Learning the ropes: Young learn the fundamentals at bull riding school

MANDAN, N.D. -- Chad Berger's rodeo bull stock company is at the top of the game and is working to grow new, young talent -- both in and out of the ring.

Taking a spin
Garrett Silliman of Wilton, N.D., takes a spin on a bull at the Chad Berger bull riding clinic near Mandan in late June. (Jonathan Knutson / Agweek)

MANDAN, N.D. -- Chad Berger's rodeo bull stock company is at the top of the game and is working to grow new, young talent -- both in and out of the ring.

In 2003, Berger, a longtime professional cattle buyer, started building his own string of bulls that now numbers about 200 head, including Professional Bull Riders association stars Big Tex and Code Blue.

"They tell me I have the best bulls in the world," Berger says matter-of-factly, and you'd better believe it's true.

Berger's company was named PBR Professional Bull Riders Stock Contractor of the Year. Before that, every PBR stock contractor of the year came from either Texas or Oklahoma.

More than a year ago, Berger bought a ranch, seven miles south of Mandan on North Dakota Highway 6, where he works with and keeps his bulls. The facility includes a top-notch ring that was perfect for the first bull riding seminar for aspiring young riders in late June. There were 39 youths registered for a clinic that drew Bismarck-Mandan area youth, but also others from Williston, N.D., Watford City, N.D., and other towns in the North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana area.


Berger asked a friend, Wiley Peterson from Fort Hall, Idaho, one of the nation's top bull riders, to teach at the seminar, coordinated and organized by rodeo enthusiast Lance Comeau of Mandan.

"Wiley's a Christian cowboy and real good with kids," Berger says. "He's a perfect fit for what I want to do."

Rodeo, looking up

Peterson, 31, offered tips on bull riding to the young boys and girls, but also tips on life.

He had a brother who was three years older who rodeoed, he says. Wiley stuck with it as a professional, and it seems the sport has been good to him. After a decade in the PBR, he's earned some $1.4 million. For the past five years, he has been in the top 10 bull riders in the country, winning the Worlds Finals event in 2007.

Peterson travels about 45 weekends a year, and then goes home to his wife and their boys, ages 4 and 2, trying to keep in shape for the next trip, and the next.

And the next.

Peterson says he teaches about four bull riding teaching events in a year, and that's important because it helps grow the next generation of riders who will produce the next PBR champions. He says the center of the country -- from Texas to North Dakota -- seems to produce the most professional bull riders.


Peterson is known for conducting church services and Bible studies at PBR events, but he emphasizes religion won't affect whether a rider gets hurt on a bull. It helps put bull riding -- and everything else -- into perspective, he says.

"Bull riding is a great thing, to pursue these goals, but in the end, it doesn't make any difference how many bulls I was able to ride," he says.

Peterson acknowledges he's able to see some natural ability in certain young riders.

"They have balance," he says. "That means, don't go too far forward, and not too far back. They're aware of their body."

Among this year's young riders in the seminar was Kallie Kautzman, 11, of Bismarck. She's been riding horse since age 7 and has been rodeoing in the past two years -- often beating the boys in her age group

Kallie's mother is Kara Kautzman. Her stepdad is Lance Comeau, who got her started in the sport.

Comeau, 41, was brought up in the rodeo sport in the Solen, N.D., area.

Kallie's "been riding bulls for three years," Comeau says. "Her older brother is 13 and rides. He was getting on a practice bull and she asked if she could ride it next. I said go ask your mother. She put on a helmet and a vest, and she got on it and rode the hair off it. That was the beginning."


Since then, Kallie's won a slew of prizes and titles including 2008 Little Bull Riders junior championship and 2009 Mandan Horse and Saddle championship in her age group.

At the bull riding clinic, Comeau and his brother, Ty, 18, who rides bulls, were helping Kallie spot her and prepare for events.

"'Slide and ride.' That's what people keep on telling me," Kallie says, acknowledging that her long-range goal is to make her mark in barrel racing, which is a sport that is much more associated with women. Comeau acknowledges that after age 14, she won't be riding bulls because the bulls get bigger and stronger.

New, old talents

Jim Schacher of Mandan says he and his friend, Jay Dunford of Menoken, N.D., were happy to be helping young people learn a sport that they have loved all their lives.

"We're just old, retired cowboys, trying to help the young ones," he says, noting their heyday was in the 1970s. Among other efforts, Schacher and Dunford are instrumental in the Chance Sauers Memorial Rodeo.

Schacher says the students learn on small, practice bulls. They learn how to ride, but -- more importantly -- how to be safe.

"We teach them how to help their buddy out -- spotting," Schacher says.


In the seminar, the kids were put in groups of three or four and competed in about six "teams."

Bull riding itself involves centering up on the animal and properly placing feet and the rope.

Once seated, the rider asks the gate holders to open the gate. There's a judgment about when to open the chute -- when the bull is looking out into the ring and not back into the chute.

The partner needs to practice steadying themselves and how to keep the rider's head from jolting into the front of the chute if the bull drops down.

Seeing all of this coaching and learning puts a big, rodeo smile on Berger's face.

Larger than life

At age 48, Chad Berger seems larger than life, wearing a shirt with his own big name emblazoned on it and his head covered with a Minnesota Vikings ball cap.

"I've had a love for rodeo all my life," he says.


His father, Joe Berger, started raising bucking bulls in 1966, doing it as a hobby business before it became more popular in the past decade. Joe's home ranch is about 29 miles south and southeast of Mandan.

Chad was one of five kids.

He started riding small bulls and steers when he was 6 or 7 years old.

"Me and my older brother rodeoed for quite a few years," Berger says.

He was most serious about his own bull riding in the 1970s and early 1980s and joined his father in the career of cattle buying.

When the PBR started in 1992, a really good bull could be purchased for about $5,000, Berger says. Today, a good bull can bring anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, Berger says.

"The PBR is what turned everything around -- a televised series of bull-riding. It's really made the bulls worth a lot more money," he says.

Berger's company supplies bulls for about 50 events a year, between bull-only events and general rodeos, and is among some 50 companies around the country that supply bulls for PBR events.


Berger has reinvested earn-ings from his success.

He built a facility like few in the country -- an arena, bull pens and other working facilities.

Bulls are selected partly through pedigree, but there's more to it.

"You can have the best pedigree in the world -- they could be full 'brothers' -- and one bucks like heck and

the other one won't buck at all," he says.

The successful contractor has to study how the bulls move and how they look.

"If they always have their eye on you, that's the ones I like: They never take their eyes off of you," he says.

The champion is wary and athletic.

The most difficult thing about the business is keeping the animals healthy.

"Just like any other athlete, they'll pull a muscle or tear a groin or whatever," Berger says. "You got to feed 'em protein and get them healthy. And if they get hurt, you've got to nurse them along."

The real good ones continue as breeding bulls.

He counts on associate Brandon Sedler to get the animals to their play dates.

Sadler left from Mandan in December last year, went to Baltimore and then New York City, and various places and "never got back here until May," Berger says.

The company has two sets of drivers -- one going to the East Coast and the other to the West Coast. Berger flies to events, but continues to be a cattle buyer during the week.

Berger bulls go to venues such as

Madison Square Gardens, where

the New York Knicks play basketball, and to Anaheim, Calif., where the Mighty Ducks play hockey.

"I even flew bulls to Hawaii two years ago for PBR over there," he says.

The bulls are his specialty, but he also has a company called Dakota Rodeo Co., which has some horses and bulls as well. His whole family is connected to the business full time, including his wife, Sarah, his daughter, Lacey, and son, John, and daughter, Sadie, does computer work. The company also leases ranch sites in Oklahoma and in Nebraska, where most of the animals spend the winter.

"The bulls have to be on good, soft ground," he says. "They get out of shape up here in the wintertime. That's the only drawback."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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