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Idaho State University
Life by the horns

Life by the Horns

Andrew Taylor

Former professional bull riding star Wiley Petersen had two goals growing up.

”I dreamed of being a doctor and I also dreamed of being a bull rider,” Petersen said. “Fortunately, the dream of being a bull rider came to fruition and I was able to experience that and pursue that dream and have a good amount of success.”

Today, Petersen, a physician assistant studies student at Idaho State University, is working toward his next dream.

Petersen, 38, retired as a professional bull rider in 2012. He began riding bulls at age 10. The Fort Hall native, who now lives in Chubbuck, won 13 Built Ford Tough Series events, including the 2007 Pro Bull Riding World Finals, and earned nearly $1.5 million in cash prizes. He has organized the Wiley Petersen Fort Hall Pro Bull Riding Touring pro event annually in August since 2011.

Above: Petersen riding a bull named Voodoo

“But, as we all know, bull riding is a limited-time activity,” he said. “It just got to the point that I was in my 30s, getting tired of getting on these big, tough, rank, bucking bulls and getting my butt kicked every weekend. I knew I needed to be thinking about a change.”

That is when his other childhood dream awakened. Physician assistants, in a very demanding and competitive profession, work under the supervision of physicians and practice medicine and prescribe medicine.  For about a year after retiring, Petersen tried marketing and doing other work for his pro rodeo sponsors, but he was tired of traveling and wanted something close to home. He explored his options in the health professions.

“I looked into different aspects and different options and the P.A. route really interested me and excited me and I decided that was the way I wanted to go,” Petersen said.

First, he reapplied to ISU to finish his bachelor’s degree which he had started after high school, before he started riding bulls professionally. It took him three years to finish his bachelor’s degree and pre-requisites, before being accepted in the ISU P.A. program, which annually has as many as 10 times as many applicants as there are available spots.

“They offered me a seat and here I am,” Petersen said. “It is so different. Coming from 12 years of riding bulls, I’d read occasionally but I wasn’t studying and wasn’t learning new information. It was really tough knocking the cobwebs off, coming back into college and just getting into the routine of studying all the time.”

Some may find it surprising about what Petersen thinks is more nerve-wracking – trying to ride for 8 seconds on a twisting, turning bull weighing up to a ton, or being a student.

Wiley Petersen
Wiley Petersen

“I’m definitely more stressed than I’ve ever been,” Petersen said. “But this is a short-term deal and it will be a worthwhile endeavor. I am just excited about the opportunities on the horizon.”

After finishing spring semester and summer school, Petersen will begin a year of clinical rotations this August at various sites and plans to graduate in August 2018. It’s apt that his first clinical rotation is at the Fort Hall Medical Clinic. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Petersen has insight and familiarity with tribal members not many health providers have.  He said he also would like to work at the clinic for a few years after graduating from the P.A. program.

“I definitely want to stay involved with the Tribes and I want to be involved in programs to help people,” he said. “I want to encourage the youngsters to pursue education and not limit themselves and be that motivational, inspirational role model that I tried to be when I was riding bulls.”

Petersen said he could not have made the transition from bull riding to tackling the P.A. program without the support of his family. His wife, Amy, works as an instructor in the ISU College of Technology Practical Nursing Program, and earned her nursing bachelor’s degree at ISU in 2005. She also holds a master’s degree in nursing education. Amy’s son and Wiley’s stepson, Kaden, 19, is a freshman at ISU taking general courses and the couple’s youngest son, Rylan, 10, is in fourth grade. 

“You definitely need to have the support system,” Petersen said. “My wife is great.  She has stepped up and has been fully on board with this. There is no way I could have done this without her.”

He recommends other non-traditional-age students take up the challenge of going back to school if they have a dream they want to follow.

“We did pretty well saving up for something like this and we have had some scholarships,” Petersen said.  “There are so many scholarships out there that I don’t think people are aware of.  There are opportunities for people if they are just willing to put forth some effort and find out what is out there for them.”

The challenges and rewards can be great.

“It has been a drastic change,” Petersen said. “It is really exciting to think about the opportunities that we have in America. We can go from one career to the next and it can be a completely different field.”

Petersen said that bullriding has been beneficial to pursuing his new career path.

“I definitely miss that adrenaline for sure, but I get some of that when I have to go do a check-off or see a patient in the clinic. I get those butterflies,” he said. “I think what has carried over from my experience as a bull rider is the perseverance and persistence. We (bull riders) are always getting challenged, it is just keeping your focus and saying ‘this is tough,’ and we can get through it and we just don’t back down.”