The gate swings open, and one bull rages into the ring.

The gate swings open, and one bull rages into the ring.

He bullets through Hardy Murphy Coliseum, horns swiping back and forth at the bull fighter’s backside as the crowd winces and cheers. 

Triston Sargent, a bullfighter from Weatherford, gets pinned by his horns, then flung into the air like a rag doll before crashing into a cloud of red dirt and stomping hooves.

Thankfully for Sargent, Andy Burelle, the barrel man, is here. 

The 41-year-old man from Ardmore hoists up his 120 pound shield and waddles toward the bull, diverting its fury into the broad side of the barrel.

“It’s like being in a dryer, someone turning it on and having someone push it down a flight of stairs,” Burelle said. 

Barrel men are the unsung heroes of bullfighting. When bullfighters are in a pinch, these men, wearing clown makeup, brave the bull and often times take the hit.

Freestyle bullfighter Toby Inman, 35, said barrel men like Burelle are invaluable to the sport.

“Andy has saved me a whole bunch of times,” Inman said. “He’s not just a man in a can. Barrel men get shook up more than you would know. They’re just like an egg getting scrambled on the inside.”

Burelle said working the barrel has become a lost art in bullfighting. Recently, Burelle said barrel men have been used more for comedic effect than safety. But, he and fellow barrel man Andy North are bringing that art back one competition at time.

“Andy North and I stake our reputation on being able to protect, we’re the eyes in the ring for fighter safety,” Burelle said. “Andy and I have gotten really good at moving and we use that barrel to pick the bull off the bullfighter.”

Burelle is no stranger to the freestyle bullfighting scene. He got his start in 1999 when a bullfighter went down with an injury.

A track athlete growing up, Burelle proved to have a knack for running circles around bulls and quickly fell in love with the sport.

Bullfighting legend, Rex Dunn, noticed Burelle’s knack for the sport and brought him into his bullfighting school. With the help of Dunn, Burelle turned a hobby into 15-year career as a bullfighter.

“It snuck up on me,” Burelle said. “I started fighting bulls and got more and more jobs and all of the sudden I got my pro-card and started winning world championships. I didn’t even plan on it, it was just a fun hobby and all of the sudden it was my career.”

Under Dunn, Burelle would go on to win multiple Bullfighting World Championships. But the years of traveling across the country and fighting bulls took a toll.

Burelle said he couldn’t possibly list all of the injuries he’s received in the ring. After 15 years of fighting bulls, Burelle has had all his teeth knocked out, he has metal plates in his face, ankles and forearms, he fractured his tibia and broke bones in his back just to list a few off the top of his head.

Despite the injuries, Burelle said his love for the sport kept bringing him back to the ring.

“It’s just something I really love,” Burelle said. “It beats the heck out of working 9 to 5.”

Through his time touring across the country he met his wife and eventually started a family. His family and the mounting injuries led to Burelle’s retirement from bullfighting in 2014.

“Bullfighting is a young man’s game,” he said. “After 20 years it snuck away from me.”

But Burelle didn’t leave the ring for long. After a short stint as a business owner, he decided to sell his company and start a new career as a barrel man in 2015.

Years of fighting bulls gave Burelle a unique insight into working the barrels, he said. The toughest part of the transition was discovering his comedy chops.

“The bulls are a lot easier than the crowd,” Burelle said.

Burelle took improv comedy classes in Dallas and eventually learned to hone his skills as a funny man. He is used as both a prop and shield during the bullfights and when there isn’t a designated rodeo clown to entertain the crowd, Burelle will showcase his newfound comedy skills.

Burelle didn’t say how long he would keep up his career as a barrel man. He juggles his time on the road working the barrels in addition to owning a business. 

In addition to his work, Burelle devotes much of his time to his 17-month-old son. Right now, Burelle said his son spends most of his time playing in the dirt during bullfights, but he fears his son might one day follow in his footsteps.

“I’m fixing to take all the bullfighting pictures off the wall and hide all the trophies and belt buckles,” Burelle said. “We’re going to convince him to be a funny man.”