Rookie of the Year: North Dakota’s Justin Ward earns Bullfighters Only title
January 10, 2019
Metallica's Whiskey in the Jar is playing in a young man's head as he prepares for the chute in front of him to swing open. An angry animal is snorting and pawing the dirt, all 2,000 pounds of powerful muscle just waiting to erupt into the arena. Both are eager to take on the other.
The chute opens, and everything fades away except the challenge between man and bull.
This is what an average day looks like for 23-year-old Justin Ward, a Minnesota native, Dickinson State University agriculture business graduate, and horse trainer.
He's also a freestyle bullfighter.
Ward grew up in Mabel, Minnesota where his family raised purebred Angus and grew corn and soybeans. In addition to their operation, his mom worked at a factory that manufactured parts for Dodge and his dad sold crop insurance. When he was little he would watch the PBR every weekend, begging his parents to let him ride. Finally, they took him and his brother to a Little Britches Rodeo in Wisconsin and the rest was history.
Ward rode bulls for years before sustaining an injury and was forced to quit, even though he enjoyed the rough stock sport. That's why when someone offered him $50 to fill in for a bullfighter that hadn't shown up one day, he accepted and never looked back.
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The last year has been packed with action and success for Ward as he pursued a career in professional bullfighting.
"My favorite thing is even if I don't win, if I get through the whole bullfight with no injury that's pretty cool because that animal is trying to kill me," Ward said.
Many folks are familiar with bull riding, but not many know the dedication and practice it takes to be a bullfighter. Ward competes in both categories of bullfighting. One is protection, where he is responsible for keeping the bull from harming the bull rider, and the other, freestyle, focuses on just the fighter and the bull.
Ward excelled at a Bullfighter's Only freestyle development camp in San Bernardino, California last April. He attended to improve and enhance his technique and skills in the arena. The Bullfigher's Only organization promotes the sport of freestyle bullfighting and hosts various competition events across the country. After impressing his coaches at the camp, they told him he was going to be partaking in his first professional event.
Ward burst onto the scene when he won the BFO Tri-Cities Invitational in Kennewick, Washington in May, only one month after attending the development camp. The win earned him $10,000 and an automatic spot at the BFO Championships in Las Vegas in December. During the season, Ward also earned wins in Burlington, Colorado and New Town, North Dakota.
With only a few months under his belt, Ward headed into the BFO Championship in Las Vegas not knowing exactly what to expect, but was working hard in order to prepare.
"I always listen to songs to get pumped up. The last thing that goes through my head is, this could be it. Here we go. When that chute comes open it just all clicks off, and it's just me and that bull."
Ward's preparation, focus, and dedication paid off in Las Vegas. He came home with the BFO Rookie of the Year title.
"I didn't even realize it had happened. I received a phone call from the BFO publicist and had no idea."
One of Ward's good friends is Lane Berg, a bull rider and steer wrestler for DSU and a competitor in the PRCA, North Dakota Rodeo Association and the Rough Rider Rodeo Association, to name a few.
"The first time I met Justin, we were steer wrestling at a Rough Rider rodeo. He came right up to me just before we were about to go and he had the biggest smile on his face, just happier than heck to meet me. He's always the first to congratulate me and he is always rooting for me when I get into the bucking chute. My best memory is just how great of a friend he has been and for always being there if something isn't right."
Berg believes Ward's success can be attributed to his dedication and work ethic. "You'll be talking to him and he's practicing his fakes and moves, so that just proves he's always thinking about it."
Berg also believes bullfighting has impacted the overall sport of rodeo by wowing crowds and inspiring kids.
"When these guys come to fight and protect us, they get just as much loves as we do and that's so cool. Anything to revamp and interest people in the cowboy way of life and rodeo is awesome for the future of the sport."
Along with Berg's encouragement and support, Ward is heading into the future with positive people around him. He said his role models are Nate Jestes, Al Sandvold, and Beau Schueths, along with Justin Josey and Ross Hill who taught him at the development camp. He credits his success to these bullfighters as he continues on his journey to success.
"My long-term goals include being named a Badlands Circuit Finals bullfighter, and definitely try to win a world title or two and compete at the National Finals Rodeo, Ward said.
As for this year, he'll be spending time practicing his leatherwork and attending farrier school in February along with big plans for bullfighting.
"I'll still be doing protection rodeos. I just received my PRCA permit so I'll work a few pro rodeos and try to get my card. And, I'll make a run at ranking #1 in the BFO."