The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines an old saying, “taking the bull by the horns,” as “to deal with a difficult situation in a very direct or confident way.”
For Amherst County’s Ben Walton, taking the bull by the horns is part of his weekend warrior job as a professional bullfighter, which includes actually grabbing the horn and redirecting the bull away from fallen bullriders.
Walton is not a wannabe cowboy but a real one, as his main job is working with his father, Frank Walton, at their Buffalo River Ranch in Amherst County as a cattleman/ cowboy.
Walton met his wife, Dynolene, while both were serving in the Marines. At a recent rodeo in Bedford County after Walton did his stretching routine Dynolene gave him a kiss as he headed into the dusty arena where a loud crowd of all ages were waiting for the bulls to be released, which meant cowboys flying in the air only to be protected by the bullfighters.
“I am used to him doing crazy stuff from going to combat four times (three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq) to jumping out of planes. It seemed to fit him. He loves it,” Dynolene said.
Walton recently was asked questions about his start and love for the sport and also gives advice for those wanting to get in the bull ring.
Q: When and how did you get started in bull riding?
A: “I started fighting bulls about a year and a half ago after getting out of the military. My parents took me to rodeos growing up. Me, my buddy Mark and my brother Caleb used to go to Cowtown Rodeo in New Jersey as kids. While in the Marines for 10 years I would attend True Grit Rodeos, a Chatham, Virginia event every March whenever I could. It is at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex and it is a great event. I have always liked the bullfighters for their courage as well as athleticism. When I separated from the Marines I was looking for something exciting to do on the side, so I decided to pursue a bucket list and attend True Grit Rodeos Bull Camp in May of 2018. I learned from Miles Jones of North Carolina, one of the best. I won the buckle at the camp for best bullfighter. I started working True Grit events shortly after.”
Q: Have you ever ridden a bull in competition?
A: “I have never ridden a bull. I’m pretty tall compared to most riders, so I don’t know if I would be any good.”
Q: What are your thoughts while in the ring?
A: “While the bull is in the chute I pay attention to him, how he is acting, what I know about him (his tendencies) the rider and his tendencies, etc. Once the gate opens it’s mostly just where the rider is on the bulls back and where I think he will come off at. But you don’t want to overthink.”
Q: What is the difference between a bullfighter and a rodeo clown?
A: “They both have origins in the same guy. In the old days the same man protected riders and entertained the crowd. Today the two jobs are mostly separated. Bullfighters protect riders and entertain by playing with and dancing around the meaner bulls. The rodeo clown is purely an entertainer charged with getting the crowd more involved in the event.
Q: Where are some rodeos you have traveled to as a bullfighter ?
A: “I have fought bulls in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and obviously, Virginia. I have worked about 20 events and numerous practice pens.”
Q: What are your future plans concerning bullfighting?
A: “I will continue to work for True Grit Rodeo for as long as they will have me. Daniel and Erin Lanier put on great events with good crowds, good bulls, good riders and a great atmosphere. I also plan on hitting the road to more freestyle event with Shorty Gorham’s AFB and the Bull Fighters Only. In a freestyle bullfight, the bullfighter steps around a fast Spanish fighting bull athletically and creatively for one minute. At the end of the minute he receives a score like a bull rider, half on the bull, half the bullfighter.”
Q: Your daughter competes in riding sheep. When she gets older how would you feel if she wanted to ride bulls? What advice would you give her?
A: “My daughter Lilly rides sheep and a pony. My daughter Emma rides horses and is pretty good with them. I would support either girl riding or fighting bulls. I would advise them to take care of themselves outside the arena and when it’s time ... don’t hold anything back. Everything is more dangerous if you are hesitant.”