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Riding High
Wiley Petersen’s faith in God keeps him firmly in the saddle.

What’s in a name? Not much when the name is “Little Yellow Jacket.” This three-time Professional Bull Riders Bucking Bull of the Year isn’t little or yellow, and you definitely don’t want to wear him. He’s big, red and weighs 1,750 pounds. The highlight of bull rider Wiley Petersen’s career was hanging on to Little Yellow Jacket for the required eight long seconds. The arena judges gave Wiley a high score of 94 out of 100, which helped him win the Nile Bull Riders Invitational in 2003.

“In bull riding, you’re judged on how hard the bull bucked and how well you stayed on in spite of it,” says Wiley. “You have to stay centred and well-positioned, which is tricky. Those bulls are strong, athletic and fast-moving, and they can twist and turn erratically. All you use to hang on to them are your own two legs and one hand on a rope looped around the bull’s chest.” Before entering the ring, Wiley tries to keep his mind clear and not think too much about what’s going to happen. He focuses on being relaxed and confident.

“Bull riding takes every ounce of mental energy and discipline you’ve got.”

Learning the Ropes

As a young boy growing up in Fort Hall, Idaho, Wiley was drawn to the sport after seeing a friend’s steer-riding trophies. “It started out as a pride thing between buddies,” he recalls. “I thought if he could do it, I could do it. Then I was hooked. I started out with steers and advanced to bulls. The thrill of bull riding makes you appreciate life and health.”

Wiley feeds off the roar of the crowd, noting that it’s always nice to have someone cheering for you and encouraging you. And he hopes he is an encouragement to them in return. “So many people go to sporting events,” he says. “Some of them are hurting and trying to forget their troubles for a little while. I like to think I provide a distraction and, sometimes, a blessing.”

A good bull rider needs to be strong physically and mentally. He constantly trains and practises, and he is always willing to learn. “You must have a good attitude,” Wiley continues. “I’ll take advice from my grandpa, other riders, anyone who gives it. I’ll ask, ‘How did that bull buck me off?’ You have to decide for yourself whether the advice is good or not, but always be listening.”

God’s Business

At age 18, Wiley was ready to listen to the call of the Lord. Although he had a happy personal life and a promising career, something was missing.

“God was chasing me. He’s believed in me ever since He created me,” he remembers. “Someone who didn’t have to love me at all did, and He proved it when He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for me. Now I’m trying to see just a little glimpse of what makes the Creator love His creation that much.”

Bull riding helps Wiley learn what he needs to carry on in his Christian life. “It’s about doing what I can and having fun with it,” he says. “Every bull you get on, you have to try harder than you’ve ever tried before. Yesterday doesn’t count, tomorrow’s not here yet, all you have is today to give everything you’ve got.”

Bull riding also gives Wiley the platform to do God’s business and present the gospel. “We do Christian outreach at every bull-riding event,” he states. “The Professional Bull Riders are gracious to let us use the arenas, and we have a chaplain who usually does the speaking. Sometimes I’ll feel led to speak, or sometimes another rider does.”

Battling Temptation

Wiley’s career has had its ups and downs. Immediately following his highest-paying year in 2003, he injured his right knee. “If you got on a trampoline, jumped as high as you could and then bailed off, you’d get an idea of what it’s like to be bucked off a bull,” he says. “Some landings are good and some not so good. Most of the time when you are going off, you try to pick a spot and hope for the best. Overall, you don’t have much control. Unfortunately, during the ride when I injured my knee, I got caught up in the rope and landed underneath the bull.”

Wiley continued to trust God during the six months of rehab that followed. “The night I was injured and diagnosed I was upset, but I prayed about it,” he says. “I’ve always told God I’ll praise Him no matter what, and this was a test for me. I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what’s going on but I do know You’re good.’ ”

He had only been married for a few months and he felt God telling him to use this down time as an opportunity to really get to know his new bride. “Instead of being on the road, I got to just hang out with Amy,” Wiley remembers. “We took the time to really enjoy being married and I’m glad I had that opportunity. If I hadn’t gotten hurt, I think the travelling to competitions would have strained our relationship in the beginning.”

…we have to learn that we’re successful even when we do fail…

Wiley shares his secret to remaining a faithful Christian and a faithful husband on the road, despite the pitfalls that trap many professional athletes. “I stay away from the temptations that present themselves,” he admits. “Some of us have Bible study after our competitions instead of going out to party. If we don’t stay close to God, we will fall. We realize what’s best in life is keeping our relationship with God strong. The fight against sin is never over, this side of Heaven.”

Not a Quitter

As tough as bull riding can be physically, Wiley says that handling the emotional challenges is even tougher. “As bull riders, we are dealing with failure more than half the time, even when we’re riding pretty well,” he says. “As Christians, we tend to think of ourselves as successful when we don’t fail, but we have to learn that we’re successful even when we do fail if we allow that failure to make us better the next time.”

Wiley has had times when he’s been discouraged, but he prays to God for strength and strives to trust Him no matter what.

“I know God has a plan that may not fit what I think should happen, but it will always be the best thing,” he says. “No matter how hard my career has been, I’ve never felt like quitting. I’m determined that fear won’t dictate my actions. If God is in my life, why should I allow circumstances to tell me what to do? I’ll know it’s time to finish with bull riding when God takes away my desire to ride.”

Jayne Thurber-Smith has written for various publications, including Today’s Parent and Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul.

She lives in Virginia with her husband and four teenage children.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, August 2007.




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