Sep. 13—MITCHELL — For the first time since 2019, bull riding is back at the Corn Palace.
Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17, the Raise 'Em Rank bull riding series — the two-year-old organization run by Canton, South Dakota, resident Dillon Swanson — will take to the Corn Palace floor for the 2022 series finals.
What sets Raise 'Em Rank apart from most of its peer organizations is the riders. At a given event, there are approximately 30 professional bull riders, but there are also similar numbers of youth riders, aged 6 to 16, competing on miniature bulls. Such practice is uncommon in the region, but Swanson recognizes that ensuring the longevity of top-notch bull riding events starts with training future generations of riders.
"Our goal is to try and raise that next generation of bucking bulls, but we also understand that without bull riders these events are going to go by the wayside. ... I don't really know of very many other organizations in the Midwest that give that opportunity to kids. We're pretty unique in how we do it," Swanson said. "There are a few other places that are starting to pick up the minis and do it, but it's a larger part of our shows than other places. Fans coming to our shows are going to see enough of the mini bulls but they're also going to see the big bulls."
Bull riding starts at 7 p.m. on Friday night (which also has a throwback theme with 1990s western wear encouraged) while Saturday's events start at 7 p.m. A vendor fair will be set up inside the venue, and live music will follow the bull riding both nights. For the first time, Raise 'Em Rank will also feature a 'super senior' division at the year-end finals, with former professional bull riders aged 50-plus coming out of retirement for one last ride.
The professional open competition will feature Mason Moody, of Letcher, who is second in the year-end standings to Jack Rodenbaugh, of New Underwood. Rodenbaugh will not be competing this weekend due to injury. Colome's Riley Shippy is fifth in the standings, with Tyson Hill and Ben Wood rounding out the top five.
In the junior mini division, Hunter Hohn, of Ethan, tops the standings, with Mitchell's Colt Evenson also in the top five.
Taking some inspiration from the Professional Bull Riders organization's penchant for hosting events in unique locations — Swanson pointed to a PBR event where the arena was set up on the deck of an aircraft carrier as one example — the Corn Palace will be the last of several unique stops on this year's Raise 'Em Rank schedule.
Swanson is looking forward to bringing bull riding back to the Corn Palace after a three-year absence — the former Corn Palace Challenge was a PRCA-sanctioned event annually contested in September — and points to previous events at an apple orchard in Harrisburg and a wedding venue in Canton (also the site of last year's series finals) as highlights leading up to this weekend's year-end finals.
"For these bull riding events, I've always wanted to put them on in a way that the venue locations are exciting; PBR has really paved the way with doing that sort of thing," Swanson said. "The Corn Palace is super unique and has historically been a great venue for bull riding events, and we're excited to bring it back."
Ultimately, attendance will determine the success of the event and Mitchell's future for hosting Raise 'Em Rank events, with Swanson expressing a desire to make the Corn Palace a regular stop, perhaps even as the dedicated series finals host.
"I want to continue to do it, and I'm hoping we can make Mitchell the home of our finals in years to come," Swanson said. "It's really just going to depend, for us, on if we have 400 people in the stands or if we sell the place out. It's a lot more fun to ride bulls when the crowd is packed in and they're loud."
According to Swanson, the eastern half of South Dakota historically hasn't had many athletes compete in bull riding or other rough stock events despite a plethora of athletic talent, with the primary reason being a lack of exposure and opportunity. His aim is to combat that through the Raise 'Em Rank youth divisions.
"A lot of the kids we get to compete don't come from a farming or ranching or rural background but at some point want to be a cowboy and we give them an opportunity to learn on the right caliber of stock, safely and build them up into what it takes," Swanson explained. "The other option is to wait until you're in high school and getting on born-to-buck bulls like the ones that come out of our breeding program and it gets really, really hard to learn a sport when your competitor is 1,400 to 1,600 pounds and doesn't know what 'slow' means."
Sending youths out to ride bulls is hardly a stunt or novelty act. The young riders are divided into four age groups: peewee minis (age 6 to 8), junior minis (9 to 11), senior minis (12 to 14) and novice (15 to 16), the last of which ride full-grown bulls, but not those found at the open competition level. Each division competes for monetary prizes and custom gear such as chaps, ropes and belt buckles at each event. Additionally, the top five competitors after Friday and Saturday's year-end competition qualify for the World Championship Miniature Bullriding World Finals that take place in early October in Mesquite, Texas.
"For a lot of these kids, winning an event might not be their goal, but they just have the courage to nod their head," Swanson said. "They get done and the confidence level and growth you see in these kids is phenomenal and so impressive."
A fascination with bulls stems from Swanson's childhood, when he spent countless hours watching his father, Phil, ride bulls. It kick-started a passion that has taken on several forms.
Following in his father's footsteps, Swanson, now in his early 30s, rode bulls for a time during his late high school and college years. On top of starting the Raise 'Em Rank series — a relatively small operation with Swanson the forefront with duties from event producing to stock contracting — and getting the organization off and running, he also breeds bucking bulls.
Driven by a passion not likely to fade any time soon, Swanson's focus is on keeping Raise 'Em Rank moving in a positive direction and making a difference in the local bull riding community.
"I've always wanted to be involved in rodeo. I never found a huge level of success as a bull rider, but, hopefully, as a stock contractor and event producer, I've found a bit of a niche," Swanson said. "I know I have a passion for it, and I want to grow this into something that people look forward to every year."