Bull’s Eyeeeaaaahhh!

The hazards of this job are legion. The main one has hooves.

A bull rider charges into the arena, his heals dug in, one arm outstretched, the other holding on for dear life as he does his best to stay atop his ride. He counts down the seconds until a horn signals time is up, then must take a leap of faith off his bull, entrusting his safety and health to the bullfighters watching his back.

It can easily be said that bull riding, with all of its hazards, is a dangerous sport that requires tough athletes. But bullfighting, on the other hand, requires cowboys to constantly put themselves directly in the path of danger. Bullfighting is downright deadly.

Joe Baumgartner, a professional bullfighter who has been selected every year to participate in the Professional Bull Rider World Finals since 1994, says that in order to be successful in his field, your primary concern must be the safety and health of the bull rider. “You don’t worry about keeping yourself safe,” he said. “Your job, what you’re paid to do, is keep the cowboy safe. A lot of times, you just blow in there and you know you’re going to get creamed. If you can do it, and get yourself creamed but not the cowboy, then you did good.”

The Horns of a Dilemma
Many schools exist now that teach young cowboys how to bull ride and bullfight, but for Baumgartner it was opportunity, not instruction, that made the choice for him. “I was working for a guy that owned bucking bulls, and he had a rodeo. He needed somebody to fight bulls, and I thought, ‘Well, why the heck not? I’ll try it,’” he said. “It was pretty exciting. It came pretty easy. I’ve watched guys do it, and I’m kind of one of those guys that can learn by watching other people.”

Of course the possibilities of getting hurt are enormous, he adds. Even a bullfighter as experienced and skilled as Baumgartner has had his share of injuries. “You damage your hands a lot because all the time you’re reaching or grabbing bulls by the horns. I’ve had a couple of knee surgeries and a couple of metal plates put in my eye. I broke the small bone in both of my eyes last year at different times. It was kind of a bad year last year,” said Baumgartner. He emphasized that the most dangerous position to be in is not in front of a bull, but under it. “The most dangerous thing is if they knock you down and step on you. That’s by far the worst. Horned bulls, they can flick their horns at you and hit you with the horns, and you can break stuff. I’ve had bulls break my ribs by hitting me with their horns, but the stuff that kills you is when you have 1,800 to 2,000 pounds stepping on you. That’s what hurts.”

Tough Enough
But in his business, Baumgartner said, there is a difference between being injured and getting hurt. “When you’re injured, you can still go, you can still work, but when you’re hurt, that’s when you’ve got to sit at home,” he said. “A bull ran through my knee and I had to have it totally reconstructed. I tore my ACL, my PCL, and the meniscuses were all tore up.”

As a result, Baumgartner was laid up, recovering, for some time. Unlike other professional sports, in bullfighting if you can’t work, you don’t get paid, he said. So, whenever possible, Baumgartner has had to work through a lot of pain. As an example, Baumgartner described a recent injury when a bull hit him in the chin with one horn and on the hand with the other. “My right hand was totally immobilized,” he said. “In a lot of sports they would have said, ‘Heck, I’m going on the injured list.’ Me, I don’t usually run on my hands too much. I try to stay on my feet, so I wasn’t too concerned about it.”

Bullfighters wear less protection than a professional football player yet routinely face bulls that are five to six times heavier than any linebacker. Baumgartner describes his PPE as consisting of a kind of football girdle with a chest protector similar to those used in motocross. With the exception of the head, this outfit covers your vital organs and your hips. Many bullfighters also wear a helmet.

In Baumgartner’s case, he goes about his business old-school. “Those helmets take away your vision,” he said. “So my cowboy hat’s my helmet.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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