HELENA — Rodeo clowns are a staple to a rodeo. They break the tension of an otherwise intense sport by riling up the crowd and as cowboys get ready to risk life and limb rodeoing. In John Harrison’s case, the rodeo clown plays a key role in bull rider’s safety.
Harrison has been a rodeo clown for nearly 20 years, about 90% of that time is spent clowning around, the other 10% is about being, “an island of safety,” for bull riders by manning the bull barrel.
With padding, inside and out, the barrel is a safe target that Harrison can get a bull to target in the event a cowboy get’s bucked from a bull in the middle of the arena. The only caveat? Harrison draws attention to the barrel by causing a commotion while standing inside of it.
“I’ll reach out side the barrel holler at the bull, I‘ll slap the side of the barrel to get the bull to look at me instead of the cowboy; the bull will usually turn then and then I duck down, curl up like a cat in the back window of a car,” Harrison said. “I push against the side of the barrel and then let the bull hit me.”
Despite having the padding, Harrison says if you’re not braced right inside the barrel, “it’s like being in a car wreck at a stop light.”
“Think about [a bull] that weighs about 1,500 pounds, I‘m 170 [pounds], the barrel is about 100 [pounds], you know? He out weighs us by about five or six times the amount that we are, so when he hits you, you feel it,” Harrison chuckled.
Harrison says thankfully, he doesn’t get thrown around that often. Sometimes if he gets lucky, he gets to clown around for the entirety of the show.
“Depending on the rodeo, you might go an entire weekend and not get looked at by a bull and then there’s some nights, you’ll get smoked three or four times,” Harrison said with a sly smile. “We get to where we know the bulls too. I mean, they’re just like people, they all have personalities. Some bulls have a chip on their shoulder and you know when ever they’re in the chute, this is the guy that got me last time.”
As a clown, Harrison knows it’s part of his duties to man the barrel and described it being fun, but it’s the clowning aspect of his job, where he feels like he hits his stride.
“The entertainment side is where it’s at. I love entertaining the crowd and you know, everyone’s got problems in our life; it don’t matter what it is, financially, your marriage or whatever. You can come to the rodeo here for two hours, get away from all the problems in your life and have fun,” said Harrison. “When people laugh, it throws gas on my fire and i just want to be more entertaining and when you leave there and the people had fun, that’s what it’s about.”