Saturday, March 2, 2019

Send in the Clown! An Interview with Pro-Rodeo Entertainer, Ronald Burton by Gina McKnight

Ronald Burton at work. Not much protection! 
photo credit: Bradford Photography

Send in the Clown! An Interview with Pro-Rodeo Entertainer, Ronald Burton
by Gina McKnight

Archived from the February 2019 Issue of Florida Equine Athlete
No duplication without permission

From Philadelphia, Mississippi, Ronald Burton is an award-winning Pro-Rodeo Entertainer, wowing crowds across the United States with his fearless and witty performances. A member of the PRCA, CPRA, UPRA, Ronald is an expert in his field.  I had the great opportunity to (virtually) meet up with Ronald and learn the behind-the-scenes perils and joys of being a rodeo entertainer...

Welcome, Ronald!

GM: Traveling the country, seeing many people, bulls, broncs, and arenas sound like a fun profession. When did you decide to become a rodeo clown?
RB: I started out as a bull rider. I rode bulls for six years and quit for two reasons: number one, I wasn't any good, and number two, I wasn't getting any better!! (laughing). I've always been a thrill seeker and love an adrenaline rush, so the thought of facing from 10 to 25 bulls per night instead of riding just one was much more fulfilling. My job as a rodeo bullfighter was to make sure that the bull riders, my bullfighting partner, and myself all walk out of the arena safely at the end of the night. I compare rodeo bullfighters to the secret service for the's our job to take the bullet.  Having the trust of the bull riders and getting a pat on the back, a handshake, a high five, or just simply someone saying "you did a great job"  is very gratifying. At most rodeos there will be two bullfighters that protect the bull riders and also there will be a  barrel man. A barrel man's job at a rodeo is mainly to entertain the crowd with jokes, funny stories, and sometimes a comedy act. My job now is mainly as a rodeo clown/barrel man. I'm 47 now and let's face it, fighting bulls and protecting the riders is a young man's game. I can still get to the wreck as fast as I always could but getting out is a different story (laughs). I had a great career as a bullfighter and still have a passion for it, but now I enjoy seeing the younger guys coming up in the sport and passing some of my knowledge down to them. I've always been a class clown, I love making people smile and laugh, and I always enjoyed helping the barrel man with comedy acts at the rodeos, so the transition from bullfighting to being the rodeo entertainer/barrel man/rodeo clown was very easy for me. During the bull riding, I will be in the barrel cracking jokes and entertaining the fans but my job takes on a more serious role. Clown barrels have a specific purpose in the arena during the bull riding. Clown barrels are made from either steel or heavy grade aluminum (same type that jets are made of), and are designed so that the rodeo clown can pick it up from the inside and walk with it to provide extra protection for the riders and the bullfighters. The rodeo term for it is "island of safety", I guess because it looks like an island in an ocean of dirt (laughs).  The outside of the barrel is heavily padded so it won't hurt a bull's head if he hits the barrel. I take great pride in providing that extra protection factor. A question that I get asked frequently is "What does it feel like when a bull hits your barrel?" My answer, "It's like being in a car wreck without wearing a seat belt!" (laughs)

Me riding bulls in 1991 photo credit:  Western Photography
Me fighting bulls in Ft. Worth, TX  photo credit:  Moonlight Photography
Using the barrel to help protect a bull rider in Teague, TX in 2017. 
photo credit: Cowgirl at Heart Photography

GM: I don't think people realize the amount of hard work and stamina required to be a rodeo clown/performer. What do you do to stay in shape? Do you have a regular workout, special diet, or a regime to keep you agile and fit? 
RB: To be perfectly honest this is an area where I struggle. Diet and cardio are very important especially because of my age and all the traveling I do. Unfortunately, I have a terrible sweet tooth so my eating habits are not the best! I used to run/walk six miles every day and need to stop making excuses and get back to doing that. The diet starts...tomorrow!

GM: As a rodeo clown, dipping in and out of barrels, your job is to protect the riders. But, Ronald, how do you protect yourself from harrowing scenarios that leave the crowd in suspense?
RB: The advancements in the technology of protective equipment for bullfighters over the last 20 years is outstanding. But no matter how good the equipment is, there will always be injuries when you’re dealing with a 1200-1800 pound animal. As I said before, the outside of the clown barrel is heavily padded to protect the bull but the inside is padded too for my protection. But even with the two layers of padding, I have been literally knocked unconscious inside the barrel from a bull hitting it. Also, I'm a firm believer that pre-rodeo prayer is very important.

"Here kitty kitty!"  photo credit: Kaus Photos

GM: Watching the rodeo is so much fun, but it can be tough to watch when a rider gets a mean bull/bronc. You are probably familiar with the livestock and their dispositions. What bull and/or bronc stands out?
RB: There have been so many throughout the years that it's hard to pick just one. I usually don't scope out the mean ones or ask too many questions but if one is mean, someone with the rodeo company/crew will give me a "heads up". If one is really mean, then I will remember him next time! (laughs)  If I had to pick one recently, it would have to be a bull named "Bone Shaker" owned by the Diamond G Rodeo Company from Utah. I was working the PRCA rodeo in San Bernardino, California, and had heard that he is notorious for hitting the clown barrel...and boy was that rumor correct! I usually don't sweat those mean bulls when I'm working with good bullfighters and know that I will be taken care of in the barrel.

Lelo Garcia (bullfighter), Bone Shaker, and me (in the barrel) in San Bernardino, CA 
photo credit:  Kaus Photos

GM: How many arenas/rodeos do you attend each year? Do you have a favorite event/arena?
RB: I have worked events all over this beautiful country, literally from coast to coast and even in Alaska. I would have to say that I'm pretty partial to the Navarro County Pro Rodeo in Corsicana, Texas, because I co-produce this event with one of my best friends, David Atkeisson. Six years ago David and I formed VLK Productions, (named for my daughter Victoria and David's daughters Lauren and Katie), and started producing the rodeo. We oversee every aspect of the event from the ground up. It was a huge step out of my "comfort zone" and has been a great learning experience and I'm proud to say that the Navarro County Pro Rodeo has become a multi award-winning rodeo in the Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association. To find out more about this great event and VLK Productions, go to and vlkproductions on Facebook.

GM: With 15 years as a rodeo clown and entertainer, you must have a lot of stories to share. Can you share one of your favorite anecdotes?
RB: Rodeo is one big family. The laughs are endless. I have been very blessed throughout the years with some lifelong friendships.  And with friendships that are like family comes the huge practical jokes! The one that comes to mind right now, and without going into too much detail, involves a buddy of mine and I talking another buddy of ours into putting on a full gorilla costume, a petting zoo, and his 8-month pregnant wife looking for him at 3a.m.!!  Let your imagination take over in 3,2,1...Go!! (laughing)

GM: A traveling rodeo clown/entertainer sounds like a fun job. What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career as a rodeo clown? 
RB: The sport of rodeo is not for everyone and I don't criticize anyone for trying their hand at rodeo and deciding on another career choice because being a rodeo clown is a lot of hard work, lots of long hours, thousands of miles of traveling, lots of time away from home, and it can be very disappointing at times. But in my opinion, it's the best career in the world. So, my advice to someone starting out: Recognize and count your blessing. Be professional in and out of the arena. Have a true passion for what you are doing. Be true to who you are. Give it your 100%. Never have any regrets. Cherish the friendships you will make along the way. Always take the time to visit with the fans (especially the kids). Be a positive role model. There will be good times and there will be bad times, but the secret to it all is to NEVER let the bad overcome the good.

GM: Great advice! As a rodeo fan, and speaking for other fans, we are grateful to you for protecting riders and putting on a good show! Is there anything that you would like to add about your profession and how we, as spectators, can make your job easier?
RB: Rodeo fans are the best fans in the world! That's why I strive to put on a show that the whole family can enjoy. If a family is willing to spend part of their hard earned money to come to a rodeo, then I want to make sure they have the best time possible!   My goal, for the 1*1/2 to 2 hours they are at the rodeo, is to take their mind off whatever struggles they might be facing and give them a huge smile and laugh to take home with them. God has blessed me way better than I deserve with a fantastic career that I hope lasts for many more years. I encourage everyone to support your local rodeos from the youth events all the way up to the professional level. I hope the fan base for rodeo continues to grow so that our great sport is preserved for future generations to enjoy. 

Connect with Ronald…

Gina McKnight is a freelance writer from Ohio USA.  

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