RICHARDTON, N.D. — After a long day of working bulls, Beni Paulson pours a celebratory splash of watered-down blackberry brandy into a thermos cup as his sidekick Pearl, a 5-year-old mini Australian shepherd, provides the afternoon company.
At the bullpen, Coolio — a 5-year-old American Bucking Bull — saunters toward the gate, hoping for a little evening snack. With horns strong enough to pierce flesh and built burly enough to stomp someone unconscious in their tracks, Coolio is a nightmare come to life.
Paulson hops over the fence and pets Coolio just above his forehead, looking at the bull with a primordial connection between man and beast that befits his 15 years as a bull rider. In the silence of the moment, Paulson reflects on the glory days.
Though his bucking bull days have passed, Paulson, owner of T2 Ranch in Richardton, N.D., hasn’t given up the sport altogether as he now breeds and trains bulls that will soon compete across the nation.
Growing up on a ranch in Killdeer, N.D., bull riding was always a dream for Paulson to chase. As a young cowboy, Paulson won buckles from riding calves, steers and cows. At the age of 15, Paulson bucked his first ride on a bull.
“That was my first passion in life — riding bulls. When I was young, I wanted nothing but to be a little champion bull rider, and it’s an addiction between the adrenaline, the feeling of competition, the bonds you get with your brothers riding bulls. Everything about it is very addictive, and I missed it after I quit. I love it,” Paulson said, looking at the bull chute. “I love so many things about it.”
In 1994, Paulson attended college in Cheyenne, Wyo., and competed in its prestigious rodeo program. Paulson returned to Dickinson, N.D., in 1996, where he graduated with a degree in business administration with an agriculture concentration at Dickinson State University. Paulson went on to continue his bull riding career while also working two jobs at a time.
Before retiring his bucking rope in 2006, Paulson was at the pinnacle of his career. He competed at the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in 2001, which made him the first-ever North Dakota bull rider to qualify for the event. Though he didn’t know it, Paulson was paving the way for future cowboys.
“I really didn’t think about it at the time, because at the time I was just focused on competing, winning and making it, and that thought didn’t cross my mind. Later on, I was really proud of that, and especially once some of our other North Dakota boys started making the finals, I was real proud,” Paulson noted.
From bucking to breeding
Now, at 45, Paulson teaches bull riding to Dickinson State University students. He’ll bring students to his ranch and have them practice on bulls in his own arena and also at DSU’s Indoor Arena. Paulson noted that he got into the bull breeding business by happenstance.
Three years ago, Paulson was approached by his musical friend Payton Jerde, of Zeona Road from South Dakota, who proposed the two partner up with some American Bucking Bull cattle. Knowing he had the pasture land to feed the cows as well as a bull ready to breed, Paulson hopped on the opportunity.
“There’s a lot of similarities, but there’s also a lot of differences, I guess. They’re kind of a different animal just because they’re so wild and so athletic …” Paulson said. “They’re almost like buffalo when you’re working them, and you've got to work them differently — you can’t just treat them the same as beef animals.”
Maintaining bulls for Professional Bull Riding events means keeping up with trimming their horns to “at least blunt to a 50-cent piece,” but Paulson noted that he trims the horns down a little farther because it is less dangerous for the rider.
As long as the weather cooperates, Paulson tries to work his bulls one to two times each week with his students.
“Getting these bulls into a chute, it goes against all of their instincts. They’re instinctively herding animals and they’re instinctively flight animals. So when they’re separated from the herd and in a position where they’re vulnerable, they hate that,” Paulson said. “So it takes a long time to get them used to it and get them to realize that, ‘Hey, this ain’t going to hurt me. This is OK.’ They’re flighty and psychotic animals to begin with, so it takes a lot.”
With a herd of American Bucking Bull cows and bulls, Paulson, who also is a part of the contemporary musical band Breaking Eight, names his animals after singers and bands such as Chumbawamba, Coolio, Dotty West, Reba, Red Zeppelin and Wynonna.
“Really at the end of the day, though, they’re basically just bovine. They’re just cows and bulls. They’re just a bit wilder and a little bit faster. But they still eat grass and still got four hooves and four stomach compartments,” he said.
Bull riding is known as one of the most dangerous sports to compete in because there are so many different aspects to take into account, Paulson said.
“There’s fear, there’s nerves, there’s excitement. There’s a large farm animal that wants to stomp you in the ground, but you also want to win and do good because that’s the addiction — to conquer that beast, be successful and have people cheer for you,” Paulson said, adding, “So there’s no one emotion. There’s a mix of emotions, and that’s what makes bull riding so hard (because) you have to harness all these emotions and have them work for you instead of work against you.”
Managing cattle, crops
Not only does Paulson breed and train bucking bulls, but he maintains his ranch in Richardton with his wife, Michelle, and his two ranch hands, Justin Ward and Gus Kronberg, who are also professional bullfighters. On a typical evening in the spring, Paulson drives around in his truck to finish chores. Using a hydraulic operator bale bed, he picks up a big round hay bale to bring out for a herd of Angus-cross and American Bucking Bull cows, who wait eagerly for their supper.
Even though Paulson wears several hats in the community, education and grazing management is at the top of his list.
“That’s the biggest thing we’re doing right now is rotational grazing, managing our grasslands in a way that sequesters and utilizes more carbon than we’re emitting, because that’s obviously a big deal right now in the world with the Green New Deal," Paulson said. "The beef and cattle industry is definitely under attack. So we’re trying to prove through good grazing management that we’re saving the world and providing a very healthy food source, not ruining the world like some people are accusing us of doing. So with proper management, it can be done; there’s no doubt."
At the T2 Ranch, Paulson has implemented a “twice-over grazing management system,” which covers Paulson’s native ranges to keep both his land and cattle healthy. Through the North Dakota State University Extension, Paulson has attended several seminars to educate himself on this aspect of agriculture.
Moving from different locations, Paulson has learned how important it is that ranchers continue their education with crop management so people understand what strategies work to carry out operations.
“... There’s a lot of resources available for practices and also, it’s biology. You need to learn the biology of the plants. A lot of ranchers just do what their dads did. They don’t understand range biology, they don’t understand plant biology, they don’t understand reproductive biology,” he said. “They just do the same thing they’ve always done, and there’s resources everywhere to improve. Not only does it make you more money as a producer, it’s better for your product, it’s better for our animals and it’s better for the world.”
Reflecting on his bull riding days
Though he has retired from bull riding, Paulson’s passion for bull riding remains.
“It’s a little bittersweet because I wish I would’ve done more. Knowing now, I wish I could have accomplished more things. So in a way, it’s disappointing but also, I worked really hard for it and I accomplished things that most people don’t get to,” Paulson said. “So for that, it feels really rewarding to me just because I worked so hard and was so passionate about it.”
With a dedicated mind and persistence to achieve his goals, Paulson is one of the few cowboys left in North Dakota who is preserving the old Wild West ways.
“I miss it every day," Paulson reminisced. "Almost every day — if we have a bad day or I see one of my buddies get hurt or something, then I don’t miss it. But every other day, I miss it. It’s a feeling that can’t be explained just conquering a 2,000-pound beast that wants to stomp you in the dirt and kill you. When you conquer that and win and you’re successful — I was on TV and I had sponsors — you just can’t replace that. It’s like a drug, (but) it’s better than a drug. So yeah, I miss it all the time.”
Contact reporter Jackie Jahfetson on social media at Facebook @journalistjackie and Twitter @jahfetj.