Mess with the Bull
Ash Cooper shares his experience entertaining in the rodeo ring.
Illustration by Emily Chu
When an angry, worked-up bull comes after a cowboy in the ring, there are two people responsible for the rider’s safety: The bullfighter and the rodeo clown. Ash Cooper (a.k.a. Crash) has been both during his 20-year career in the arena. A four-time winner of Canada’s Rodeo Entertainer of the Year, Cooper works as a rodeo clown at events across North America, including this month’s Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR) in Edmonton and the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas. On top of participating in about 15 rodeos a season, Cooper raises 150 head of cattle and about 100 head of bucking horses with his dad on the ranch that he was born and raised on in Senlac, Sask., a village of about 40 people. But this stoic cowboy is also a cartoonist and artist – he provides illustrations for greeting cards for the company, Leanin’ Tree, in addition to painting on commission. This fall, he opened an art gallery in Senlac, where he and other local artisans can display their work. This versatile entertainer has also hosted several seasons of the television show, Cowboy Country.
Avenue: How do you become a rodeo clown?
Cooper: “A lot of people ask how to become a rodeo clown. I always tell them that everyone has his own path for getting there. I played high-level rugby and hockey, so I was always very athletic but I’ve never been formally trained in anything. I also did a little bit of stand-up comedy. I think every clown has their own unique story.”
Avenue: Have you experienced any injuries as a bullfighter?
Cooper: “As a bullfighter, I broke some bones, had a bull stick a horn in my mouth, knocked out a tooth, nothing serious. I never was seriously injured, so I thought it was a good time to retire. Then I became a rodeo entertainer and I got hurt more than I had before. I broke my back. It was out of my own stupidity. I have springy stilts and I can jump about six feet in the air. I did a back flip out of a half-ton into an arena but I landed so hard I broke my back. I didn’t even know that I had done it until about two or three months later. I went to the doctor because my back was sore and he said it was broken. I broke it the first day of a five-day rodeo. I never took any time off.”
Avenue: Do you remember the worst bull you’ve come across?
Cooper: “Before, I used to face the bulls but now I’m running away from them. I’ve come across a lot of mean, angry bulls but I couldn’t pinpoint the worst.”
Avenue: Do the dangers of the job worry you?
Cooper: “You are always aware of the dangers of your occupation but you can’t worry about it or you won’t do your job as well as you could. It’s like a hockey player worrying about getting cut by a skate. You’re aware of it but you don’t dwell on it.”
Avenue: How do you prepare for an event?
Cooper: “A lot of people think you walk into the arena and just start telling jokes and being funny but, for me, it’s a lifelong occupation. Every minute I’m out of the arena I’m thinking about what I could do in the arena. I’m always collecting material. What maybe looks easy isn’t necessarily easy. It takes a lot of work to be at the top of any profession and a lot of help from other people.”
Avenue: How do you get your rodeo gigs?
Cooper: “My job as an entertainer at the CFR is chosen by the CFR commission. I get hired based on the decision of that group of people. For the NFR, I’m voted on by the contestants or personnel. I am the only Canadian to get to the National Finals Rodeo as an entertainer.”
Avenue: Who does your make-up?
Cooper: “I do my own makeup. I paint eyes on top of my eyelids. If my eyes are closed, it looks like my eyes are still open, which freaks some people out and makes some people laugh. It’s just women’s eyeliner. I wish I was a manly clown. I use clown white too, which is just stage makeup. And you put baby powder on top of it and wipe the baby powder off; then it doesn’t smear. Normally, if you’re at a rodeo for three hours and climbing out of a barrel and sweating, your makeup would probably be a mess so you need to put baby powder on so it doesn’t smear. I buy my own women’s eyeliner and I buy a lot of it so I don’t have to go back to the makeup section for a while. “
Avenue: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for an audience?
Cooper: “I’ve done everything from a bull chariot, where I hook a bull onto a chariot and ride it around the arena, to riding an ostrich to doing back flips, things like swinging out from the rafters in an arena in Texas. It’s my job to do crazy things. There was a horse that was the roughest horse I have ever been on. They [the producers of Cowboy Country] offered it to me for the opening of the show one day. We had to take about 16 takes with me running in and jumping on the horse. I had to get slammed up and down against a saddle about 16 times in an area that is very sensitive for men.”