"The Rush" Keeps Arkansas Clown Fast And Funny
by Tom Burriss
Clowning around is serious business for 30 year old Mike "Scooter" Smith.
"There are two kinds of clowns," he explains.
There are barrels clowns, who are generally the entertainment between the rides and events at a rodeo or bull ride.
The other is a bullfighter. A bullfighter is in the business of cowboy protection.
Scooter is both. He is rising to national and international prominence to boot. The list of accomplishments is long in a very short time. Especially for someone who is self taught, and self inspired to do what he does.
Most recently he earned a third place at the 2001 IFR National Finals for his comedy act, and currently stands fifth in the world in as a bullfighter behind a prominent list of PRCA bullfighters in the Risky Business Bullfights Finals.
Having been raised in New Mexico and South Texas as a child, Scooter had been exposed to plenty of rodeo. And until his sophomore year he had only ridden a few bulls.
Then he moved to Virginia, and the rodeo scene just was not the same as it was out west. Regardless of where he was, he was still more interested in high school football and track, and quite accomplished at both of those.
It was not until after he graduated in 1991 that he got back on track with rodeo. His family moved to Russellville, Arkansas, where he got in with a group of rodeoers who competed regularly.
Through 1995 he competed in rodeos riding bareback and riding bulls. Then a bug bit him. It was while he was at their small practice pen that he was introduced to bullfighting.
Since there was no one to bullfight, they would take turns as the bullfighter during practice. He began to love the bullfighting tremendously and would change from his boots into his cleats as quickly as he could so he could get out there and start bullfighting.
He began splitting his seasons between fighting and riding. Until 1997, when he decided that he would "hang up the rope" at the end of the season.
"It just wasn't as much fun to ride anymore," he says.
Then June 18, 1997 rolled around, a date he remembers quite vividly. His bullride ended with a collarbone broken in three places.
Not only had the decision been made, but now it was definite. He finished the season out as a bullfighter, earning the Longhorn Rodeo Bullfighter of the Year.
1998 was a profitable year as a bullfighter. He picked up honors as the NCA Finals Alternate Bullfighter (an honor earned by cowboys voting for their favorite protection) and was third place at the Casino Rouge Bullfights.
1998 was not so profitable as a bullrider though. Even though he had committed to quit the riding, he did slip back on for two rides. Both were successful rides, but one of his dismounts had been less than admirable.
"It was a wet weekend, and it was really muddy," he remembers. As he was coming off the bull he slipped in the mud and severely fractured his arm.
A ten inch scar remains on his left forearm from where he had surgery. The doctors had told him that his season was done. He told the doctors that they could either design and fit him with a brace or protection of some sort, or he would just have to go out without one.
One week later he was back bullfighting in the arena clad in a plastic shield from his wrist to his shoulder, specially jointed at the elbow.
In early 1999, he had a pretty close call while bullfighting. During one rodeo he was fighting a bull that had gotten hung up, when it turned and blasted him in the side of the face. He had swelling from his temple down to his neck.
Finally five days later he went to the hospital. They ran some tests and concluded that he had a major concussion.
"Imagine if they would have seen it the night it happened."
Scooter has also made some big saves. The most memorable for him was when the save involved his roommate Jason Davis. A bull had bucked Jason off and he came down between the bucking chutes and the bull.
"There was really no way to escape that one," says Scooter.
Jason had broken three ribs, cracked his sternum and ruptured his liver .
"When we got to him, his face was as blue as the sky," exclaims a wide-eyed Scooter.
There was one big problem though. Jason was lying in front of the out gate. They couldn't the bull out, and no one was willing to yank Jason out of the way with the bull still in the arena.
Scooter managed to taunt the bull enough to get him to follow him in a circle far enough from the gate so that they could move Jason and open the gate. It took more than one round to complete the task. Scooter made the bull chase him around in a circle three times.
To grab the bulls attention, Scooter actually likes to "grab" his attention by pulling on the bulls face and head.
"90% of the time you know when you are going to get hit. Usually, you get a chance to prepare."
"There have been a couple times that I remember that I knew for sure I was going to get hooked, but I just kept going and kept moving, and I never got hit."
He also makes the connection about learning to take a hit. "If you were fighting a person, which would hurt worse, this punch," he jabs, "or one of these," and he motions with a full wind up and slings his arm around full force in a roundhouse.
My answer was neither with as muscled as Scooter is. The point he made was clear though.
"You want to keep yourself in as close as possible to the bull. So when you do get hit then it won't hurt so much.
When a cowboy gets bucked off and goes down, it is the bullfighters job to keep the bull away from the cowboy, not to take the cowboy out of danger.
In Scooter's promo video, he showed a clip where he is protecting a cowboy who was down.
The cowboy had flipped off and landed on his head and back and was completely passed out. Scooter stood there over the cowboy's head with his arms spread watching the bull the whole way.
"If that bull had come back, I would have been there to drop down and to cover the cowboy and take the hit for him."
Somehow, I did not doubt that he would have.
You might think there would be some ribbing from the cowboys going from rider to clown.
"They have nothing but respect for us."
The biggest part of bullfighting is position and anticipation. The biggest goal is to keep the bull distracted.
Scooter has never been to school for bullfighting, "just the school of hard knocks." His school probably has the hardest knocks of them all.
In 1999 he met Mike Latting of the Latting Rodeo Co. Mike hired dress acts and small acts and had been having some bad luck with his clowns; they just were not very funny.
He told Scooter to prepare some short acts to fill space between events.
That was all it took. Latting found him funny and Scooter was catching on fast to the crowd pleasing part of the clowning. Not to mention he really enjoyed it.
From there he really began to develop a show. Although he does not write many original jokes or acts.
"Mostly they are just revised acts, and I just put my own pizzazz and twist on them."
But it was his ultimate goal to come up with a special and unique act.
He really wanted to do something with pigs. While searching, he came across a petting zoo, "Pat's Pony Parties." He talked to the owner and told her what he wanted. She told him she would think on it. That was when she came up with her "cool" idea.
That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Chili. Chili is a llama, and Scooter was totally captured with the idea.
It took a lot of hard work with Chili, but in about six to seven months they had an act, and he had taught the llama to jump too.
Part of his act involves Chili the "herm."
After night of tequila drinking the worm escapes and breeds his hunter/jumper mare. The result is a horse/worm.
"Hair like a horse, four legs like a horse, and," he lays Chili down with his neck stretched out, "looks like a worm."
It is truly a crowd favorite. It helped him to earn third at the IPRA National Finals in the comedy act division.
He is working on a new act with a zebu, a small version of a brahma. In just a few short months he has gotten to the point where they are jumping through hoops.
Clowning and bullfighting have been good to Scooter. Last year was the first year that his rodeo job paid more than his regular forty hour a week job.
To ask him which he likes better, clowning or bullfighting?
"I love them both. It is such an adrenaline rush to fight bulls. But it is a different kind of rush to clown; to make people laugh; to make kids happy."
Scooter lives with his wife and son in Marion, AR, during the week, but you will not have to try too hard to catch him on a weekend doing his act somewhere on the road. He expects to be out most weekends this year.
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