Rodeo stampedes into Xcel

KARA NESVIG , vita.mn | Updated 2/7/2013

The World’s Toughest Rodeo kicks up dust in St. Paul.

Trey Broussard competes in The World’s Toughest Rodeo in St. Paul.
Photo by Jeff Wheeler

A wise man named Garth Brooks once said: “It’s bulls and blood / It’s dust and mud / It’s the roar of the Sunday crowd — and they call the thing rodeo.” While some might consider the rodeo to be a relic that died when Garth became Chris Gaines, the world of bull riders and bucking broncos is still, well, kickin’.

But the World’s Toughest Rodeo — which stampedes into the Xcel Friday and Saturday — ain’t no small-town shindig: There ain’t no State Fair show horses prancing about. While pansy-ass nine-to-fivers sit in their offices, rodeo riders are attempting to conquer tempestuous horses and crazed bulls, getting thrown and dragged by a rope across an arena by a pissed-off equine.

Rodeo clown and former rider Justin Rumford, 32, was born in the heart of the rodeo. His grandfather started their Kansas ranch in the ’40s, and from the time he could sit up straight, Rumford was atop a horse.

“It’s a neat way to grow up,” he said in a phone interview last week. “You get all those animals and watch them from the time they’re born. They become part of your family.”

Though the industry is in his blood, Rumford attended Northwestern Oklahoma State on a rodeo scholarship and earned a business degree. After college, he competed in the rodeo full time, but decided to change paths ever so slightly.

“A rodeo contestant can make a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s all performance-based. You’re not guaranteed anything.”

Rumford, a charming guy with an easy laugh, was talked into clowning (also called “barrelman,” a person who helps divert the bull’s attention once a rider has been thrown, who makes jokes and emcees during the rodeo) and found he had a knack for it.

“Rodeo clowns can make up to $150,000 a year,” he said. “You pick where you go … pretty much vacation 10 months of the year.”

Although the idea of diverting angry bulls sounds terrifying and dangerous, Rumford said his job isn’t too much of an insurance risk; he’s generally protected by a padded barrel while in the arena. (He did break his neck as a rodeo rider in high school.) And he’s good at his trade — Rumford was named the 2012 Clown of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Rumford and his rodeo visited 42 states last year alone. Why is something that most people consider such a “country” tradition so popular nationwide?

“It’s a new style of rodeo,” Rumford said, adding that attendees tend to be more suburban than rural. “It’s especially entertaining.”

The World’s Toughest Rodeo is a high-octane event, with show riders doing handstands while barefoot on horseback and youngsters speed-riding sheep. But for Rumford, at heart, the rodeo is still steeped in tradition.

“The western way of life is still going strong. … The rodeo’s for everybody.”

World’s Toughest Rodeo

When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Where: Xcel Energy Center, 175 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

Tickets: $9.50-$80. 651-265-4900 or www.xcelenergycenter.com.