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A cowboy who is still in his element

Bullfighter Shorty Gorham began working rodeos at 14.

August 23, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

When Seth "Shorty" Gorham steps into the makeshift arena at the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo today, his mission will be to protect, at any cost, the cowboys separated from the 2,000-pound bulls they dare to challenge.

It's a job he does 44 weekends a year at dozens of rodeos large and small, from Kitsap, Wash., to Madison Square Garden. But this weekend's event will be something of a homecoming for the bullfighter, who was 14 and on his own when he started working at Rancho Mission Viejo.

In an era when rodeo cowboys are more likely to have learned the sport in college than on a ranch, Gorham is an anomaly: a California bullfighter who worked and trained in the secluded green hills of one of Orange County's last remaining cattle ranches.

The tradition of rodeo clown-bullfighter goes back at least a century. During lulls between bull riding, steer wrestling and other events, they entertained the crowd. The best of them conjured elaborate characters who, like clowns in a circus, performed wacky routines. Their main job, however, was to keep cowboys from getting trampled.

It's the perilous side that appeals to Gorham, whose own life has been anything but safe.

Looking for a place to escape his parents' difficult divorce and the impending loss of his family's El Centro ranch, the teenage Gorham turned to Gilbert Aguirre, the head cowboy at Rancho Mission Viejo. Gorham had spent summers at the ranch just outside the San Juan Capistrano city limits, learning to rope cattle and ride horses.

Aguirre, whose father was a rancher in Arizona, took Shorty under his wing and taught him to wake at dawn to start the day's work, feeding and caring for the ranch's cattle and horses.

"Shorty's an old soul," said Lisa Freese, Aguirre's only child. "His play was to work. He would work right alongside guys that were 20 years old to guys that were 70 or 80 years old."

"That's the way my dad's lived all his life, too," she said. "They don't work 8 to 5."

On the ranch, Gorham told anyone who would listen that he wanted to be a bullfighter.

Shortly after Gorham moved to Orange County, Aguirre took him to an amateur rodeo in Indio. The scheduled bullfighter didn't show up, and organizers -- who, like many in California's tight-knit rodeo circuit, had heard more than once about the young man's career goals -- let Gorham jump into the arena.

For a thrill-seeker who has been tossed around by a bull like a dog playing with a rag doll and broken nearly every bone in his body, Gorham is cowboy-quiet when it comes to his adventures. When asked what it was like to be in an arena with an aggressive 2,000-pound animal at the age of 14, he said only: "It turned out all right."

At the end of his rookie year, Gorham fought bulls at the California state high school finals. The next three years, it was the California Circuit Finals Rodeo. Today he's one of the best bullfighters in the country.

When he started, Gorham donned a rodeo clown's traditional face paint, even if it was just a few lightning bolts of white greasepaint around the eyes. A few years ago, like many who now consider themselves more bullfighter than clown, he dropped the paint, though he still wears oversized, brightly colored clothing in the arena.

Old-timers sometimes look down on bullfighters who take off their makeup, but Gorham's job is "to keep the cowboy alive," he said, not to entertain.

To do that, bullfighters say, they study the psychology of bulls. They read their eyes, their ears, the way they move and how they react. To distract the bull from a fallen cowboy, they'll throw hats and shout, get close enough to slap the bull on its head or cup its eye, or dart between the bull and a rider. When you're good, things go smoothly -- until they don't.

Two years ago, Gorham was in the arena with a bull named Spider Man. Spider Man bucked off his rider, then charged. Three men couldn't stop him. He stuck one of his horns underneath Gorham's vest and threw him in the air. He went smashing to the ground and heard the break.

His left shoulder, fractured in five places, is now held together by plates and screws.

Gorham now lives on a ranch outside the tiny town of Cotulla in south Texas with his wife, stepson and 11-month-old daughter. When he's not on the rodeo circuit he's hunting mountain lions, chasing hounds and doing chores.

Sometimes he goes back to Rancho Mission Viejo and helps Aguirre with the animals.

"This is home," he said.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Roping and riding

What: Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo

When: Today, gates open at 2 p.m.; Sunday, gates open at 11:30 a.m.

Where: Oaks Blenheim Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, intersection of Ortega Highway and Antonio Parkway, San Juan Capistrano

Tickets: Adults, $20; children 4-12, $10; 3 and under, free

Website: www.rmvrodeo.com

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