From Navajo Nation to Rookie of the Year

Professional bull rider Keyshawn Whitehorse’s journey to the pinnacle of PBR, embracing his Native culture along the way

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.

A rusty barrel suspended by wires sits on the Whitehorse property in McCracken Springs, Utah. This is where Keyshawn Whitehorse and his father would spend hours every day practicing. His father, Norbert, would shake the wires and give guidance about his grip and technique as Whitehorse tried to hold on.

At home, Keyshawn Whitehorse holds a photo of himself at age 8 in a calf-riding competition. His father is standing beside him shouting instructions, just as he does now.

In front of his childhood home in southern Utah, Keyshawn Whitehorse carries a rope for his morning workout.

A tattered Navajo Nation flag flaps in the wind at Monument Valley just south of Keyshawn Whitehorse’s home, which sits between four sacred mountains in the high desert of rural southern Utah. Blanding, Utah, in Navajo Nation, is a sovereign country within the United States. When asked why Natives are so patriotic, Keyshawn Whitehorse simply said, “Because this is our land,” adding that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics.

Whitehorse and his dachshund Pistol Pete wait for a flight in Durango, Colorado. Pistol Pete is always with him and is much loved by the other riders. American bull riders compete nearly every weekend from January to November, unless they are injured.

Whitehorse warms up before a recent Professional Bull Riders competition on June 2 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He methodically prepares, beginning with a warm-up routine his father created consisting of reps of dynamic stretches to stay loose and prevent injury.

While joking around with other athletes in the locker room, Whitehorse tapes his arthritic wrist before competing.

Unlike the shiny silver champion belt buckles worn by most riders, Whitehorse’s multicolored beaded buckle was made by his grandmother. The bright green fringed chaps and protective vest are emblazoned with the logo of his sponsor, the U.S. Border Patrol.

Along with his grandmother’s beaded buckle, Whitehorse’s necklace and bracelets are traditional hand-tooled silver and turquoise. The eagle feather pinned to his hat belonged to his grandfather, and a U.S. Border Patrol patch is affixed to his shirt. The Border Patrol is a major sponsor of PBR and helps pay for equipment, promotion and travel.

PBR events are the pinnacle of American patriotism. Here, Whitehorse walks through smoldering pyrotechnics at a recent event in Green Bay, Wisconsin. During the national anthem, every cowboy hat in the maximum-capacity crowd is removed. As the riders enter the stadium through pyrotechnics and promo models, they are greeted with raucous, drunken cheers. It’s a modern-day gladiator event where fans don’t want to see anyone get hurt but don’t want to miss it if they do.

Whitehorse strategizes with fellow bull rider Ryan Dirteater (left) before a recent competition in Bismarck, North Dakoka. From physical injury to concussions to death, the dangers with bull riding are well-known, but Keyshawn puts them out of his mind and is grateful every time he walks out safely.
Whitehorse’s friend Mason Lowe died at a January competition in Denver. Hard Times, the bull that crushed Lowe’s chest, competed the next day.

Whitehorse in the bucking chute with Shelly’s Gangsta in Bismarck, North Dakota. Before entering the arena, Whitehorse prays before he rides. The ritual is a blend of Navajo tradition and Christianity that 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.

Keyshawn riding ÒTalking SmackÓ June 2nd in Green Bay, WI. Currently there are 100 or so ranked riders in PBR split between 3 tiered divisions: Unleash The Beast (Top 35 Elite riders), Velocity Tour (Mid-Level) and Touring Pro Division(Entry Level). Riders will compete down a tier for points, money, or to get more outs during the season.

Keyshawn beams with manic joy after a successful 8 second out. While there arenÕt many Native Americans bull riders, there are citizens of Shoshone-Bannock, Navajo, Cherokee, Chippewa-Souix, Potawatomi, and Blackfoot Nations who compete. Six of the top 30 riders are Native in including Cody Jesus, Stetson Lawrence, and Ryan Dirteater, who are ranked in the top 15. At the Global Cup, a bull riding competition between, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and USA, PBR put together an all Native team, Team USA Wolves, who finished in 3rd place.