Mabel third grader highlights Justin Ward for school project

SUBMITTED PHOTO Justin Ward, a professional bullfighter originally from Mabel, surprised one of his fans last week when he showed up at the Mabel-Canton science fair to see Carter Hershberger’s project about him.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Justin Ward uses the techniques he has learned as a professional bullfighter to distract the bull in a rodeo ring.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Dodging the charge of an angry bull with quick feet and smart anticipation has served Justin Ward well in his role as a professional bullfighter.
By : 
Lissa Blake
News Leader

When Mabel-Canton third grader Carter Hershberger was looking for a person to highlight for a school project, he didn’t have to go far to find one of his own heroes.

Carter, the son of Henry Hershberger and Katie Hershberger, both of Mabel, had met bullfighter Justin Ward, Mabel-Canton Class of 2014, last fall at Steam Engine Days.

Carter had participated in the festival’s mutton-busting event and Ward was on-hand to sign autographs for the kids.

“It was fun and I got fourth place,” recalled Carter.

Hershberger had a great time mutton busting, and when the subject of the research project first came up, he told his family he would like to interview a famous bull rider. That’s when someone suggested he interview Ward instead.

He started out by doing some online research into Ward’s career, and then called him to ask more specific questions about his personal experiences, terminology, and other information that he could work into his project.

A big surprise

Ward was attending a bullfight in Arizona when he got the call from Hershberger.

He said he was flattered, and happy to answer his questions, which he thought were being used for a paper Hershberger would turn in.

When he was home recently, he found out Hershberger had created a project board about him that he would be sharing with his class.

 “I called the school secretary and asked if they minded if I came to the school,” he said.

Hershberger and his friends were delighted when Ward showed up in person.

“A lot of people said, ‘I wish I was you,’” Hershberger recalled.

About Ward

Ward, the son of Doug and Traci Ward, grew up riding horses with his brother, Cody.

By the time he was 10 and Cody was 8, the boys were attending Little Britches rodeo events on a regular basis throughout the Midwest. 

Justin continued to participate in rodeos all through junior high and high school, sticking mostly to steer wrestling and team roping, but also riding some bulls.

Then during his senior year of high school, he got the chance to face his first bull on the ground in the arena.

“I went to a rodeo and one of the bullfighters didn’t show up, so I offered to try it. I got smoked,” he remembered.

But he was hooked, and decided to attend bullfighting school in Minot, N.D., while attending college at Dickinson State University.

Honing his craft

 “It was a three-day, all-day school. You started out ‘fighting’ this unicycle that was fitted with makeshift horns. They would run it at you in a simulated situation where they would present different scenarios, such as if a rider falls off here or there,” he said.

Ward graduated at the top of the class and soon received his PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) card.

Ward excelled at the work, and has since worked at close to 500 rodeos.

He graduated from Dickinson last spring with a degree in ag business, and was working part-time at a feedlot in addition to bullfighting, until he decided to quit that job to work at bullfighting full-time.

“It’s something I hope I can do full-time for the next couple of years. Most guys quit by the time they hit 35 or 40,” he said.

Extremely physical

Bullfighting requires Ward to stay in top physical shape, which he does by participating in a variety of activities.

“I do weight training to stay strong,” he said. “I also play a bunch of sports, which give me a chance to toughen up a little bit.

Ward said, he “gets hurt all the time.” While some bullfighters wear protective pads, Ward chooses to wear only a protective vest, which has served him well.

A close call

While the injuries Ward has received bullfighting may be too numerous to count, he said one of his closest calls was at a college rodeo in 2015.

“I saved one of my best buddies from getting run over. The bull stepped on my face and broke my nose. When I watched the video afterward, I saw that if he would have stepped two inches back, he would have crushed my cheek,” said Ward, adding he usually watches the video footage of every bullfight “100 times, to make sure I’m doing what I need to do,” he said.

Well-paying job

Ward said although it is dangerous, bullfighting is a well-paying job.

“It’s nothing like a pro athlete makes, but you make a decent amount of money and you get to travel the country,” he said.

Instead of working for a specific rodeo company, he is an independent contractor who bids on rodeos on a case-by-case basis.

“Everybody knows who you are and where you’ve been,” he said.

He attended a Bullfighters Only freestyle development camp in California last year. The BFO promotes the sport of freestyle bullfighting and hosts competitions across the nation.

The style was developed by the bullfighters, sometimes called rodeo clowns, who protect bull riders from being trampled or gored by an angry bull. Freestyle bullfighting is a 70-second competition in which the bullfighter avoids the bull by means of dodging, jumping and use of a barrel.

After attending the freestyle camp, he earned wins in Kennewick, Wash., Burlington, Colo., and New Town, N.D.

These qualified him for the BFO Championship in Las Vegas.

Rookie of the Year

Ward said the trip to Vegas had its ups and downs.

“It was just a Mexican fighting bull and me in the ring,” he said.

When asked how he fared, he said, “Not well. I ended up in the hospital and tore my rotator cuff in my right shoulder.”

But the disappointment of getting hurt was soon replaced by the awesome realization that he came home with the BFO Rookie of the Year title, a nod to his amazing success during his first year as a professional bullfighter.

Setting an example

When asked what it takes to be a good bullfighter, Ward said the general goal is to “do the best job you can and to be a likeable person.”

Hershberger’s mother, Katie, said she thinks Ward sets a good example for kids.

“He’s a guy they can look up to … the hero of a small community,” she said.

She said Carter was “pretty proud” when Ward showed up in class, and that his teacher said he did a good job on his project.

Hershberger said he hopes to follow in Ward’s rodeo footsteps, and has lined up Justin’s brother, Cody, to teach him how to rope.

When asked if he thought his surprise visit to Hershberger’s class made his day, Ward said, “It made my day, too.”

To read more about Ward’s career, visit the Tristate Livestock News website at or search for Justin Ward bullfighter on