Small town Manitoban fights his way to the top

“My heart is racing just thinking about it,” says 26-year-old Daryl Thiessen, as he imagines himself in an arena just seconds before coming face to face with a bull.

“Everything just blanks out. You can’t hear no one… the crowd… nothing…”

The thought of a 1,500-pound animal filled with aggression, barreling towards you may sound terrifying to the average person, but for a professional bullfighter like Thiessen, this is what he lives for.

The term bullfighting takes on many different meanings around the world.

Traditional Spanish bullfighters are equipped with a sword and a red cape, and often aim to kill the bull.

However, this is not the case with bullfighting in Canada or the United States.

A bullfighter like Thiessen is strictly committed to protecting the rider and directing the bull. At an average bull riding, there are usually two bullfighters and a barrelman in the arena. A barrelman, or rodeo clown, is meant to entertain the crowd, as well as offer protection to the rider.

Unlike the Spanish bullfighters and rodeo clowns, Thiessen does not have any form of protection. It is strictly between him and the bull.

Whether it’s protecting cowboys at a rodeo, or competing in freestyle bullfighting, Thiessen is committed to the sport and strives everyday to improve.

Hooked from the beginning

Thiessen has always been around rodeo and knew from a young age that it was going to be a big part of his life.

Born and raised in Elm Creek, Man., Thiessen grew up on a ranch with cattle and horses.

When he was five-years-old, his father took him to Cody Snyder’s BullBustin’ in Winnipeg, and he was fascinated with the participants.

“They were just like my heroes in cowboy hats,” he says.

When Thiessen was 15-years-old, he started saddle bronc riding then moved his way onto bulls.

Regina, Sask. – Thiessen says that before he nods for a bull, he takes a deep breath and tells himself, “… you just got to be meaner than that bull.”
Photo by Debbie Garside, courtesy of Daryl Thiessen

After he was bucked off during one of his rides, he says a bullfighter saved him from being hooked by the bull and that made him feel guilty.

“So in my chaps and everything, as a bull rider at an actual bull riding event, I jumped back and picked the bull off of (the bullfighter),” Thiessen says.

And when his bull riding friends didn’t have anyone to fight bulls for them, he would do it, “Next thing I know I ended up being decent at it and I really liked it.”

From bull rider to bullfighter

Thiessen was 20 years old when he moved to Alberta to gain more exposure to the rodeo world.

“When you are starting its just so tough to get into bullfighting because you have to prove yourself, and not make any money for so many years before it actually pays off,” Thiessen says.

But eventually it did pay off. In 2012 he was approved for his Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA) card, and two years later he got his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) card.

To get his name out there and to gain experience, Thiessen went down to the states and ended up working alongside the best in the profession, including Cody Webster from Oklahoma, Dusty Tuckness from Wyoming, and Thiessen’s hero, Frank Newsom.

“They inspire me to do better,” Thiessen says. “To just see them doing so good, you just tell yourself, ‘Well I can do that,’ and being around that professionalism, it just pushes you to be better.”

He started freestyle bullfighting, which is one on one with Mexican fighting bulls, and the goal is to get as close to the bull as possible while performing tricks.

“There ain’t no feeling like saving a cowboy.” – Daryl Thiessen

Thiessen says the sport is evolving because of organizations like Bullfighters Only. Founded in 2015, the goal of Bullfighters Only is to ‘develop bullfighting from the ground up.’

Last year, Thiessen went to Las Vegas for the Bullfighters Only Championships as the only Canadian representative.

“I was so close to winning there…” Thiessen says about his seventh place finish. “I don’t want that feeling again… if I’m going to go, I want to win… that hurt worse than any pain I’ve ever had.”

Injuries, an inevitable part of the job

“That’s rodeo, you’re going to get hurt,” Thiessen says.

He recalls when he broke two vertebrate in the summer of 2012 during practice in Strathmore, Alta.

“It was the first bull of the day, they called him Chicken Dance… he threw me in the air… and he just camped on me,” he says. “It probably was 10, 15 seconds he hooked me around, which feels like forever when you’re underneath him… it felt like two hours.”

Longview, Alta. – “Freestyle is where we can go show what we got and the spotlights on us,” Thiessen says, contrast to bull ridings where it is strictly about protecting the rider.
Photo by Randy Lewis, courtesy of Daryl Thiessen

But injuries like this do not phase Thiessen one bit… they can’t.

“There is a million ways to die… when you go, you’re going to go… you might as well do what you want while you’re here,” he says.

Both freestyle bullfighting and cowboy protection in rodeo are dangerous, but Thiessen knows what his job entails and takes pride in that.

“There ain’t no feeling like saving a cowboy,” Thiessen says. “That you know if you didn’t do what you just did, there is a good chance he might not have walked away.”

Dedicated to the sport

Kynan Vine, rodeo specialist for the Calgary Stampede and retired bullfighter, has known Thiessen since he was young.

He worked with Thiessen a lot over the years, giving him pointers and setting him up with rodeos. Vine says Thiessen is dedicated to his craft, and is a very hard worker.

“…He’s not afraid to take a good hit, and (to) get right in there and get the job done,” Vine says.

Miles Pennington, bull rider from Lacombe, Alta., met Thiessen through rodeo as well. He says Thiessen is very committed and driven, qualities that have gotten him to a professional level.

“He’s a good guy to have around,” Pennington says. “He is the first one to be there to cheer everybody on… and throw his life on the line to protect everybody.”

Thiessen’s positive attitude is a huge reason he has made it this far, and he shows no signs of slowing down, “The ultimate goal is to be a world champion freestyle bullfighter… I want to be the first world champ to ever come from Manitoba.”

With the season now underway, it is undoubtedly going to be a busy summer for Thiessen. He will be doing a lot of cowboy protection at rodeos, as well as freestyle bullfighting.

His next major event is the Nuttin’ But Bull Challenge on May 7, which is a Championship Bull Riding and American Freestyle Bullfighting competition in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Video courtesy of everythingcowboy.com

Thumbnail by Todd Brewer, courtesy of Daryl Thiessen

sanderson@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Cheryl Russell, crussell@cjournal.ca