ST. GEORGE — He’s seen everything the rodeo can show a man: blood and death; unexpected victories and close calls. Bullfighter Joe Butler has been in the rodeo arena keeping bullriders safe for 15 years.
Butler confides that many people think bullfighters are crazy. Turns out, there’s a little more to it than that.
“You have to be able to understand and read livestock. You’ve got to be able to read situations,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into it other than just standing out there and let a bull run you over.”
Professional bullfighters work as a team and unspoken communication between them is essential to doing a good job, Butler said.
Understanding the art and science of bullfighting is a natural fit for Butler, a native of Oklahoma, who went to college on a team-roping scholarship and studied animal science.
“I love my job,” he said. “I’ve got my master’s degree. I’m probably one of the most educated bullfighters out there.”
Butler’s savvy, smarts and athletic ability can be easy to overlook in the arena when all eyes are focused on the battle between bull and rider.
“A lot of times a good bullfighter will slip in and make a save, an uneducated person about rodeo would never know anything ever happened,” he said. “You slip in, you pull a bull out and everybody’s safe and you go wait for the next one.”
It’s possible a good bullfighter is born and not made. Rodeo clown and bullfighter Randee Munns said.
“It’s kind of a natural savvy kind of a deal, you know. If you have to think about where you gotta be if you’re a bullfighter, it’s too late,” he said. “You gotta have that natural desire and that natural ability to be in the right place.”
Butler’s natural ability has been tested during this week’s Dixie Roundup. Facing the world-class stock of the Bar T Rodeo is not a job for beginners.
“I love Bar T Rodeo,” he said. “That Bar T family, they’re a great, great asset to anybody. They’ve got top-notch stock.”
Butler and his wife, Robin, live in Apple Valley, California, but he’s hoping to make the move to the Beehive state sometime in the future.
“I’d really like to move up here to Utah. I love it up here,” he said.
No matter where Butler lives, he’s on the road most of the time working western rodeos. He plans to continue his bullfighting career for as long as he can, and when he can no longer work in the arena, he’s likely to put his education and knowledge of livestock to work. He’s already using his experience and contacts to help make the sport of rodeo safer. Butler and a friend started a company selling protective gear for bullriders and bullfighters.
“I’ve got a lot of really good friends who are bullriders and I want them safe going down the road,” he said. “So if I can make a difference between them breaking ribs and bruising ribs, I’d rather them bruise them and be out for a week than being out six weeks for broken ribs.”
Rodeo’s adoption of safety gear has added longevity to cowboys careers and longevity equals endorsement deals that gives cowboys a better chance of earning a living at the rodeo.
Butler has been lucky enough and good enough to have a career as a professional bullfighter.
“I love rodeo, I mean there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “For me to be able to run up and down the road and meet these people and go to different towns, I just love it.”
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