Rodeo bullfighting is one of the oldest extreme sports in North America. Unlike Spanish bullfighting, popularized by American writer Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, rodeo bullfighting is not intended to be a fight to the death between man and bull. In fact, it is a means of protecting bull riders from serious injury or death, as the bullfighter attracts the bull towards himself so that the cowboy can get out of the ring. In doing so, however, the bullfighter often puts his own life in jeopardy.
Bowmanville native, and long-time Orono resident Clark Gerryts is a member of the Dodge Rodeo Tour this year, and he will be in the ring bullfighting during the bull riding competitions.
“This is my hometown rodeo,” says Gerryts, who moved to Port Hope recently, but still considers himself from Orono. At 33, he is a rodeo veteran of sorts, originally competing in bull riding, before switching to bullfighting about six years ago.
After taking a broken rib and a punctured lung in stride as a bull rider, it was a broken arm that finally brought Gerryts to bullfighting. Sidelined by the broken arm, unable to ride, he was asked if he could try to fill in as a bullfighter.
“They asked if I could do my best, and just try it. I was trying to find something else to keep myself in the rodeo. And then, those little close calls where I almost got caught [by the bull], they kind of hooked me,” he says.
While he acknowledges that bullfighting is dangerous, Gerryts says there is a method to the perceived madness. “It’s a calculated risk,” he explains. “If you’re going to take a hit for a cowboy, you don’t take the hit square on. You take any power you can away from the bull’s blow to you. You’re not taking the full-on hit.”
Compared to his injuries from bull riding, Gerryts says his bullfighting injuries are relatively minor. “I’ve had broken ankles, mostly fractured ankles, broken fingers, and shoulder dislocations. I’ve been pretty lucky bullfighting compared to some. I haven’t had any big injuries.”
With more courage and less pay than the hockey player who plays injured in the playoffs, it is a passion for the rodeo that drives Gerryts and his fellow rodeo bullfighters to carry on despite the risks. Not wanting to quit the rodeo, he has postponed surgery to his battered knees for the past three years.
“It’s extremely hard to give up the rodeo life. It’s something you’re either into or you’re not. I know I’m not going to do it forever. I’ve tried to give it up. Over the years, I’ve thought about getting what they call a real job,” he says.
Facing the wrath of a 2000 lb. bull, it is hard to imagine any job that is more “real” when it comes to danger. It requires Gerryts to be so focussed, he is barely aware that there is an audience watching while he works.
“I used to be able to hear the crowd,” he says. “But with my job, if you’re distracted for a split second, you could get someone killed. So I tune things out. I’m focussed on my job.”
While the rodeo life has a romantic appeal, it requires the skills of an athlete, as well as discipline and intuition. “You’ve got to stick your ground and read that bull, and decide how you’re going to take that hit,” says Gerryts. “You try to land on your feet, but sometimes you don’t.”
Despite the risks to life and limb, he is ever mindful that the cowboys and cowgirls are counting on him to do his job. “I’m wearing padding underneath my clothes. I’m wearing a lot more protection than the riders. They’re depending on me to be there so they can walk away healthy from that rodeo. I’ve got a lot of people depending on me, about 30 bull riders, all depending on me. I don’t think about it. I just go out there and do my job. If I’ve got to get between the bull and the rider, then I do it,” he says.
He has a bond with many of the bull riders, as well as with his bullfighting partner. “I know most of the bull riders. You get to know them all. And the guy I’m fighting with this year, Steve Fortin, he’s been fighting over ten years in Ontario. It’s like a second family,” he says.
As for his own family, Gerryts says his mother, Nancy, has never seen him at work in the bullring. “My Mom’s never, ever seen me rodeo. It’s just something she can’t watch,” he says. Still, she takes pride in her son’s accomplishments, and follows his tour schedule, noting “Clark is always on the go”. Anyone who follows rodeo knows, the bullfighter is an integral part of the sport, making it fun, exciting and safer for all.