The family who rodeos together … Pirrung family shares passion for sport

Lura Roti
This weekend, South Dakota Farmers Union fed hundreds of South Dakota families who gathered in Belle Fourche for the South Dakota State High School Rodeo Finals. Among them is the Pirrung family of Hartford; Payton, 16, Cathy, Dan and Braden, 20. Payton, qualified in team roping - an event he and his brother, Braden, and dad, Dan, have been competing in since he was 6. He also qualified in tie down. Photo by Lura Roti

This Wednesday (June 13, 2018), South Dakota Farmers Union fed hundreds of South Dakota families who gathered in Belle Fourche for the South Dakota State High School Rodeo Finals, among them is the Pirrung family of Hartford.

Payton, 16, qualified in team roping – an event he and his brother, Braden, 20, and dad, Dan, have been competing in since he was 6.

“I’m pretty competitive, so rodeo and competing with my friends, is something I enjoy,” says Payton, who also qualified in the tie down event.

Although he says he could have participated in basketball, football, baseball … Payton never gave much thought to any sport other than rodeo.

And, it’s no wonder – rodeo is in his blood.

His mom, Cathy (Smith) Pirrung, grew up trailering horses to shows and playday rodeos. As a teen, barrel racing became her life.

“It’s the adrenaline rush – and the fact that I’ve always loved horses and being with horses, and the fact that us girls always looked out for each other,” she explains. “The other barrel racers and I are like family.”

It was only natural that when Cathy started her own family with Dan, she introduced him to her extended rodeo family.

“I always joked that he could stay home and do chores or learn to rope. Next thing I knew, I was staying home and he was roping,” she says.

Home for the family is a picturesque 1892 homestead northwest of Hartford, where Dan’s grandma Bernadine (Kueter) Pirrung homesteaded at 16 years old.

The acres of rolling pastureland, dotted with Cottonwoods, are a perfect respite for the family’s rodeo horses.

“When he married me, he inherited several horses,” Cathy says.

“We had a lot of work to do to bring the place back,” Dan adds. But, together, they did, building an arena and restoring the house and original barn.

Before Cathy, Dan’s hobby was sprint cars. He spent his weekends traveling the nation as a crew chief for World of Outlaw Sprint Cars. He says it was the camaraderie of rodeo that converted him from 700 horsepower to one.

“In rodeo, you are competitors in the arena, but outside the arena, you’re friends,” he explains, that if a rodeo athlete draws an animal one day and a friend draws the same animal the next, the two often meet to discuss the animal’s behavior. “The first time I went to a rodeo and saw guys telling each other what to expect I was impressed. In sprint cars, we weren’t as eager to help the competition out.”

“That’s what I mean about rodeo athletes becoming family,” Cathy says. “Our boys are competitive, but if someone’s horse goes lame, they are the first ones to help out and loan a horse – or whatever another athlete needs. When it’s over, they all hang out together.”

When their family of two became three, and then four, Cathy and Dan didn’t give up rodeo – their sons tagged along.

“I would hold Payton in front of me on the saddle and Braden would ride beside me on an old horse that his grandpa gave him. When it was time to compete, I would hand Payton off to Dan or a friend and go,” Cathy recalls.

About the time Braden entered second grade, Cathy put her barrel racing on hold to take her sons to jackpots. Braden and Payton took to rodeo just like their parents.

Jackpots soon became Little Britches and 4-H rodeos, National Little Britches Rodeo Finals Rodeos in Pueblo, Colorado, and Guthri, Oklahoma (in 2009, the brothers qualified in the team roping for the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals); Junior High National Finals Rodeos in Gallup, New Mexico, Des Moines, Iowa, and Lebanon, Tennessee; South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals and in 2016, Braden qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming.

“Sure, it’s expensive to go up and down the road, but so are attorneys and counselors,” Dan says, explaining that his sons are too busy training and rodeoing to get into too much trouble.

“What I love is that we do rodeo together as a family,” Cathy says. “Our family time together is spent roping together or on the road together going to rodeos. We take family vacations just like everyone, the only difference is we bring our horses with us. We’ve made a lot of memories together.”

Braden and Payton both add that they’ve made lifelong friends from across the nation through rodeo.

“It’s a great way to grow up,” says Braden.

Payton adds, “We appreciate all the time, money and energy our parents and others invested so that we can compete in a sport we both love – and spend time with people who have become our lifelong friends.”

“When you are on the road with the same guys all weekend driving to rodeos, you really get to know people well,” explains Braden.

He is an agriculture business major and received a full ride rodeo scholarship to Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington, Wyoming.

Along with friends, the Pirrung brothers say they know how to work hard and stay focused. The boys rope or exercise horses nearly eight hours a day – Braden adds that through rodeo he’s learned a lot about money management.

“In high school, entry fees weren’t bad. Today, I can spend $600 on entry fees for jackpot rodeos, amateur and college rodeos. But then, the prize money is really good – if you’re winning,” Braden says.

Rodeo has also taught him a lot about determination. A few years ago he nearly lost his thumb (doctors were able to surgically reattach) when it was caught between his dally and saddle horn.

He was 17. It was six weeks prior to the Little Britches World Championships. So, he taught himself how to rope without his thumb – using his pointer and index fingers. Braden won the title.

During the work week, Cathy spends her days as the Activity Director for Good Samaritan Center and Dan spends his days as manager at Myrl & Roy’s Paving. He is also a former President of the South Dakota Rodeo Association.

With Payton competing in high school rodeos and Braden in college, the family’s travel schedule is busier than ever. In fact, last fall, Payton and his parents decided to enroll in Western Christian Academy, an online homeschool program, so he could keep up with his school work and rodeo schedule.

“I like the flexibility of homeschooling because I get to go to more rodeos and jackpots and be with the horses more often – and rope more than I did when I was enrolled in public school,” explains Payton, who completes his schoolwork through an online program that he can do at his own pace. “When I was in public high school they didn’t like it when I took days off to rodeo, even though I kept up with my school work. Now, I’m able to coordinate my school schedule with my rodeo schedule.”

Cathy adds, “Not only has homeschooling has been a good fit for him with rodeo, but it’s been a good fit academically.”

This weekend, his focus is on team roping as he competes with friends across South Dakota at the State High School Finals.

“My boys are very humble. They don’t do this for the recognition, they do it because they love it. They don’t care about recognition, they do it for the love of the sport,” Cathy says.

To learn more about how S.D. Farmers Union supports families throughout South Dakota, visit and to learn more about the S.D. High School Rodeo Finals visit

–South Dakota Farmers Union