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Fighting bull: Q&A with Ryan Knutson, a professional bull rider

“Easy, Daisy,” I whispered soothingly, “Hold still.”
I was 8 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. 

She was startled, 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 television series “Yellowstone” 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, a lifelong family friend and a professional bull rider. I held a short Q&A with Knutson to learn more about his extremely hazardous profession.

1. How did you get into bull riding? 

“I don’t know why I got interested in bull riding,” he says. “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, Knutson 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,” he says.

2.  What does an average training day look like for you?

“The best way to train for bull riding is to ride bulls,” Knutson says. “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.”

3. 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.

4. What does it feel 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 adrenaline 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.”

5. What have been your best and 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.”

6. After 18 years of riding, what kind of injuries can someone expect from participating? 

“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, which forced me to sit out much of the season. But I’m going to keep on riding bulls for a while longer.”

7. It appears that the bullfighters are totally fearless. Is that observation true? 

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. When I ride, I only have to worry about the bull — the bullfighters help keep our cowboys safe during every ride. The bullfighters don’t get paid nearly enough.”

8. I imagine that professional rodeoing involves a ton of travel. How much traveling do you do for rodeos? 

“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.”

9. I assume, you probably get to meet a lot of people along the way. What’s the best part of making rodeo connections? 

“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.”  

Knutson’s accomplishments are certainly impressive. Although I wonder: how long would he have lasted if he had ridden Daisy?

About the Author

Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which become a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at

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