You don’t have to spend much time around athletes in the rough stock business before you notice that letter/number references to spinal anatomy are part of the lexicon, as in: “A bull hit me into the chute, broke my C5 and 6.” That's bullfigther Josh Rivinius recalling the bull that broke his neck when he intervened to help a rider who was hung up on the bull rope and ended up folded against the chute.
As Josh says of injuries in the sport, “nobody wants them but they’re part of it.” So much a part of it that conversations about them naturally lapse into a kind of technical shorthand. When broken vertebrae become a part of the job you start keeping track of which ones broke where.
Rivinius, Colin Lamont of Lodgepole, South Dakota and Cooper Waln of Rosebud are the bullfighter crew that covered for the dismounted cowboys at the PRCA Xtreme Bulls Tour last weekend during the Black Hills Stock Show.
Without them and their trade, the most dangerous sport in the world would be near impossible. They selfwardly direct the homicidal anger of a rank bucking bull when the riders are at their most vulnerable — whether sprawled out in, or faceplowing, the dirt while being dragged through it by an ankle.
Bullfighters don’t win the big trophies or money. They’re not climbing on a bull’s back uninvited, but they are down in the bucking zone where the heat and smell and the anger is visceral and constant. They might spend hours dancing with animals one thunderous belly roll from snapping a few C-whatevers.
When Colin Lamont started bullfighting his senior year in high school, it was his first foray into rodeo — not the most likley bio for a bullfighter. “No one else in my family rodeoed or anything. I just thought it would be fun fighting bulls. I watched people doing it as grew up, and it was just something I wanted to do.”
He joined the National Guard after high school, and went to college for one semester at SDSU before he deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Within weeks of coming home, he was back in the game. “I kind of like risky stuff I guess. Maybe I’m just dumb, I don’t know." He admits that civilian life can seem a bit slow relative to life outside the wire. “Life sometimes seem boring.”
Bullfighting and boredom don’t mix. A constant hyper-awareness is required. “The bulls nowadays are so athletic,” says Rivinius,”and they buck so hard. It’s unbelievable what a two thousand pound animal can do.”
“For somebody to go out there and say they’re absolutely without fear, they’re probably lying, or crazy.” But it’s all in how you channel that angst. “Everything I like to do probably gives you a little butterfly or two.”
Six weeks after Rivinius broke his neck (and his collar bone, a couple ribs), he was back in the arena.
So far, Cooper Waln has gotten by with a few broken fingers and toes — injuries that barely count when running with bucking bulls — a very good run considering he started bullfighting at the age of 13. Waln grew up on a ranch near Parmelee. (If you recognize his last name, it might be because his cousin is the rapper Frank Waln). His family ran a rough stock contracting business when he was a kid, so rodeo is in his blood. He's competed in the gamut of events but now travels around the region from Texas to North Dakota for bullfighting gigs.
He credits his skills to his upbringing. “It’s instinct. It’s reading cattle. We’re around cattle every day, so it comes pretty much natural to us to see what that animal is thinking or his next move.”
Conditioning plays a role too, though. “If you get in a wreck or really have to work hard in that arena, and you run out of breath and somebody gets hurt, that’s on you,” says Rivinius.
This idea of protection comes up a lot. Bullfighters take that seriously. They are gladiators of a diversionary kind, taking just enough heat off the riders — for adrenalin and a little extra dough, and the chance to help out their fellow cowboys. As Colin puts it, "I thrive on taking a hit or helping someone.”