Bull riding gets Cunningham’s adrenaline flowing

HARTINGTON — Knox County’s own Dalton Cunningham settled onto the back of a heavy, hulking bull and gave the rodeo hands the OK.
The gates screech open and the agitated cinder block of an animal shoots forward, bucking its back legs as hard as it can.
Cunningham’s safety hasn’t entered its one-track mind and it never will. All this behemoth wants is to throw him off as quickly as it can.
Cunningham wants to make the ride he’s been chasing for the last couple years, and all he has to do is hold on for eight seconds. His free hand is stiff in the air and his body rocks with the motion of the violent bucking. All he needs is a few more seconds and he’s in the clear for a judge’s score.
The bull pounds the ground as hard as it can and kicks back, and Cunningham finds himself losing balance and letting go of the bull rope. He crashes to the ground as the animal continues to kick up a storm of dirt.
He scores a 75, the only rider to do so all evening, and he wins the rodeo. It’s a good night for him, and may be a signal for things to come.
The image of a rodeo cowboy hanging onto a bucking bull with one hand while the other clings onto the animal for dear life is as iconic as a heavyweight boxing champion raising his gloves in the air after a hard-hitting battle.
Rodeo, especially bull riding, is a sport he said he’s been in love with since he was eight years old, when he went to a junior rodeo with his brother and his cousins.
“We were hooked and started rodeoing from then on out,” Cunningham said.
He began by riding on the backs of sheep and calves, as well as roping steers at junior rodeos. He said he won his first junior rodeo in calf riding, and he knew his future was with the bulls.
“It’s a big adrenaline rush, and that’s what I love about the sport,” Cunningham said.
A year and a half out of college, 23-year-old Cunningham currently works as a hired hand near Bloomfield. It’s a busy job, but he said he still finds time to practice and keep getting better.
A few times a week he sits on a practice dummy called a “drop barrel.” The device is like a seesaw, with a barrel on one end for the rider to sit on and a handle on the other.
“It trains your body to do the right moves and helps with balance,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said his parents have played a major role in his rodeo career, and he’s looked up to them for much of his life.
“They’ve been a big role in me rodeoing, taking me to high school rodeos all through high school and junior high,” Cunningham said. “They helped me stay positive and making sure I was focused.”
Cunningham’s mother, Suzanne, said she never wanted to be the mother in the stands who was nervous for her son’s safety, and only wanted to support him in whatever he was passionate. She said she only ever told Dalton she expected him to stay in shape, take advice from people and to always wear a helmet.
“I don’t get nervous anymore, maybe I never did. I did get anxious and excited – always wanting him to do his best,” she said. “We encourage him to take the good with the bad and always stay focused.”
Dalton Cunningham said the atmosphere of the Cedar County rodeo is similar to many he’s been to, and he loves everything about it.
“Big crowd, great hospitality and great stock contractors,” Cunningham said.
He said he used to do up to two rodeos in a weekend between May and September when he was younger, but his current schedule means he has less time than he used to. Still, he said he plans on continuing to go to rodeos as much as he can. He said he hopes to start winning consistently, which means there’s always more work to do.
“I’ve been in a little bit of a slump, but I’m working on things and I am planning on coming back from it,” Cunningham said.
Suzanne Cunningham said she will continue to support him no matter what. She said her husband, Gail, Dalton and his brother pick apart videos of his performances and highlight what he can do to get better.
“[We] remind him to always stay humble. Success didn’t happen all at once, it took years of work and dedication,” she said. “We have all been there to pick up pieces when things didn’t go quite right, as well as to praise the times things did go right.”