At just 22 years of age, PBR Rookie of the Year Keyshawn Whitehorse is already among the top professional bull riders in the world. Growing up on the Navajo Reservation next to the four sacred mountains in southern Utah, Keyshawn was determined to become the next best bull rider at just five years old. Initially, Keyshawn and his dad taught themselves about the sport by watching bull riding on television and training on a barrel Keyshawn’s dad made. When we asked Keyshawn how he became a bull rider, he told us it was destined.
What does bull riding mean to you?
“We’re all connected to mother earth; we all breathe the same air. These bulls help me in my life and in my career. So I’m not trying to just beat this bull in a way of physical manner. I’m trying to connect with it so that whenever I ride, we have both done our jobs and we’re both connecting. It’s like we’re dancing together. The bull breathes the same air I do; the bull walks under the same sun; the bull sleeps under the same stars and moon as I do. But even though we’re connected in each of these ways doesn’t mean I ride [perfectly] every time. Those are the prayers that I say and it helps me along the path of being able to work with this bull and this bull work with me. So, it helps me ride and hopefully helps me win, but also keeps me safe. This bull’s an animal of God and I’m a child of God.”
Do you think that gives your sport a more meaningful connection for you?
“I believe so. My dad always told me to respect the animals because they can end your life and they can definitely end your career if you get put in a bad situation. I respect everything about the sport; I always have, from the bulls all the way down to myself and to my gear and the people around me.”
Do you do anything specifically to incorporate your Navajo heritage into bull riding?
“I put my Navajo heritage in bull riding [in different ways]. I either wear a boggart or a beaded bracelet and I also have a beaded medallion on my vest that helps for protection. So those are just some of the little things that I do but there’s always that piece of me when I ride because that’s who I am, that’s who I represent, these are the traditions that have kept me together, and that is the way of life I choose.”
Are there aspects of your Navajo culture that you use to prepare for bull riding?
“You know, bull riding is 90% mental. I remember growing up back home and my dad telling me to run early in the morning because that’s when the holy people are out and to run in the middle of the day and pray to the sun, because it’s hot, to give you strength. You gain your strength from this land. And having those different outlets really built me and really helped me push myself and have that mindset to continue pushing myself.”
How does your family preserve the Navajo tradition?
“The Navajo language and teachings, up until recently, aren’t really written down. It’s more just told through word of mouth. My family preserved the Navajo tradition more in a way of just making sure that we knew where we came from and making sure that we’re able to know who we are. My grandparents let us hang out with them all the time, they spoke to us in Navajo, and they just tried to teach us as much as they could. There are different ways of our traditions and it’s not really book taught; it’s just something that you’re told [about] from your [family] and you live out each and every day. Not just in Navajos but in a lot of Native American tribes, family is a big part of us. We all intertwine, interconnect and that’s where we draw our strengths.”
How did you get into bull riding initially?
“I got into bull riding when I was about five years old. I guess it was destined. I had woken up at night, no telling how late it was, and my dad was watching TV and bull riding was showing. He was sitting on the couch and I sat by him watching the same TV he was. And I didn’t say anything, just watched and watched. And after quite some time of watching, I looked at my dad and I said, “Hey, Dad, I want to do that.” The next day, we went to town and he got me some boots, a cowboy hat, a little calf rope, and some chaps. And that’s how I got started. I think I was actually six or seven [years old] when I actually got on my first calf.”
Were you intimidated, at such a young age, riding bulls?
“I feel like I was just destined to do this. [Which is why] I never really had that big fear when I was in the chute. I just knew that at some point of my life I wanted to make the PBR. And not just make the PBR but be one of the best in the PBR, if not the greatest.”
Your dad was your bull riding coach, right? What was that like?
“I got a lot more mentally tough in my training because of my dad. My dad made these workouts that were hard for me. It didn’t matter whether I did good or bad, I still had to train hard and keep pushing myself no matter what. I mean, by the time I was in fourth grade, my dad was already [having] me do 300 pushups and sit-ups each day, running three miles, and stuff like that. And you know, being about nine- or ten-years-old, that is not something that you really want to do. You really just want to come back home from school and play with your friends or whatever. But you know, he knew the dream that I had in my mind and he knew that if he was able to kind of push me it was going to help me accomplish these things. Even if I didn’t want to do them at that moment.”
What advice do you have for upcoming rodeo athletes?
“Dream big and just believe in yourself. Like wholehearted believe in yourself. Because whatever you’re seeking, you can grab when you believe in yourself 100%. This is what got me quite a long ways in my career and in my life. I may not be the most talented bull rider but I’ve always believed in myself and I’ve always been willing to push myself. I just knew that over time I would be able to make it and I had to do everything I could to prepare for my moment that was going to rise. So, you know I think for anybody out there, just have no doubts that you are going to make it and no matter how difficult things get, keep pushing.”