With an itinerary worthy of a gypsy, becoming a rodeo clown might not seem like a stable or serious job.
Vancouver Rodeo’s clown Justin Rumford, 30, of Ponca City, Okla., bucks that notion.
The independent contractor, who has a business finance degree from Oklahoma State University, earns about $100,000 per year eliciting laughter at about 50 rodeos per year.
Rumford, along with announcer Al Parsons of Oroville and 460 rodeo contestants, entertained about 6,000 people over the four days of the 42nd annual Vancouver Rodeo. Shows were held Wednesday through Saturday at the Clark County Saddle Club, 10505 N.E. 117th Ave.
During lulls in a rodeo performance, Rumford spices things up by climbing up fences like Spider-Man or recruiting some audience members to perform a cheerleading routine with him. He might poke some fun at the guy in the stands looking at his cellphone, or banter with announcer Parsons.
“The two most important people in the rodeo are the announcers and the clowns because there are lots of ups and downs,” said McKenzie Hudson, a barrel racer from Vancouver. “They keep things rolling. If a cowboy gets hurt, Justin just keeps the crowd’s minds off of things.”
Rumford said he has found his calling as a clown.
“You get to see the country,” he said. “The only job is to have fun and to make sure everyone else has fun. You never know what’s going to happen in the arena.” He makes it sound easy, but he also adds that the job requires a natural sense of humor, wit and comfort in the public eye.
Rumford grew up in the rodeo business and worked as a contestant in steer wrestling and saddle bronc riding in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association from 1998 to 2008. His job as rodeo clown developed partly by happenstance when a stock contractor needed someone to fill in for the rodeo clown at the June 2010 rodeo in Clovis, N.M.
“He’s always been kind of a clown at heart,” said Ashley Rumford, his wife of five years. “He is very funny. He has a wonderful sense of humor. It was a natural fit.”
The life of a rodeo clown is on the road 10 months of the year. Ashley quit her job as a registered nurse and now travels with Rumford to avoid long separations.
“I love it,” she said. “Justin and I both have gypsy souls. We love to see new places and experience new things. We have a rodeo family everywhere.”
Hudson, of Vancouver, is one of those “family” members. Ashley Rumford and Hudson met at a rodeo in Nampa, Idaho, before reuniting in Vancouver last week.
The Rumfords jokingly refer to their house in Ponca City as their “vacation home,” as they’re there only two months out of the year. The couple travel between rodeos in an RV.
Ashley has a privileged position as part of the rodeo circuit. About 90 percent of rodeo spouses, usually wives, don’t travel with rodeo performers. Contestants can earn $100,000 per year if they win competitions, but if they don’t, they might be out about $300 per rodeo in entry fees. Many families can’t afford the risk of a single income with such unpredictable outcomes, he said.
“The thing about competing is, it costs a lot, and you are not guaranteed anything,” Rumford said. “As a (clown) contractor, you know what you are going to make. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you are a clown. What is your real job?'”