Fourteen-year-old Najiah Knight is friendly, outgoing and responds to questions with “yes, ma’am” as reflexively as most adolescents roll their eyes.
But those aren’t the only qualities that make the poised, polite teen unique. This 80-pound daredevil rides 800-pound “mini” bulls because “it’s soooo much fun!”
Rodeo is a big part of small-town life across Oregon, and tiny Arlington on the Columbia Plateau is no exception. For as long as there have been ranch hands, riders and stock animals, there have been rodeos to see who could rope-and-tie that calf quickest or ride that big bull the longest.
Traditionally, girls like Najiah have competed in horseback sports like barrel racing or pole bending (a sort of high-speed slalom where horse and rider weave through a course of closely spaced poles). But from her earliest days, Najiah has been following her father Andrew Knight behind the chutes as he prepared for bull riding events and begging him to “put me on!”
“She wanted to always get on something, before she could even dang near walk,” he recalls. “And I’m like, you’re too little, your time will come.”
That time came when Najiah turned 3 and started riding sheep, a sport known as “mutton busting.”
“She was a champion mutton buster. I mean, she just gripped on there like Velcro. And there wasn’t no getting her off,” the elder Knight recalls. “From there on, there was really no holding her back.”
Along with being the first girl riding with the Mini Bull Riders (MBR) circuit, Najiah made history in early 2020, when she was the first girl to ride a bull at Madison Square Garden. She also beat all her (male) competitors in the third round. Standing out is something she’s gotten used to.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re just part of the boys. Like, you don’t feel any different and they just accept you. But sometimes they’ll be like, ‘So I can’t get beat by a girl.’ But, you know, you just gotta show him who’s boss,” Najiah jokes.
Still, rodeo sports are about as dangerous as they come and having your daughter competing at elite levels (Najiah was ranked number seven at the time of her Madison Square Garden appearance) would give any parent pause.
“My stomach goes up and down, probably every rodeo,” confesses her dad. One close call at a competition in Louisiana is a prime example.
“She got a little out of position, got jerked down to the ground, got her face mask caved in. (The bull) stepped on her mask, pushed it into her eye and swelled her eye shut. But because she had another bull she had to get on that day, they said ‘you don’t have to get on this bull if you don’t want.’ But she was like, ‘I didn’t travel this far to sit here and watch.’ She showed everybody that she was there to compete.”
“I haven’t broken any bones from bull riding yet. Thank goodness,” Najiah says, rubbing the scar, now barely visible beside her right eye. The maturity she demonstrates when asked about the possibility of mortal injury is impressive.
“I know if it’s my time, then it’s my time. But it’s not my time yet, so I’m doing pretty good. Jesus is blessing me. Thank goodness,” she said. “So, yeah, I’m not afraid to get back on it all. I just, you know, shake it off and I’m ready to ride.”
That strong faith will be needed to achieve her big goals.
“My short-time, I guess you can call it, is to be number one this year. Number one in the world. Champion.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a crimp into Najiah’s packed schedule of competitions as well as her plans to win that championship in 2020. But she’s looking forward to 2021 and getting one year closer to her 18th birthday.
“My longtime goal is to be the first girl in the PBR.”
PBR stands for Professional Bull Riders. Najiah aspires to compete in PBR’s “Unleash the Beast,” a circuit that includes the top bull riders from all over the world. As an Indigenous Paiute and member of the Klamath Tribes, Najiah hopes to represent the U.S. as part of “Team Wolves” in PBR’s Global Cup, a sort of Olympics of bull riding.
“There’s two American teams: Team Eagles and then Team Wolves, which is the Natives. I would be part of Team Wolves because I am Native. I think that would be so cool.
“Four more years,” she grins.
Correction: This story’s headline has been updated to reflect the fact that, while women have competed in the sport before her, Najiah Knight’s goal is to be the first woman to compete in the PBR’s elite circuit.