Rodeo Clowns

People, Sports, Traditions
on July 6, 2003

Shawn Thompson and his brother Ben rush to the aid of little brother Andy, who’s overdosed on chili dogs. Out comes a surgical tool—a chain saw—and the outcome is sheer silliness.

The Thompson brothers, who’ve clowned around since they were tots, have sashayed those antics right into adulthood as The Triple Tease, a rodeo clown and bullfighting act that performs throughout the Midwest (bullfighters protect fallen riders by distracting the bull).

It doesn’t surprise parents Lana and Ron Thompson that all three sons ended up in the rodeo arena. The boys grew up in the shadow of the state’s biggest rodeo in Sidney, Iowa, a town of 1,300 aptly nicknamed “Rodeo Town USA” when 38,000 fans show up each summer.

“My dad was an official there and he’d get up early and take care of the livestock and repairs before the rodeo,” Lana says. “The kids were just babies when they started going.”

As soon as the boys were big enough to kick up their heels, they played rodeo.

“I was the bull rider and got on the lawnmower and chased Shawn and Andy,” recalls Ben, 25. “We tore up three lawnmowers that way.”

Adds Andy, 24, “Whatever we could get to chase each other on—lawnmowers, bicycles—we’d use. And we’d hang tires in the tree to ride.”

Shawn, 27, played the funny guy even as a kid.

“He was always telling jokes, even when there was no one around to laugh,” Ben says.

In the arena, Shawn still coaxes chuckles in his role as barrelman. Although Ben and Andy share in the shenanigans, their job as bullfighters is serious—to protect the bull rider. When a rider is tossed onto the ground and quickly has to regain his balance and get out of the bull’s way, that’s where the bullfighters come in—as bait for the bulls.

“We take the hits for the cowboys,” Ben says. “You can’t outrun a bull. They have four legs and you’ve got two, so you make circles. You don’t ever run in a straight line.

“Sometimes a guy will get hung up and you have 1,200 pounds of mean beast dragging him along by his arm. Andy and I get in there and grab his hand and get him off. It’s just instinct.”

It’s instinct, practice, and, for the Thompsons, it’s something more powerful—a brotherly bond in a family that’s not embarrassed to show they care for one another.

“We’ve always looked after one another,” Ben says. “Heck, growing up we lived in the same room.”

Shawn says that Ben and Andy are able to anticipate each other’s moves.

“They know just where the other will be,” he says. “Andy’s style is absolute reckless abandon, and Ben is the total athlete, able to slip in and slip out. They’ve saved so many cowboys.”

And they’ve saved each other. Last summer, Ben jumped between Andy and a bull when he saw Andy on his hands and knees and face-to-face with the bull.

“I knew he was in a bad situation,” Ben says. “I ran out and got the bull’s attention and somehow he got my leg under his horn and picked me up. Tore every ligament I had.”

Johnny Hopkins, a retired bull rider and rodeo owner in Dayton, Iowa, appreciates that brotherly connection, too.

“When Ben and Andy are out there, I know they’ve got things under control,” Hopkins says. “I like having all the brothers around. The show flows nice and easy. I know the acts won’t go too long with Shawn. And they’re the nicest people you could ever meet.”

Shawn landed in the rodeo business first after a joke misfired. For a class assignment his senior year, he had to list a career that interested him. As a lark, he wrote “bullfighting.” To help him out, the teacher contacted a rodeo clown, who invited him to a bullfighting school in Wahoo, Neb. (pop. 3,830).

“I didn’t want to look like a chicken, so I went,” Shawn says with a laugh. A 2,000-pound bull pitched him over an 8-foot fence that first day and the admitted daredevil was hooked.

Andy began bull riding in high school, then worked with a local rodeo contractor after graduation. When Shawn needed an assistant one weekend, he asked Andy.

“I said, ‘Oh, come on. You just have to wear makeup and stand there,’” Shawn says. “I was so impressed with Andy. The kid had so much savvy.”

Ben, a champion high school wrestler, watched his brothers from the sidelines until “they dragged me into it,” he says. He started joining them in the practice pen and, before long, the three hit the road, living in an RV and pulling a trailer filled with Shawn’s props and gear. They work about 40 rodeos a season from May to October, primarily in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.

Shawn’s humor is homegrown and of a hi-shenanigans caliber, such as conducting a Twinkie-eating contest for the rodeo queen contestants or parading around in a horse head. Although the guys practice the acts, winging it just adds to the goofs and the giggles, they say.

“At the end of the show, we usually play with the bull,” Shawn says. “It’s a crowd pleaser.”

Awards have been plenty for all three Thompsons, including being voted top bullfighters and barrelmen by members of the United Rodeo Association, the Iowa Rodeo Association, and the Iowa Rodeo Cowboys Association.

When not rodeoing, the three brothers work for farmers and ranchers. They talk about going professional, but a big drawback would be more travel and time away from home.

“We’re all three such homebodies,” Ben says.

Adds Andy, “Mom and Dad will still drive four or five hours a night to watch us.”

“I just feel like I’m at the top of the game where I’m at,” Shawn says. “I’ve met so many nice people and I get to work with my brothers. We’re going to keep doing this as long as we can.”

And if humor keeps you young, that could be a long time. Shawn, for example, recently shaved his head—not because it’s hip, but because with a sweaty bald head he can wear a toilet plunger as a hat.