The Role and Responsibilities of Rodeo Clowns and Barrelmen
When most people attend a rodeo, they’re expecting to see cowboys in ten-gallon hats, broncs, and bucking bulls. So you can imagine their look of surprise when they see a clown, complete with an oversized costume and a painted face, on the dirt. This clown isn’t lost, though – he’s right where he’s needed!
These “clowns” are either referred to as rodeo clowns or barrelmen, and they play a very important role during each performance. Typically, rodeo clowns are strictly focused on keeping the crowd entertained throughout the competition, while barrelmen will often tag-team with the bullfighters, distracting the bulls after each ride and allowing the cowboys to safely exit the arena.
Back in the 1900s, the sport of rodeo was starting to take form, and organizers were quickly realizing what roles were needed other than stock and cowboys. During the rodeo show, there were times when workers needed to head into the arena and repair a fence or take an injured cowboy out of the arena, pausing the rodeo performance. This caused many patrons to leave the rodeo early. Rodeo owners were tired of seeing fans walk away, so they started paying cowboys to entertain the crowd between competitions.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that these cowboys became true rodeo clowns. Wearing oversized clothes and painting their faces made them easy to spot among all the cowboys and stock crew. The official role of a barrelman as we know it today didn’t come into play until the 1930s with the introduction of Brahma bulls in bull riding. Brahmas upped the ante with their nasty attitudes and enthusiasm for chasing after the cowboys who had been bucked off. But armed with only reflexes, adrenaline, and jokes, rodeo clowns were just as much at risk as the cowboys.
In the late 1930s, Jasbo Fulkerson got “tired of being run over”, so he rolled out a wooden barrel reinforced on the outside with old car tire casings. Little did Fulkerson realize, with the introduction of his barrel, he created the role of “barrelman” that we all recognize in the arena nowadays. After his ingenuity, many barrelmen followed after him, creating their own barrels personalized to their height and weight to take with them to each rodeo.
While the premise of being a barrelman may seem simple and fun, the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) and their sanctioned rodeos take barrelmen very seriously. Similar to bullfighters, barrelmen must have a PRCA membership card in order to be able to work any PRCA-sanctioned rodeo (this applies to rodeo clowns, too!).
This process includes getting letters of recommendations and having an onsite evaluation at a non-PRCA rodeo to ensure that they meet the levels of performance that are expected. After the evaluation is completed, the Contract Personnel Executive Council will make their decision on whether a permit should be granted. Once the permit is issued, the barrelman will be allowed to work PRCA rodeos, with some limitations attached. After working five PRCA rodeos, the barrelman will be reviewed again by the Contract Personnel Executive Council, at which point the barrelman will either be granted card status or be denied membership. If they achieve their card, they’ll be considered full members with no limitations. However, if they’re denied, their membership is terminated, and they will have to repeat the process if they still want to achieve a membership.
So while it may seem like all fun and games, just keep in mind that the jobs of barrelmen and rodeo clowns are no easy feat and shouldn’t be underestimated.