BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
Bullfighters set themselves apart from rodeo clowns. They function with an almost primal sense of principle: serve as a human shield for bull riders who’ve been chucked or thrown from bulls after their eight-second rides.
Call the bullfighter’s job a perilous game of tag. Call it the most serious part of the rodeo world. Call it anything but clowning around. Indeed, the bullfighter no longer dresses up like a clown to risk life and limb.
“I don’t wear face paint, baggy pants or any torn-out shorts or suspenders,” said Raymond Ansotegui (whose Basque name is pronounced an-SOH´-tuh-ghee).
Equipped with a chest plate, a back plate, a rib guard, shorts snug with padding in the legs and back, and a pair of cleats, Ansotegui subverts bulls in a battle of gripping, meaningful unease.
“I don’t wear knee braces, but I’ve got a sports jersey and a cowboy hat,” said Ansotegui. “I’m not worried about not being protected. The more gear you wear, the slower you are going to be.”
Every millisecond is precious in an enclosed arena where reflexes lightning-fast and impeccable timing can be the difference between life and serious injury. Perhaps no job provides a jolt of clarity fiercer than than that of the bullfighter. Being kicked, bumped or trampled by a bull is their wake-up call.
“You are going to take a shot, and you have to take one shot every now and again to see what’s in you and what it is you are made of,” said Ansotegui.
Still, no matter how prepared for harm he may be, before a night of dodging bulls, Ansotegui is suitably nervy with anxiety. He goes into survival mode, mentally withdrawing into a private world that requires sharp focus and unique biomechanics.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie. You know, the first time in the arena, once the gate latches shut, it’s like a tornado. But then it gets really calm. You are always nervous, but your brain is in a different place. There has to be some nerves going for me, or someone may get hurt.”
Ansotegui’s work starts before the cowboy hits the dirt. He has to react while allowing himself enough time to assess, control and manage the situation. Literally getting on the bull’s bad side is part of his job, and he must move with slick, smart panache.
Bullfighting requires rescues measured in inches. The game plan he’s relied on since he began bullfighting six years ago is simple: You have to hurl your body into the action.
“People come off [bulls] in bad spots, and you have to come in through the tightest of space, essentially between the bull and the rider. And you can get so tight that you have one hand on each of them—one hand on the bull, and the other on the rider, touching them both. There is not a lot of space, and sometimes there is no space. You get close enough to feel the hooves and snot of the bull.”
If he times his diversionary entrance and exit perfectly, the cowboy has a few precious seconds to scamper to safety, and the bull’s absorbed attention is turned in the opposite direction, focused on Ray.
“Don’t run in a straight line,” said Ansotegui. “That’s not easy. You can spin faster than the bull can. But they can push you out of the way, catch you, and give you a love tap. I guess it’s a love tap to them. But you end up eight feet in the air, and in your mind, you are thinking, ‘dammit, this is going to hurt when I come down.’ It is like having a dancing partner who doesn’t want to do the same moves as you. [But] with your hand on the bull, you are controlling the situation, walking where you want to go. Something pretty cool about that feeling.”
Raymond studied at the bullfighting school of Al Sandvold, a North Dakota-born cowboy living in Belgrade. “Al taught me that the bullfighter has to be quiet and quick, not flashy, and that his job is to keep cowboys safe and have his s— together.”
Sandvold taught Raymond how to read the body language of the rider, sensing, feeling, speculating the very second he will need to act in the role of cowboy protector.
“I have to be able to see if the cowboy is going to come off,” said Ansotegui. “I can see his hips shift or other indicators. I have an advantage if I can start early, if I can get to the gap early. You can see the cowboy rock out or see his hips shake the wrong way, off to the side of the bull. Unless he makes a move and corrects, he is getting tossed. You see that the cowboy’s feet come too close to his mid-core, and they have no more grip. When you see the boot and spur in the high area, you know there is a good chance he is coming off or going over the bull’s head.”
Bulls have ranging temperaments, and Ansotegui, who holds a Master’s degree in Reclamation from Arizona State University, has spent ample time working with and studying cows. His father worked as an animal science professor at Montana State University and Raymond spent many of his summers helping him conduct field research.
“I’ve always found it fascinating, the interaction with a large animal,” said Ansotegui. “When bullfighting, you know which ones are the meanest, and, even with the meanest, once they are done, they go in the back and they are calm.”
Similar to all other professions, the bullfighter has good days and bad days. A few months ago, Raymond took a pounding from the first bull of the night. He needed to regroup fast. He had to safely protect more than two dozen other riders.
“The first bull came out and he got a hold of me. He got me in a bad spot and gave me a couple of shots. That was the first bull of the day and I fought 28 or 29 others that night. But you need to remember that you came to protect. And you don’t want to give the thirtieth guy less protection. It is not fun to get freight trained. You are sore. You are busted up. But you just can’t wait to go do it again.”
Ansotegui said that working as a bullfighter provided him with a sense of respect for the fast-moving action of the arena.
“I love watching the guys ride bulls and to see the partnership with riders and bulls. There is no better seat in the house to see the power and motion between two things.”
The bullfighter’s job is to take a “love tap” from the bull, in the way a Secret Service agent might leap in front of a bullet to save a president. Your average bullfighter, though, has saved more lives than your typical Secret Service agent. Cowboys, with one or two rides a night, grace newspapers and television highlights. Bullfighters—who work in pairs—remain in the background, as an understated, integral piece of the puzzle. There is no such thing as crazy when describing bullfighting—it’s a tightly choreographed performance of ballet, bulls, and pure balls. In fact, Raymond talks mundanely about preparing for events by drinking plenty of water and stocking up on ice packs, and the importance of a healthy diet, ample exercise, and, if possible, giving injuries time to heal.
“You can’t come to the battle if you haven’t prepared,” he said.
The curiosity about life that plays with the emotional lives of men, that craving for excitement and adventure, drew Raymond to bullfighting at the relatively late age of 34. He understands that his body is going to take a pounding, and plans to keep evading bulls at least a few more years. “At 40, you know when you take a good muscle shot that it’ll be sore for a while. It needs a little more time to rehab.”
Ansotegui works as an amateur bullfighter; the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, a wider circuit encompassing the entire sport, puts on approximately 1,000 pro rodeos annually. Roughly 300 men work as bullfighters, only about one-tenth of them make it a full-time living. Bullfighters have to be selected to advance.
“Every time you show up to work you are earning your invitation to your next gig,” said Ansotegui. “Maybe I could have gone further if I had started earlier. But, you know, I’m not the most athletic guy in the world. But, there was something I just needed to prove to myself.”
Most of his assignments come through the Roughrider Rodeo Association, with the bulk of the events in Montana, North Dakota, and Canada. And it’s not just the bullriders who work their way up; the bulls end up on different levels, too.
“It’s not unusual to see one of the bulls you just faced on television two or three weeks later at a professional event,” said Ansotegui, who lives in Livingston and works in sales at John Deere.
No matter the level, the threat of being seriously injured by a striking bull is his occupational reality. Bottom line: He’s ready to die for riders every time.
“If I make enough to cover my travel, lodging, and food, and I have some money left over, I’m perfect. More than that, is that I get a bunch of memories of knowing I did everything I could to keep everyone safe.”