5 Tips on How to Ride With Buffalo

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 Blaine Harrington / Getty Images

Each year in late September, a 1,300-strong buffalo herd shakes the grounds of South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills, charging towards thousands of eager spectators. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup started in 1965 as an environmental initiative to vaccinate new buffalo calves and track these wild animals. Today, it's evolved into a weekend-long event that draws a diverse crowd of politicians, artists, CEOs, country stars, and international tourists.

Custer State Park holds one of the world’s largest publicly owned wild buffalo herds, who roam freely across 71,000 acres. The roundup strikes the delicate balance between monitoring the overall health of the herd and keeping these animals wild.

The herding is a highly coordinated effort between park rangers, amateur and professional herders, and a few pickup trucks. Skilled cowboys and cowgirls approach buffalo from all corners of the park, corralling them towards one main gate. The roundup takes several hours, with plenty of breaks to manage the buffalo traffic and let them rest — Buffalo will charge a horse when stressed.  

Around noon, the herd charge through the main gates toward hills full of spectators, where the bison can cool down in a giant corral. It takes professionals about four days to vaccinate and tag the new calves and examine the older buffalo. If the herd is deemed too large for the park, some of the buffalo will be sold off. 

The event doesn’t end there. After the roundup, you can hobnob with the cowboys, visit the buffalo, and enjoy a traditional chuck wagon lunch. If you get tired of marveling at the sheer size of these creatures or chatting with the rangers, there will be plenty of art and culture to keep you entertained.

If you go:

Get There Early 
Roughly 10,000 people come to watch the Buffalo Roundup each year. Gates open at 6:15 AM on the day of the event, but plenty of excited spectators arrive before sunrise and wait in their cars. This event is free and open to the public, so there are no tickets or reservations. The earlier you get there, the better. The entrance gates close at 9 AM, and the viewing area is locked down (for your own safety) until 12 PM, when the grounds are re-opened.

It Shouldn't Be Your First Rodeo 
Around 20 private citizens volunteer to ride in the roundup each year. You have to be pre-approved, and it’s BYO horse. Before you volunteer, be honest with yourself about your riding skills and consider that buffalo can weigh 2,200 pounds, run as fast as 40 miles per hour, and both males and females have horns.

Pack to Spectate 
The dress code is as casual and friendly as the vibe. You’ll be here for the day, so get comfortable. Bring a pair of binoculars, a blanket, a folding chair, a light jacket, a hat or sunscreen, and some cash.

Don’t Touch the Buffalo
This is a no-brainer: If you don’t want wild animals to touch you, don’t touch them. Again, don't forget they have horns.

Get Out and Explore
Custer State Park is South Dakota’s largest, and it's a fantastic area of the country for scenic drives and hikes. Within the park’s confines are the popular Needles Highway and the Custer Wildlife Loop. The roundup is ideally situated near several iconic landmarks, as well. Mount Rushmore is only 20 minutes away, and the in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial is 15 minutes. If you have extra time, take the 90-minute journey over to Badlands National Park.