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Uniquely Utah: Professional bull rider doesn't forget his Navajo roots

Posted at 10:47 PM, May 09, 2021

SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — By many accounts, professional bull riding is the fastest growing sport.

Prize money gets bigger every year, and international athletes are getting in on the action.

Some of bull riding's biggest stars are from right here in Utah.

READ: Three Utahns win titles at National Finals Rodeo

23-year-old Keyshawn Whitehorse is one of them. He’s currently ranked 4th in the country and 11th in the world.

But out in McCracken Spring in southeast Utah, he says he’s “just another guy walking on this earth.”

Raising animals is fairly common among families living on the Navajo reservation. But riding bulls... not so much.

Whitehorse started when he was five years old.

"For some guys, their dad or uncle did it. For me, I watched it on TV when I was little," he said. "I had a little burro that I would get on when I was a kid... When I was in school, I'd dream about being in the PBR all day every day, used to draw buckles with PBR on there."

With hard work and practice, the dream came true.

"I can forget all my problems when I'm climbing on the back of a bull because at that moment in time, all that matters is then and there," Whitehorse said. "Everything slows down. Everything that you do is in perfect sync with the animal that's underneath you... Kind of like a dance when you're doing it right."

The rodeo star's Navajo heritage is not lost on the fans. They know life there comes with extra challenges — “kind of isolated,” as he described it.

WATCH: Navajo woman who helped lead pandemic relief efforts featured in Oscars commercial

Whitehorse's high school was 21 miles away. Many Navajo students travel even farther, and higher education and job opportunities can seem a world away.

"My message to the kids here on the Navajo Nation is: There's no dream too big. You can achieve anything," he said. "If it requires you to leave the reservation, leave your family. Don't be afraid to do it. There's a lot out there in the world to learn and to know, but just don't forget where you come from and don't forget where you are."

After all, “you can always come back,” he says.

"You kind of have that spiritual connection, I guess, when you're out here. Seeing the sunrise, sunset, animals running around, stuff like that. You can call me small-town guy or whatever, farmer guy kind of thing, but I think there's peace in all that," Whitehorse continued. "Everything stays the same here — it doesn't matter how good I do."