Adrenaline Junkie

Entertainer John Harrison courts danger as a renowned rodeo barrelman and trick-riding daredevil.

By Larri Jo Starkey

Photography by Click Thompson Photography

A bucking bull is built out of 2,000 pounds of strength and spite.

His skull is mostly thick bone, with a brain that has never been to anger management school.

Some cowboys try to ride bulls. Others, like barrelman John Harrison, stare them right in their primal, grudge-filled eyes and dare them to make a move.

But those eyes aren’t where John focuses his attention.

“If you watch the shoulder, that’s the first thing that moves on a bull when he’s coming to you,” John said. “As soon as he flinches from 6-8 feet away from you, usually you can duck down inside the barrel in time, instead of waiting for the head and whole body to move.

“When you’re inside the barrel, you can hear the noise they make breathing,” he said. “Then you duck down inside, and you’re pushing against the inside of the barrel—pushing really hard. You don’t know when the bull is going to hit you, so you can’t relax. And you can hear him outside and the snot coming from his nose.”

John gets nervous every time he steps into the rodeo arena to wrangle rank bulls, but he can’t get enough of the adrenaline rush that makes the sport a thrill for audiences and participants alike. To John, courting danger is fun.

Hanging Upside Down

John was born into a rodeo family, and he grew up roping. His grandfather, the legendary Freckles Brown, was a bull rider. Consequently, John also rode sheep, calves and steers before deciding he liked life outside of the chutes better than atop the livestock. But horses have always been another story.

“People would stop in at [my grandfather’s] house, and some trick riders stopped at our local rodeo,” John said. “I saw it and I was like, ‘Man, that looks like fun to hang upside down on a horse. They gave me my first lesson, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Trick riding opened doors into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, allowing John to book his barrelman work and comedy acts.

He started when he was in his early 20s. Now in his 40s, he still loves the feeling of flying he gets when he vaults from the saddle of his galloping steed, bounces down on the ground and returns to the tack sitting backward—sailing through the air onto a horse that he is quite literally trusting with his life.

“I pretty much use all Paints,” he said. “I got my PRCA card in 1999, and I’ve used Paints my entire career. I feel like nothing really photographs better. They’re flashy in the arena. And the Paints that I’ve had are some of the toughest horses that I’ve been on.”

That toughness is essential in John’s horses, who travel miles and miles in trailers and then run through dusty, sandy, muddy or hard arenas.

John’s oldest horse, Paint Me Lonesome, a bay tobiano nicknamed “Gus,” is 28.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2024 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.