RED LODGE – Cody Whitney, a cowboy out of Asher, Okla., is the last bull rider up on the first night of the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge.
It’s been a great night – after 83 years of doing this, the folks in Red Lodge definitely know how to run a rodeo. Everything clicks along at a near-perfect pace, and there’s always something going on. The moment a cowboy is no longer on the back of a bucking bronc or wrestling a steer to the dirt, announcer Doug Mathis has his engaging Texas twang filling the air, or clown JJ Harrison is water-skiing across the arena in a fat suit.
There is no water, of course, nor a boat, for that matter, or even skis.
But give this clown a rope to hang onto, and a galloping horse to pull him, and he’ll wildly ski through dirt on his sneakers.
Bull riding – often referred to as “the eight most dangerous seconds in sports” – is the final PRCA event of the night, and while not every rider has lasted the full eight seconds, none have been hurt.
That’s about to change.
Kaleb Barrett, a licensed practical nurse in Missoula, knows what it’s like to have a couple thousand pounds of angry animal stomping on you.
Barrett took up bull riding during his high school years in Whitehall, where he grew up. It was at a high school rodeo in Vaughn that he took on a bull, and the bull won.
“I got whipped down hard,” Barrett remembers. “I was wearing a helmet with a face mask, and I landed so hard the face mask smashed into my head, broke my nose and knocked me out.”
What’s worse, there was no one there to distract the raging bull and lure him away.
“Back then, in high school rodeo, they weren’t too strict,” Barrett says. “There was no bullfighter. My best friend had to come out of the stands and wave his hat to get the bull off me. He was just stomping on me.”
Kaleb Barrett reached a decision after that ride quickly went south on him – in part, he admits with a smile, “because I’m not that good of a bull rider.”
But he was a pretty decent high school athlete in football and basketball, and possessed good lateral speed that does no good when you’re on the back of a bull.
“So I decided I’d rather be fighting bulls instead of riding them,” Barrett says.
Today, the Missoula resident may be the only person in America who, on his tax return, lists as his occupations both “nurse” and “bullfighter.”
July is known as “cowboy Christmas” because it has the greatest concentration of rodeos. Competitors can win the biggest share of their income during this one month, and how they do in July can spell the difference between making and missing the National Finals Rodeo.
Barrett is especially excited to work the Home of Champions Rodeo, a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event held every July 2, 3 and 4 in Red Lodge, because he’ll be teaming with the man who taught him most everything he knows about bullfighting.
Al Sandvold of Belgrade “is in the top 1 percent of bullfighters,” Barrett says. “When I work with Al, I don’t have to look, because I already know where he is. We really move together and work as a team. With other guys you have to pay attention. Things can get screwed up quick when a guy wants to be the hero and gets in over his head.”
Barrett met Sandvold after following his high school sweetheart (and now his wife), Shawna, to Missoula for college.
Shawna, a barrel racer, was the one with a full-ride rodeo scholarship at the University of Montana; Kaleb says he “tagged along” as sort of a walk-on bull rider.
“But things were changing for me,” he says. “I wasn’t craving getting on bulls. I was driving to Bozeman every Thursday after school to get in front of the only practice bulls I knew of.”
Sandvold, who has been fighting bulls since 1992, happened to be there, too, rehabbing an injured knee.
“What little I watched him, I could tell, one, that he was very athletic, and two, he had a lot of ability, a lot of potential,” Sandvold says. “He had lots of energy but no direction. He was all over the place.”
Sandvold invited Barrett to a three-day bullfighting school he was putting on in Pierre, S.D.
“If you want to take the next step,” Sandvold told him.
But Barrett – who stumbled onto his other calling when he took an Introduction to Respiratory Therapy class and loved it – was in his final semester of nursing school.
The bullfighting school was a Friday-through-Sunday affair, but with the driving time involved in getting to Pierre, “there was no way I could miss that much school,” Barrett says. “Al said, ‘I’ll fly you,’ and that’s the day my career changed. I went to Pierre, and took my college mid-term in the bunkhouse on a computer.”
“Fighting bulls, and saving cowboys – 95 percent of it is mental,” Sandvold says as he and Barrett sit just outside the Red Lodge arena on Monday morning, awaiting their first night of work at the Home of Champions.
“You don’t have to be super fast or super strong,” he goes on, “but you do have to prepare your mind to do something normal people can’t do.”
Namely, to be in the right spot at the right time and place your body between a downed cowboy and a couple thousand pounds of raging fury.
“If you’re thinking about where you need to go, you’re already too late,” Sandvold says. “It has to be instinct, but it’s not a natural thing to do, so you have to train yourself.”
Like football players, bullfighters spend a lot of time watching film of their opponents.
“We do a lot of film study,” Sandvold says. “And we’re not watching the bull rider, we’re watching the bulls. We rewind, rewind, rewind, rewind and watch them again and again.”
The purpose is to study situations, and focus on what a bullfighter should do in each – not to try to attach tendencies to individual animals.
“As soon as you do that, they’ll set a trap and run you over,” Sandvold says. “We have to treat every animal the same. Bulls may have reputations about how mean they are, but we can’t think that way. About the time you think one won’t hook you, he will.”
“Like Al says, our job is to prevent a hooking, not take one,” Barrett says, “but if anyone takes one, it’ll be us. He says if people don’t notice us, we’re doing our jobs. We’re stopping wrecks before they happen.”
On this night, they must be doing their jobs awfully well, because the moment a cowboy hits the dirt, one of them has the bull’s attention and the other has stepped between the animal and his recently departed rider.
Everyone comes to watch the bull riders, of course, not the bullfighters, and Barrett says it’s impossible to do both at once. But if you hone in on the bullfighters occasionally, it’s easy to see that the better they are at anticipating when that cowboy is coming off the bull, the quicker they can shoot into the action and get the animal away.
“That’s everything – timing,” Barrett says. “We can guess where the rider will land and bam, get there, and slow things down.”
Unlike many people in the sport, Barrett does not come from a family that’s active in rodeo.
But his Dad loves to watch it, and Barrett remembers rooting on eight-time PRCA bull riding world champion Donnie Gay as he competed on TV.
“There was something about the way my Dad acted when he saw the bull riding,” Barrett says. “So I’ve been interested in it since I was about 3 years old. Of course, when you’re 3, your Dad’s the bull.”
Barrett would climb on his father’s back and get bucked around the living room while the older cowboys rode real bulls on TV.
In June, Barrett spiced up his resume by winning the Dusty Tuckness and Kanin Asay Classic Freestyle Bullfight championship in Cody, Wyo.
Such competitions are scored just like rodeo bull riding events – judges award up to 100 points, 50 for the animal and 50 for the human – and in these, there are no riders to protect.
It’s just bull vs. bullfighter.
To Barrett, it’s a much different – and more difficult – task than the traditional bullfighting of Spanish culture involving sword-toting matadors.
“The differences are we don’t have a cape, we don’t bleed ’em and we don’t kill ’em,” he says. “It isn’t a blood sport. In my opinion, ours is harder because the bull isn’t bled, there are no lances in him, so he’s always fresh and ready.”
“And,” he adds, “because we don’t kill the bulls we fight, they get smarter.”
Barrett scored 84 in the first round, and 86 in the second to earn his championship buckle. In a YouTube video showing both, you can watch Barrett get knocked down and run over by an animal in the second round.
But before it’s over, he’ll tickle the crowd by reaching out and hanging his cowboy hat on one of the angry bull’s horns.
Back home, residents at The Springs of Missoula, an assisted living center where Barrett is employed as an LPN, get a kick out of hearing their nurse’s tales from the rodeo circuit.
The Springs, he says, is outstanding about giving him the time off he needs to work as a professional bullfighter.
Shawna, a registered nurse at Riverside Health Care Center, travels with her husband as often as possible, but can’t be at every rodeo he works.
“I have to stay full time,” she says with a smile, “because we need the insurance.”
As it is, Barrett says half his yearly income comes from bullfighting. Bullfighters are part of the PRCA but operate as independent contractors hired either by the committees who put on rodeos, or the stock contractors.
He and Sandvold – whose “day job” is in the aviation industry, where he works for Yellowstone Jetcenter at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport – put up to 20,000 miles a year on their vehicles traveling to rodeos.
Sandvold, who is 40, and the 28-year-old Barrett make their first appearance in Red Lodge to help with mutton-bustin’, a brief break in the real action where helmeted little kids hang on for dear life on the back of sheep that charge out of the chutes.
“It’s good to get out and get a feel for the dirt,” Barrett explains.
The rodeo is about three hours old before the bulls and their riders take center stage, and the two men really go to work.
“For the next 15 minutes,” announcer Mathis says as he introduces the two bullfighters, “they have the most dangerous job in rodeo.”
A lot of people don’t understand that job, their wives say.
“I tell people Al’s a bullfighter, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s a clown,’ ” Mary Sandvold says. “I tell them, ‘No, he’s not funny.’ ”
“Or they’ll hear ‘bullfighter,’ and think you mean bull rider,” Shawna Barrett adds.
Outside of their cowboy hats, you’d think the two were dressed for a softball game, not a rodeo, when they go to work, but they’ve got padding underneath to help protect them.
All goes well – the bullfighters make the job almost look easy, which is saying a lot – until Cody Whitney gets his hand caught in the rope as he’s bounced off his bull on the night’s final ride.
“Hang-ups are one of the toughest things we face,” Barrett says later. “One time I had a guy who hung his foot up in the rope, and that was one of the most intense situations I’ve ever been in.”
In this case, the bull charges madly around the chute area dragging Whitney with him as Barrett and Sundvold work furiously to slow the animal down.
The goal is for Barrett to get the bull “straightened out,” he says, “so Al has an open line to come in and pop up on his back” and try to free the cowboy’s hand from the rope.
“It’s the hardest thing to do in bullfighting,” Barrett says.
Fortunately, Whitney breaks free before it reaches that point, but the bull gets in a few stomps on the cowboy before Sandvold and Barrett lure the beast away so he can charge at them.
EMTs attend to Whitney for several tense minutes before the obviously injured cowboy insists on leaving the arena under his own power.
“It was a good night up to that last bull,” Barrett says.
Their goal is always for no one to get hurt, but this odd job requires that if anyone is going to, they do everything in their power to make themselves the victim.
“No paycheck can touch the feeling you get when a guy says, ‘Thanks for saving me,’ ” Barrett says. “When a family member tells you they feel better when they see you out there, it makes you know you’ve got to show up and fight bulls.”
And that’s exactly what this Missoula nurse does.
Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at email@example.com. Missoulian photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at (406) 523-5244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.