Jerry Nelson: The fearless spirit of a lifelong bull rider
“Easy, Daisy,” I whispered soothingly, “Hold still.”
I was eight years old and had developed a burning desire to ride a horse. Upon being informed by my parents that we couldn’t afford such frivolity, I decided to repurpose one of our tamer milk cows into my steed.
Distracted by my proffered ear of corn, Daisy dallied long enough for me to clamber up onto her back. I had imagined cantering jauntily off into the sunset, but Daisy had other ideas. The startled cow bucked, and I discovered that riding a Holstein is similar to sitting on an ax blade. Displaying a surprising level of athleticism, Daisy swiftly hurled me to the dirt.
That was the beginning and the end of my bovine riding career. The recent popularity of the Yellowstone television series caused me to reminisce about my brief attempt at cowboying and wonder what it would be like to participate in a real rodeo.
Ryan Knutson is a lifelong family friend and a professional bull rider. I recently chatted with Ryan to learn more about his extremely hazardous profession.
“I don’t know why I got interested in bull riding,” Ryan said. “I don’t come from a rodeo family and my parents never owned cattle. We went to a rodeo when I was a kid and I saw the bull riding and thought, ‘That looks like fun!’”
At age ten, Ryan attended a bull riding school at Korkow Ranch located near Pierre, South Dakota. He started out riding steers but was soon climbing aboard bulls that were bred to buck.
“I was lucky to have parents who were willing to indulge me,” Ryan said.
I asked Ryan about his training routine.
“The best way to train for bull riding is to ride bulls,” he said. “And you have to stay fit. One of the best exercises you can do is to ride a horse bareback. Timing is a huge part of riding a bareback horse or a bull. It’s like a dance.”
Wouldn’t riding a mechanical bull be a good substitute for the real thing?
“Not really. A mechanical bull pivots at just one point, whereas a live bull’s pivot point is constantly shifting. I always get thrown when I try to ride a mechanical bull.”
I asked Ryan what it’s like to settle yourself onto a 2,000-pound mountain of snorting, testosterone-fueled rage.
“You can feel the muscles and the power of the bull, and the adrenalin really kicks in. The gate opens and the bull explodes out of the chute. For the first few seconds it’s almost as if I black out, but that’s when my training takes over. During the last few seconds, I might start to think. That’s when I get into trouble or let go of the rope too soon. Even if it’s your best ride, it’s still the longest eight seconds in the world.”
What have been you best and your worst rides?
“My best ride was when I scored 85 out of 100 points during my first ride as a professional. I ended up winning that day. The rodeo was in Brookings, and it was nice that it happened so close to home.
“My worst ride was in Cheyenne, Wyoming when the bull and I butted heads. It turned out that the bull’s head was a lot harder than mine.”
Ryan has been riding bulls for 18 years, so I asked him about injuries.
“Getting hurt at some point is inevitable. You can’t get on an animal that has that much power and escape injury. I’m starting to have some hip issues. I pulled a groin muscle last year, forcing me to sit out much of the season. But I’m going to keep on riding bulls for a while longer.”
It appears that the bullfighters are totally fearless.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. When I ride, I only have to worry about one bull, but the bullfighters help keep our cowboys safe during every ride. The bullfighters don’t get paid nearly enough.”
I imagine that professional rodeoing involves a ton of travel.
“I’ve been all over the place. One winter, I rode bulls in Texas, then drove to Jackson, Mississippi, then went to Tucson, then went back to Texas before finally ending up in Grand Island, Nebraska.”
You probably get to meet a lot of people along the way.
“Many of the bull riders that I’ve traveled with to compete in rodeos have become good friends. It’s one of the rewards of rodeoing that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.”
Ryan’s accomplishments are certainly impressive. Although I wonder: how long would he have lasted if he had ridden Daisy?
If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at email@example.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.