A mean bull and an empty ring are the stuff of Keith Isley's bad dreams.
He was bullfighting in Nashville when a bull entered the ring and hit a dummy so hard it flew, he says. And then the animal turned in his direction. Isley turned, tripped and reached for the fence.
"The only thing I could think about was that bull putting horns into either side of me," he says by phone from his home in North Carolina. "At that moment, I thought what the heck are you doing? I knew I needed to do something else. If you ever get scared, it's time to quit. The thoughts are always going to be in your head, and you won't be as sharp and confident."
Bullfighters are the guys in the ring during the bullriding event. They can be dressed as clowns or not, Isley says, and their job is simple - protect the cowboy who's trying to stay on the bull. Nowadays, two bullfighters are required to be in the ring.
Rodeo clowns, however, are the ones with the white makeup and baggy pants. They have their own shtick. They banter with the announcer and interact with the audience.
At 44, after two and a half decades of bullfighting, Isley knew the jig was up. He decided to focus instead on the barrel and rodeo clowning, he says. He's still in the arena during the bullriding, but by the barrel versus the bulls. He'll clown at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Wednesday through July 13.
"My main job is to entertain the people who have bought tickets," Isley says.
He started his rodeo career at 14, riding bulls and bucking horses. At 17, he started bullfighting, and at 18, he was helping other guys with their comedy acts.
"I would never have thought it would lead to what it's led to," he says.
He's now 55, and an acclaimed rodeo clown with a long list of accolades. From 2006-2011, he was named Clown of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He's also a five-time winner of the Coors Man in the Can award, and has taken home the PRCA's Comedy Act of the Year award three times since 2009.
When he works a rodeo, he often brings his two horses, a miniature horse and his dog. He's trained his dog to play dead at the point of a finger gun, and his horses to point their hooves into the arena. For the Springs rodeo, though, Isley will be solo.
Rodeo life has treated this cowboy well, he says, but it has taken a toll on his body. The thought of his last rodeo has crossed his mind.
"Some clowns don't even get in the barrel," he says. "I do. I've been thinking about getting out. You take a lot of abuse in the barrel. It's padded inside and outside, but if it gets hit pretty hard, it rattles your cage for awhile."
The ride has been worth it, though.
"I enjoy seeing people have a good time and laughing," he says. "Laughter is good medicine. I don't care what kind of tragedies you've had, if you are able to laugh for a short period of time, there's no price you can put on it."
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.