Oct 21, 2022

From One Extreme to Another: Former Bull Rider and Jockey Travis Atkinson Claims His Spot in Eventing

Travis Atkinson and Don Darco. USEA/ Hope Carlin photo.

His dad was a calf roper when Travis Atkinson was just a baby, but that didn’t have anything to do with how he got his start riding horses. When Atkinson was about 10 years old, his family left Pennsylvania for Utah and his dad started training Thoroughbreds for Atkinson’s brother-in-law. It was there that a fire was lit.

“I was around my dad quite a bit,” said Atkinson. “I’d go to the barn with him when I was young and help clean stalls and help take care of the horses, and at some point when I was between 12 and 14 years old, I started begging him to ride. He didn’t really want me to ride because it was, you know, not the safest thing for me to be doing.” But when riders kept being no-shows, his dad quite literally handed him the reins. “He let me start riding, which was an extremely sharp learning curve.”

With having very little riding experience, Atkinson was hardly a logical match for a Thoroughbred racehorse, but his determination was resilient. And that stubborn and curious nature also got him into riding bulls around this same time.

“Initially, my parents weren’t too thrilled about it,” said Atkinson. “But they realized how stubborn I am so I think they kind of figured that I was going to do it either way and they might as well support me.” Travis explained that riding bulls and riding race horses are similar, but also very different. There is an extreme physicality to riding racehorses. They are such strong creatures that demanded almost everything Atkinson had to offer as a young man. Bulls were less about strength and more about balance and finesse—learning how to feel the animal move and keeping yourself in the right place.”

“I was pretty much getting my riding education riding race horses. Between getting run off with daily and falling off five or six times a day, and then quitting because my body hurt so bad, it took me a couple of months before I really settled into the racehorses,” said Atkinson. “Riding the racehorses actually helped a lot with my bull riding because there’s a lot of balance and similar type strengths involved between the two sports, and with both of them you kind of have to learn how to crash a little bit, so they kind of complimented each in that way.”

Atkinson admitted that he always rode better when he was riding racehorses, even during the times when he really didn’t have to ride them. For him, it was a practice of feeling an animal beneath him and keeping his body sharp when reading and feeling those unpredictable movements. When he was just a kid, Atkinson was hungry for the thrill of being married to extremes. And with that commitment came the responsibility of an education (not just the school kind).

“I just got on everything and anything. That was kind of just how you got an education riding bulls. Essentially, I just got on everything and anything until I got good at it,” said Atkinson. By the time he was 15 years old, he had won an amateur association year-end championship for bull riding.

Like all good body-breaking sports, an early retirement came up quickly on the horizon. With an introduction to eventing, Atkinson felt he was in familiar territory with just enough risk to give him the big reward of adrenaline and a true partnership with an equine.

“I think, just like anybody, just because my background was a little bit extreme, it was an extreme that I was used to,” said Atkinson. “This was a completely different type of extreme.” One can throw a leg over a racehorse or a bull all day long but set the ears of a horse on a solid and intimidating cross-country jump and new nerves are sure to come into play. History did repeat itself though and Atkinson’s passion and unyielding willpower had him climbing the levels just like any other determined rider, going from beginner novice to preliminary with his Quarter Horse mare at the time.

Today, Atkinson has a riding school called Dynamic Equestrian in Lehi, Utah that primarily focuses on eventing. His perspective on the sport and on the thrill itself is a refreshing one, and we couldn’t think of a more fitting career for a risk-taking rider.

“When I was introduced to [eventing], it intrigued me. And honestly, when I retired from riding bulls I wasn’t sure what I was going to do so it was nice to find something that fulfilled what I felt I was missing out on,” said Atkinson. It’d be safe to say that the nationwide pool of equestrians would safely cast their vote for eventing as the most hellish of all the disciplines, but for Atkinson, it’s home sweet home.

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