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Armstrong Cowboy Dances With Bulls Bullfighter Chad Vandermeer Looks Out for Bull Riders' Safety

Armstrong Cowboy Dances With Bulls Bullfighter Chad Vandermeer Looks Out for Bull Riders' Safety

-by Tammy Thielman
- Photo by Torine Haller

"Cowboy safety is the number one priority of a rodeo bullfighter," says Chad Vandermeer, from the living room of his Armstrong home. For the last five years, Vandermeer has traveled to rodeos in B.C. and Alberta. "The bullfighter's first job is to keep the bull away from the bull rider. Second, we help the bull buck his best and perform for the crowd."

Bullfighting requires skill, strategy, and athletic ability, "We're not just running around out there," Chad explains. Wearing a colorful suit, a bullfighter must attract, and hold the bull's attention. "We're not rodeo clowns," says Chad, "we don't tell jokes."

Filled with danger, bullriding is rodeo's most popular and thrilling event. Bullriders try to stay on the bull's back for eight seconds; bullfighters, like Chad, try to outsmart and outrun the 1200-pound angry animals. "When the ride's over, the bullfighter has to turn the bull toward the rider's free arm, so the rider won't get hung up, and we grab the rope that releases the bull rider's hand."
Vandermeer explains the difference between freestyle bullfighting and rodeo bullfighting. "Freestyle fighting is for competition, for show, and for prize money. In freestyle, you show off your footwork and moves, and work with a barrel and barrelman. Rodeo bullfighting is a job -- we have to protect the rider from the bull when the ride's over."

Protecting a rider from an angry bull means jumping into nasty situations, and sometimes, straight-out wrecks. "If it means taken' a hookin', I'll take the hookin' -- that's part of the job," Chad says matter-of-factly, leaning back on his living room couch. "Most riders appreciate what a bullfighter does; they come up and thank me. Some don't, but most do."

In the States, where the extreme sport of bullriding is really popular, bullfighters can earn a living fighting bulls and saving cowboys. "In Texas, New Mexico, California, you can rodeo all year 'round." says Chad. "Here, there just aren't as many rodeos. Canadian bullfighters all have other jobs, and bullfighting is mainly a weekend thing."

Vandermeer grew up on a small farm in the B.C. Interior, then attended the Livestock Production Management Program at Olds College in Alberta. Always interested in bullfighting, Chad first rode bulls to get used to the rodeo arena atmosphere. "Riding bulls really helped me as a bull fighter. I learned what goes on. I know, firsthand, what getting stomped on or hung up feels like," he says, adding with a grin, "bull riding hurts. You always get stepped on!"

When the college rodeo coach asked Chad to try bull fighting, Vandermeer jumped at the opportunity . . . . and broke his ribs, "but I loved bullfighting, and kept doing it. I gave up bull-riding, though, I never really did want to ride as much as fight."

While some rough stock riders and bullfighters work out -- jogging or lifting weights -- to stay in top form, Vandermeer prefers to hone his skills by simply fighting bulls. "The more you fight, the quicker you get. Most of the challenge is mind set, you need to get psyched to react instantly." As Vandermeer talks about his extreme sport, he reveals the mental sharpness a bullfighter needs. "Sure, courage is part of it," he agrees, "Mostly, bull fighting is a mind game."

Chad prepares for fighting by stretching and talking to other bullfighters, who share information about bulls and riders. When the eight-second ride ends, not all bull riders get up and run for cover: "A rider with an injured knee won't be able to get up fast, so we know to keep the bull's attention longer. Some riders are prone to getting hung up, or staying down when they come off the bull. Bull fighters share information so we can do a better job protecting the cowboys."

Chad has seen plenty of scary incidents: "I've seen guys break their legs and arms, get hooked and pinned down, get teeth knocked out and knocked unconscious." When a rider gets hurt, Chad focuses on keeping the mad bull away from the injured rider. "Usually, I won't go over and try to help the hurt cowboy, if the medics are already there. I'd just be getting in the way. I keep the bull from getting at the rider again, and then concentrate on the next bull comin' outa' the chute."

Vandermeer had ambitions of earning his pro-rodeo 'card' that would establish him as a professional bullfighter. Though he does fight in some pro-rodeos, the bullfighter enjoys the atmosphere of amateur competitions, where he earns between $200 and $400 per day. "The pay isn't enough," Chad smiles, "I don't lose money, but I certainly don't make money. Sometimes, I drive eight hours to a rodeo. I do it because I love the sport."

To protect himself in dangerous situations, Vandermeer wears padding under his flashy bullfighting outfit. "I wear a protective vest, hockey pants, knee pads, and shoes with cleats." Fast-thinking and quick-movement are essential, especially in dangerous freestyle bull fighting. Black Mexican bulls -- cunning, mean, and fast -- are lighter than rodeo bulls: Chad explains, "Mexicans or Mexican crosses weigh about 600 pounds. They're really 'hot,' mean bulls -- when they hit you, their eyes are open. They want to hit you," he emphasizes.

Chad describes how a bull's horn became stuck under his protective vest. Other times, the bullfighter has been thrown airborne by a bull, and pinned against the arena fence. "When you get thrown, at least you're clear of the bull," Chad says, "When you get pinned, that hurts."

Not every mean bull stays mean, says Vandermeer, "Bulls can be like wild horses; after bucking and fighting, they get broke. Some are like big pets. A bull's temperament doesn't stay the same. They mellow out." In the ring, bulls look for the bullfighter, Chad says. "Bulls love repetition. Most do the same thing over and over, coming out of the chute. They have a pattern."

Vandermeer's dedication and skill have made him popular with cowboys. On the Alberta Wildrose Rodeo Association circuit, Alberta cowboys voted Vandermeer top bullfighter for two consecutive years ('99/2000). Chad wears that honour in the form of a trophy belt buckle. "Winning the cowboy's choice award means a lot to me; it means I'm the one the cowboys want there to look out for them. The horse events, like saddle bronc, have pick up riders to help the cowboys; bull riding has bull fighters."

Chad has fought at pro-rodeos, with well-known professionals like T.J. Baird and Ace Northcott, who appear at many B.C. rodeos. Teaming up with another bullfighter takes technique, "We always try to stay about 180 degrees from each other. One fighter gets the bull's attention, the other gets between the bull and the rider (when the rides over)."

In college, Chad attended a three-day bullfighting school with American full-time bullfighter Joe Baumgartner, but "I can learn from anyone who's better than me. You just have to get out and fight at practice nights." says Chad, who used to rodeo every weekend.

Now married to wife Kim, with a one-year-old son Pacen, Chad admits that he's slowing down his bullfighting career. Vandermeer used to attend over twenty rodeos per year; this year -- by his choice -- he'll see less action in the rodeo arena. He smiles and shrugs, "I'm a realist. I have responsibilities and priorities," he says contentedly, as he cuddles his sleepy toddler. "I love the people, and going to different towns, but I'll mostly be doing local, amateur rodeos this year, so I can be close to my home and family." Besides working as Yard Foreman at Valley Auction, Chad owns a large herd of market sheep.

When asked if, one day, Chad could watch his own son bullfight, he hesitates, then agrees, "Yeah, that would be okay, if he wanted to do it. I wouldn't want him to be a bull rider, but he could be a bullfighter. I'd be right there with him, still involved in rodeo."

Other articles by Tammy Thielman

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