.’ You step back, then kinda work it after the wreck happened. And you didn’t really do your job. You were just kinda there.”
I ask Asay if he believes his friend has no fear of the bulls. “As far as bucking bulls or fighting bulls, there’s no fear there. It’s beautiful to see when you’re a bull rider.” I ask him if he’s ever seen his best friend do anything unbelievable in the ring.
“As far as for cowboy protection,” Asay says, “everything’s crazy for that guy. I’ve watched him sit on a bull’s head, or grab the bull by its eyelashes, to get it away from that rider. As far as crazy stupid: probably the one thing I would say is just the backflips.”
Google “Dusty Tuckness” and you will find a video, set to Christian heavy metal, of Tuckness backflipping over bulls that are trying to maul him. The first half shows Tuckness doing what he’s renowned for. Tuckness throws a cowboy down into the dirt and absorbs a hit from the bull’s lowered head; he wrenches loose a cowboy’s hand stuck in a suicide wrap, both men on opposite flanks of the pinwheeling bull, the cowboy dragged and limp and tenuously close to stomping hooves, Tuckness leaping across the bull’s back as it bucks in order to reach the rope. Several times he is launched by a head-on collision with the bull’s head, then flips through the air and lands on his feet. Many more times he does not land on his feet and gets up limping away as fast as he can.
Then, halfway through the video, bold white letters declare “Freestyle,” signaling a switch from bull rider protection to a form of American bullfighting competition that most resembles Spanish bullfighting, without the capes or the killing. There are no bull riders. The bull enters the ring, head up, not bucking with a nuisance on its back, and there is Tuckness, still in face paint, still in “baggies” and cleats, but now alone in the center of the arena, poised to dance, freed from the most vital duty at every rodeo he’s ever worked: lifesaving. This is Dusty Tuckness the artist. The bull charges.
Ernest Hemingway wrote renowned passages on the sport of Spanish bullfighting, but his explanations of the Tercio de Banderillas and the Tercio de Muerte — when the matador leaps the bull’s shoulders to plant a spiked banderilla and then makes the killing stroke of a sword — can be confusing to those who haven’t seen the performance in person; the physics just don’t seem to line up. Tuckness’s leaps bring those passages to life: the cliché of the bull’s pawing, the charge, the man’s standing vault, his body slipping like silk over the rising horns, the bull’s front, then back legs kicking up spasmodically in a lunge that misses by inches, the leaper in a split second having flowed from nose to tail and come back down in a spurt of dust, unsteady after a moment of raw grace.
Later in the video, Tuckness faces away from the bull, looks over his shoulder, then leaps when the bull is upon him, backflipping over its lunging length. This is not a fluke. He does it three times in a single highlight video. One time his back is catapulted off the bull’s hump, which flings him through the air to complete his rotation.
Some would say his freestyle work is beautiful, though Tuckness refutes this. “I wouldn’t say beautiful would be a word in rodeo, by no means,” he rebuts. “But you’re out there, and it is an art.”
He’s right. The Spanish bullfighter kills the bull; the bull rider conquers the bull, for a few seconds; the bullfighter negates the bull, stymying its violence with great effort and, sometimes, a touch of martyrdom. But in freestyle, the bull becomes the canvas on which Tuckness paints his masterpiece.
Asay has a favorite bull jump, a leap over a pure white bull, “tip to tail,” the most amazing feat he’s ever seen his friend perform. I watch it.
It is night. The camera looks head-on at the bull, with Tuckness in the foreground. The bull sprints at Tuckness. Tuckness does a funny thing: he sprints at the bull. At the very last second Tuckness changes his angle slightly, and leaps, throwing his legs to the side and up. The bull rises, its horns flashing. Tuckness, way up in the air, his ass the closest part of his body to the ground, rides the ripple of angry muscle as it tries to put its body on a collision course, rising and falling in an oncoming wave. The bullfighter lands in stride.
The white bull exits stage left. And Tuckness again does something funny, a quick thing, a release he almost never allows himself during competition: having for once saved only himself, he takes off his cowboy hat and frisbees it through the air, then raises his face to the bright arena lights, letting his true colors glow out into the night.
This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.