The cowboy scrunched up his eyes against the bright prarie sun as he painted on long black eyelashes.

"Look, it's melting," he said, glaring at the eyebrow pencil.

Another cowboy donned long black tights, colorful socks, a wildly polka-dotted shirt and huge shorts held up by blaring red suspenders.

It's not the type of getup that a dude expects rodeo cowboys to wear.

These cowboys, though, are learning to be rodeo bullfighting clowns. Although the clown title dictates their outlandish costumes, they are not there only to get a laugh.

"They're the cowboys' life insurance," said Joyce Sankey, who, with her husband Bud, and sons, Lyle and Ike, operates an advanced school for rodeo clowns at their Rose Hill Ranch.

"They are there to take the bull away from the rider once he has fallen," she explained.

The three-day school is one of several the Sankeys offer each year. This time, Mrs. Sankey said there are about 65 men, ranging in age from 13 to 27, enrolled in four events: clowning, plus bareback, bull and saddle bronc riding.

Students receive personal instruction and lectures. Their performances are recorded on videotape so they can study what they did wrong. Mrs. Sankey said. Clown students also get help in putting on makeup and putting together comedy acts, she said.

During the bull-riding event, the rodeo clown's job is to distract the bull and to keep it away from the cowboy once he is thrown so he leave the arena safely.

"If a bull gets a hoof tangled in the gate or if something else delays the action, the clowns will keep the crowd entertained with jokes or with specialty acts," said clown instructor Gary Parli of Caney, Wash.

"It makes you feel good when you save a cowboy from a hood," said Stretch Harris, 23, of Rushville, Neb. Harris, who has four years of clown experience, is one of 11 students enrolled in the clowning event.