Laura Dean Bennett
Pocahontas County can be proud to have a native son who is, already, at the age of 18, a bull riding champion.
Hillsboro’s own Keaton Baldwin has proven he’s got what it takes to make eight seconds on a bull’s back – repeatedly.
It may look crazy, but there’s a method to the madness of West Virginia High School Rodeo bull riding.
There are usually five to 15 young bull riders at each rodeo, and this is the real thing – the bulls are tough and the riders have to be tougher.
Climbing on the back of an aggravated animal, rarely weighing less than 1,500 pounds, is not for the faint of heart.
But it’s Keaton’s dream come true.
The Pocahontas County High School senior is what you might call a natural.
The first year he got into bull riding, he made Rookie of the Year, and in the two years since then, he’s been state champion.
“I haven’t had any major injuries, so far,” Keaton said.
“ I attribute that to the fact that my mom is praying for me constantly,” he added with a shy smile.
“It’s been a wild ride, that’s for sure,” his mom, Anita Workman, added.
Keaton’s traveled to rodeos in Henderson, Ohio, Asheville, North Carolina, Chatham and Woodstock, Virginia, and has been invited to National High School rodeos in many other states.
“This has been a good experience for Keaton,” Anita admitted. “He’s made lifelong friends with the other bull riders and we’ve made friends with the families of the riders.”
“He’s talked about it ever since he was able to walk.”
“Yep, I remember watching bull riding on TV when I was little,” Keaton said. “I just knew I wanted to do it.”
“I always said ‘no,’ and his dad kept putting him off, too, until one day Keaton called a family meeting about it,” Anita recalled.
“We all sat around the table – his dad and I and Keaton’s older brothers, Morgan and Kolton, who were both still living at home then.
“Keaton just said he was absolutely going to do it.”
His dad, Travis Workman, said, “We’d better let him do it now, while he’s still under our care, and we can help him, instead of when he’s 18 and we won’t have any say in it.”
Keaton signed up at the end of his freshman year.
His parents were nervous and his football coach, Doug Burns, was definitely not happy.
“But Coach Burns did eventually come around,” Keaton said, smiling.
“His grandmothers, Julie Grimes and Grandma Mary, are always worried he’s going to get hurt,” Anita admitted, “but we’re all so proud of him.”
His first ride was in August 2019 at a rodeo in Canvas, and it went pretty well.
“It was even more exciting and more fun than I thought it would be,” Keaton recalled.
“I felt like I was going to die,” Anita said. “I had tears coming out of my eyes. And I prayed. I still pray every time. I’m pretty sure that’s the reason he hasn’t been badly hurt.”
“Keaton’s always been a dare devil,” his dad said. “Yeah, it’s been nerve wracking at times. I mean, he’s crawlin’ on the back of a bull.”
Travis has jumped right in, learning what to do to help Keaton in the chute.
“I’ll say this – it’s been a great learning experience,” Travis said.
“He’s been banged up a few times – the worst time was in Maryland – and the vest saved him.
“But the WVHSR organization is like one big family. It’s good for the kids, it teaches them respect, a good work ethic and about caring for the animals,” he added.
“In another life he would have been a cowboy – well, actually, he is one now,” Anita said.
“He’s a country boy, through and through. He’s been in FFA and 4-H, and he played football for 13 years.
“He likes to farm. He helps his granddad, Emery Grimes, at his farm and really enjoys it – if only he could make a living at it,” she sighed.
Keaton’s brothers love to watch him ride and they cheer him on.
“We’re really proud of all three of our boys,” Travis said with a smile.
WVHSR makes sure their riders keep up their grades. They have to have at least a 2.0 grade average.
“That was okay,” Keaton said. “Even before rodeo, I had to keep good grades to play football.”
Keaton’s made WVHSR State Champion two years in a row now, and it looks like he’s got a pretty good chance of doing it again this year. He’s leading by 40 points.
He has every right to feel proud and, like most bull riders, dress a little on the flashy side when he shows up to ride.
Keaton favors a long sleeved flannel shirt, jeans covered by fringed leather chaps, spurs, a cowboy hat and one of the three belt buckles he’s won- two for each state championship and one for rookie of the year.
He wears a leather glove on his “riding hand,” and for safety’s sake, he replaces his cowboy hat with a helmet, wears a protective vest and a mouth piece.
This is Keaton’s final year in high school rodeo; he’ll graduate in May, and he has given some thought to the future.
“My dad’s a private contractor – a coordinator inspector on substations – working with Dominion Power.
“And I’m looking for a job with one of Dominion’s substation contractors.
“I’d like to keep on bull riding and ride in open rodeos, if I can work it out so it won’t interfere with my job,” Keaton said. “But I don’t know. “
He’s “covered” eight bulls this season – meaning, ridden them for the requisite eight seconds – so he’s already qualified to go to WVHSR nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July.
“We’re hoping he’ll go to the nationals,” Anita said. “We’ll make it a senior trip for Keaton.”
But Keaton won’t commit to it yet.
“I might not be able to take time off,” he explained. “My job’s got to come first.”
Keaton doesn’t always stay on for the full eight seconds. Sometimes the bull bucks him off.
Lights Out, the bull he recently rode at Winfield, tossed him and did a belly roll.
Keaton got away with just a glancing blow and a few bruises.
It’s not a sport where you can get in a lot of practice – except on the back of a bull.
Keaton explains that he watches a lot of bull riding videos and takes notes from professionals whenever he can.
He recently spent a weekend at a rodeo school in Maryland, getting the benefit of ex-PBR bull rider Trinity Dunkelberger’s exper- ience.
But no matter how much you prepare, in bull riding, getting hurt just goes with the territory.
“Sometimes you get a terrible beating, and you hit the ground hard,” Keaton said.”You can hit a gate, get stepped on, get horned, get hit in the head.
“Some bulls will go after you after they throw you.
“But the rodeo clowns are all experienced men who do this for a living.
“They know what they’re doing,” he added.
H&H stock contractors supply the bulls for the WVHS rodeos, and the bulls’ names say it all.
In addition to Lights Out, Keaton mentioned the names of a few other bulls he’s ridden: Yellow Jacket, Redneck and White Lightning.
“I like a bull to do his job – not act up in the chute, buck real hard and leave me alone on the ground,” Keaton said.
“When I’m loading in the chute, the adrenaline kicks in. It can keep you from feeling pain if you get hurt, but, of course, you’ll feel it later.
“And, with me, the adrenaline lasts until everybody’s done riding,” he added.
After his ride, he “spots” for other riders, meaning he helps them in the chute before their rides.
One of the benefits of riding bulls is having lots of fans.
“You do meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends,” he said.
Rodeo is not cheap. It takes money to compete, and the parents of high rodeo competitors have to be really supportive.
“I’ve got to thank my mom and my dad,” Keaton said. “My dad went to bat for me when I wanted to start bull riding, and he’s there for me when I’m in the chute. He’s “pulled rope” for me and helped me a lot.
“I’m grateful for my mom and her prayers.
“She’s also done all the rodeo paperwork.
“I also want to thank Drew Asbury and his dad, Keith, and Kyle Carson – an ex-PBR bull rider from Princeton. They’ve all given me a lot of good pointers.
“My great sponsors – I need to thank them, too. That’s Rockin Leather Boots and Spencer McCoy of McCoy’s Market.
“And my brothers and some of my friends and teachers from school who’ve come to watch me ride. It’s been pretty nice to have them there,” Keaton said.
Of course, if you’re going to ride bulls, it helps to be in shape, but you also have to have mental discipline.
“There’s no choice but to be brave,” Keaton said with a shrug.
“You can’t be afraid.
“Otherwise you can’t concentrate on what you have to do.”
His senior quote in the PCHS yearbook is by John Wayne. It seems to describe Keaton – and every bull rider.
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”