Professional bull rider Keyshawn Whitehorse’s journey to the pinnacle of PBR, embracing his Native culture along the way
Photos and Story by Ivan McClellan
Last year, in his debut season, 21-year-old American bull rider Keyshawn Whitehorse won the Rookie of the Year title. This season the expectations were high, but early on he struggled with his grip. An increasingly severe pain in his right hand required numerous doctor visits until a Professional Bull Riders (PBR) specialist diagnosed it as early-onset arthritis.
He returned to his home in Navajo Nation to recenter and regain the focus that propelled him from humble beginnings on the reservation to become one of the top professional bull riders in the world.
The Whitehorse home sits between four sacred mountains in the high desert of rural southern Utah. Growing up here, Whitehorse and his cousins would run free from dawn to dusk with the land as their playground. Focused less on school than rambunctious activity, he began bucking calves by the time he was 8.
Whitehorse and his father, Norbert, learned the sport together by watching PBR events on TV and practicing on a makeshift barrel behind the house. Norbert still travels to competitions and pulls Whitehorse’s rope as he enters the chute.
While there aren’t many Native American bull riders, there are citizens of Shoshone-Bannock, Navajo, Cherokee, Chippewa-Sioux, Potawatomi and Blackfoot nations who compete. Six of the top 30 riders are Native, including Cody Jesus, Stetson Lawrence and Ryan Dirteater, who are ranked in the top 15.
Before competing, Whitehorse methodically prepares, which includes a prayer ritual that is a blend of Navajo tradition and Christianity. Before he straps on his bright fringed chaps and the protective vest with the logo of his sponsor, the U.S. Border Patrol, Whitehorse anoints his body with burnt cedar and asks for protection and for communion with the bull he is riding. Instead of dominating the animal, he prays for a partnership. Both of their lives depend on an exceptional performance on the dirt.
He proudly embraces his culture, and that’s one reason fans love him.