STARKVILLE, Miss. – The life of a rodeo bullfighter comes quite naturally to Clay Heger.
His father, the late Paul Heger, was a bullfighter and clown, and the younger Heger was just a month old when he went to his first rodeo.
“I was in clown acts when I was 2 years old,” said Heger, who grew up in southeastern Washington and now lives in Houma, La. “Rodeo was just part of everything growing up. If we weren’t around rodeo, we were around horses with my grandparents or helping our uncle brand or sort stock.
“It’s just who I’ve always been. What drives me to rodeo is I get to travel all over, and there’s a sense of freedom.”
Heger will put his talents to work the Rotary Rodeo, set for 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 8, at MS Horse Park in Starkville. He will work cowboy protection alongside Kelby Pearah, another top young gun in the bullfighting game.
He is one of numerous versatile rodeo hands that are part of Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo. In addition to their bullfighting responsibilities, Heger, Kelby, Chris Kirby and Kenny Bergeron tackle many other tasks along the way to make sure each rodeo is produced professionally. From driving the animals from the ranch near Athens, Texas, to caring for the equine and bovine athletes, it’s serious business.
“In this business, you’ve got to be versatile,” said Kirby, of Kaufman, Texas. “In any business I’ve ever done, the more versatile you are the better.”
That definitely is true in rodeo.
“I love driving the semi,” said Pearah, of Mansfield, La. “I just like stock in general. It’s kind of a challenge. After we set up an arena, I like to go up top and see what we’ve done.
“There’s so much more involved in getting ready for a rodeo than most people understand. I get my own satisfaction out of the work we do, knowing that I can do it.”
For stock contractors like Pete Carr, livestock care is vital. The animal athletes need the greatest care in order to perform at a top level, and that’s where members of the Carr crew come in.
“Taking care of the animals is pretty simple really: Treat them better than you treat yourself,” Kirby said. “That’s how we make money. If you don’t have a good product, then people aren’t going to pay to watch your rodeo. Those animals are our product.
“With any business, you always treat your customers better than you treat yourself, so in this case, we want to do that with the animals. It’s a passion. It’s a love for what we do. For me, you see there’s something special in a horse. If I died and could come back as anything, I’d want to come back as a bucking horse, because they’re treated very well.”
Once the animals are situated and ready to work, the bullfighters go about their business of protecting everyone else in the arena during bull riding. Their assignments are to use their athleticism and understanding of the animals to direct the bulls attention away from the fallen bull riders.
“The best part about my job is going out there and knowing I can convince the beast to go after me instead of somebody else,” Kirby said.
It takes a lot of wherewithal to handle the task at hand. Sometimes it involves a bullfighter throwing his body into a wreck with hopes that everyone comes out unscathed.
“First and foremost, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t given the God-given talent to be a bullfighter,” Heger said. “It’s a tool that allows me to get down the road to make a living, and I get to make a living doing something I love.”
That job is multi-layered. One doesn’t stare into the eyes of a beast without the knowhow and having something special in his heart.
“I love it, because I’ve got to do something for adrenaline,” Pearah said.
Maybe the rush is a big part, but the passion is part of what drives the best bullfighters in the game to make their living on the rodeo trail with Pete Carr’s Classic Pro Rodeo.