Born to Fly
I don’t go into the arena to fight the bulls. For me, it’s a dance.
Manu Lataste breaks it down.
The picture above is from the 2016 rodeo in Paso Robles, California. This is the Angel Jump. You run towards the bull as the bull runs towards you. At the last moment, just before impact, you take off and fly headfirst over the bull. You land on your hands and roll on your back, like a gymnast.
Bull jumping goes back thousands of years. During the time of ancient Greece and Rome, men were put into arenas to be gored by bulls. The crowds came to see the men die. The ones who escaped by leaping over the charging bulls became heroes.
I was born and raised in southwest France in a village called Montfort-en-Chalosse, about an hour away from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s in the Gascony region in the department of Landes. It’s a wonderful part of the world. We have great mountains and the ocean and a lot of traditions. One tradition is the course landaise. I would say it is like American freestyle bullfighting, only the course landaise came first, long before American freestyle.
There are two main events in course landaise. One involves dodging the bulls. The closer the bull passes by you, the more points you earn. The other event is bull jumping, which is my lifelong passion.
In my village, there is a small course landaise arena. Five miles away, there is another town with an arena. Another five miles, another arena. There might be fifty or sixty towns in my region with course landaise arenas. Every year, each town hosts a three- or four-day celebration, usually in summertime, where the course landaise is the main attraction. The best bull jumpers in the world come from France. Maybe all the bull jumpers are from France!
Bull jumping goes back generations in my family. My father used to jump bulls. My brother was a bull jumper. One of my brothers raises cows for course landaise shows. In that way, we are like a rodeo company.
My mother says I was fascinated with bulls even as an infant. When I was fourteen, I started jumping cows. The first time I ever jumped a bull, I was sixteen. This was at a course landaise not far from my village. It was a high-quality show, and the arena was full of people. I knew everybody there, which was good and bad. If it went badly, everybody would laugh and say, Ha, ha, he missed! He’s not meant to be a bull jumper.
I was so excited. I had practiced and trained for that moment for two years, but it felt like I had been waiting for a thousand years!
My first jump did not go badly. That first jump made my spirit soar, like I was Superman. I thought, Man, that’s what I want to do! The people in the crowd saw it, too. You are a natural! they told me. You were born to be a bull jumper.
Today, almost twenty years later, I feel the same excitement just remembering that day, even though I’ve jumped hundreds and hundreds of bulls since then. That first one was special.
Most bull jumpers start when they are eighteen or nineteen. But when I was nineteen, I won the bull jumping world championship. It’s really more like a French championship, since most of the competitors come from my country. But that still made me the best bull jumper in the world.
Most guys will jump bulls for a few years at the summer festivals, but then they will find jobs and wives and make babies, and that will be the end of it. Me, I’m the cowboy’s bull jumper. It’s my whole life. I started when I was just a kid. Now, I’m a man, a husband, a dad and a bull jumper—the only professional bull jumper in the world.
At American rodeos, I am part of the entertainment. I usually make three to six jumps during a performance. I have four different jumps: the Front Flip, Twist, Angel Jump and Flat-Legged Jump.
For the Front Flip, I run at the bull, and the bull runs at me. Before we crash into each other, I leap into the air, flip over the bull and land on my feet.
In the Twist, I run at the bull, the bull runs at me, and I take off in front of the bull, twisting in the air and finishing with a back flip.
The Angel Jump, which I described earlier, is my favorite, because of the control I have. When you fly over the bull, you can see if the bull is going to stop or not.
If we’re talking about the adrenaline rush, my favorite is the Flat-Legged Jump. It’s my most dangerous jump. The bull is in the chute. I’m standing in the middle of the arena with my feet tied together and my knees bound tight. When they open the chute, the bull sees only me. He runs at me. I can’t walk or run. I can’t even bend my knees. Just before impact, I leap and throw my feet forward. It’s just pure extension.
I’ve been injured almost every year I’ve been jumping bulls. Usually, it’s a minor injury, and I’m back after three or four weeks.
In 2005, when I was just starting out, I broke my skull during a front flip. I was young and inexperienced and took off too early. My body spun, and my head hit the bull’s head. I woke up maybe twenty-four hours after that. It was hard for me to read, to concentrate. A dark cloud descended on me. This was almost fifteen years ago. These days, when an American football player gets a brain injury, the league takes care of him, which is good. I didn’t go to a rehab center. I had to do everything for myself. I never stopped working. I was lucky, because my dad was a beekeeper. It’s a great job for people, like me, who can’t stay inside. If I had an office job, I would go crazy. I was never able to stay in front of a computer. I need to move.
Nine months after I broke my skull, I was back in the arena jumping bulls, but I was not back to one-hundred percent. After one year, I was able to read and write more, but I didn’t feel normal and happy for two or three years.
In 2015, while jumping a bull in France, I attempted a front flip. This time I took off too late. The bull’s horns hit my knee and shattered it. You know how your knee bends and flexes? The impact reversed my knee. It bent the other way. I had to have my knee surgically rebuilt.
Last summer, at a rodeo in Yuba City, California, I made a jump, and the bull threw his head up at me, which you can see in the photo above. He missed. But during the next jump, he caught my thigh with his horn. The horn was sharp and cut my leg. I lost some blood and went to the hospital, but I stayed alive, of course. I was very lucky. It could have been way worse.
Why do I do it? That’s a very hard question. I don’t know if it’s because of the feeling of jumping or because of the bull. I’ve always been fascinated with bulls, even as a baby. I believe we have several lives, not just one. We come back to get better at something. I think I have a very long history with bulls, that maybe I came back to be better with bulls.
I’m a cowboy, but I’m not a horse man. I’m a bull man. I don’t go into the arena to fight the bulls. They might fight me, but for me, it’s a dance. I love the bulls. Back in France, when we lose a cow, we cry, because she was a partner. Bulls for me are partners, too. Sometimes a rodeo company will say, Hey, Manu, we want to sell that bull. I say, No, no, he can still work. Give him a chance.
In 2016, Cotton and Reno Rosser hired me to work for their Flying U Rodeo Company. I flew to California and stayed for seven months, performing a couple times a week. They kept maybe fifteen bulls that we used only for jumping. That was one of the greatest years of my life.
At the end of that year, I flew to Quebec to do a big rodeo. I met a woman named Miriam, who became my wife. Today, we live in Quebec, and I fly back and forth the U.S. for rodeos. In early January of 2019, we had a baby girl, Olivia.
I’m thirty-three and still working. I’ve just started the twentieth season of my career. I want to jump as long as I can, because I want my daughter to see her dad jumping. As long as I feel good to jump, I will.