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Dances with bulls

Bull riders are always on the razor’s edge of danger and it’s the job of the rodeo bullfighter to keep cowboys safe when they are flung off that edge.

Bullfighters Sylvan La Cross, 28, and Travis Langan, 33, spent the past weekend protecting bull riders during the Mission Mountain NRA Rodeo at the Polson Fairgrounds’ Less Baldwin Arena.

La Cross and those in his extremely dangerous profession make their full-time living by serving as a human shield between the cowboy who is hell-bent on riding an 1,800-pound beast for 8 seconds and the beast who has plans to the contrary.

On Friday night, the importance of having La Cross in the arena was not lost on Casey Fredericks a cowboy from Busby, Montana. Fredericks found himself ragdolled into the dirt by his bull just mere seconds after the gate had opened. Before Fredericks had even touched the ground, La Cross had already hurled his body into the mayhem. The diversionary entrance gave Fredericks enough time to scamper to safety while the bull gave La Cross his undivided attention.

“Thanks, you really saved my s---,” Fredericks told La Cross behind the chutes after the rodeo.

La Cross, a Great Falls cowboy, has been mixing it up with the bulls for about 12 years. He spent four of those years with the Northern Rodeo Association (NRA) and the last three year with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).

“I’ve wanted to fight bulls since I was a little fella,” La Cross said. “I would always watch the bullfighters at the rodeos and place myself in their shoes. Analyze their moves, critique on what could have been done differently, what was done right, and how to handle different situations. It is something I still do today whenever I’m at a rodeo or watching one on TV.”

La Cross started risking life and limb back in high school. “I picked up a few bullfighting gigs in high school down at the Cody Nite Rodeo in Cody, Wyoming and it went from there.” 

While attending Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, and the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, La Cross would squeeze a fight or two in between studies and rodeoing, where he rode bareback and bulls. “I never went to a bullfighting school when I was younger, so I learned a lot through the ‘school of hard knocks.’” 

According to La Cross, it wasn’t until 2014, after making a call to Big Circle Rodeo stock contractor Paul Eiker that he really started pursuing his passion. “I made a call to Paul and he said that one of their bullfighters had just got hurt and they needed another one for the summer run. I jumped at the opportunity and have been making strides ever since. I was riding bareback horses at most of the rodeos I also fought at between 2014-15 and after my injury in 2016, I decided to make the switch to fighting bulls full time.”

La Cross also noted, “Paul Eiker and Sparky Dreesen have been a huge help in the foundation of my bullfighting career. They gave me the rodeos to start chasing this dream and I am truly thankful for them giving me that opportunity.”

For the bullfighter, injuries are a very real risk each and every time they enter the arena. Although equipped with a chest plate, a back plate, a rib guard, pants that come with padding for the hips, thighs and tailbone and a pair of cleats, the hits still come and so do the injuries. 

“The worst injury that I’ve had was when I broke my lower left leg at the college rodeo in Bozeman last April.” La Cross said. “I stepped in to place myself in a position to pull the bull away from the fallen rider, and as I did one of the bull’s back legs stepped right through mine. I had surgery the next morning where they placed a rod in my leg. I went back to fighting bulls in just over three months after the accident and finished out my summer run. I had the rod removed from my leg in March of this year and was back in the arena 3 weeks later.”

What drives a person to put himself in harm’s way by standing toe-to-hoof with a horned beast that is ten times your weight? La Cross pondered a moment, “You know, that’s really a tough one. I enjoy being able to help others and make sure that they can continue to pursue their dreams of riding bulls. I would say the driving force is really my God-given ability and talent to be able to do this. I continue to do it and crave it because of the opportunities that He has given me to continue to fight bulls as a career and to glorify Him.”

On Saturday evening, La Cross again inserted himself between cowboys and bucking bulls. He managed to escape the Mission Mountain Rodeo without any serious injuries and so did a few bull riders.

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