Kayelen Helton began turning heads in the arena more than a decade ago when she won back-to-back Texas High School Rodeo Association breakaway championships. She’s since set herself apart as one of the top female headers in the jackpot ranks. Helton, who attended Stephenville, Texas-based Tarleton State University for her undergraduate and master’s degrees, is now a licensed professional counselor who works with children at Hood County Counseling Center in Granbury, Texas.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a counselor?
A: I went to college as a business major, and it was really boring to me. Business was so repetitive. I’d always been the person my friends went to when they had a problem. I love to people watch, and I love to analyze people. I never thought I would work with kids, but now I love kids.
Q: Why do you like working with kids?
A: Kids don’t tell you what you want to hear. They say the honest truth, good or bad. I like the honest truth. Sometimes I’m the only hug they get all day. They can’t help their situations, so I can be here for them.
Q: Are there any mental strategies you borrow from your roping career to use in your practice?
A: I try to have short-term memory. If I make a bad run, I have to let it go. Sometimes, when I have a really hard case, we’re told to never take it home. I struggle with that because I worry about the kids. I try to go home and be home for me. I try to have short-term memory to not bring my work home. There are nights I go home and cry. I’ve had some really rough cases this year. Roping is my escape from work, and work is my escape from roping.
Q: How did you get into team roping in the first place?
A: My dad rodeoed, but he wasn’t rodeoing when I was little. I always told him I wanted a horse. He finally got me a horse, and I did play days and stuff like that—all the events, barrel racing, even. I decided I wanted to rope one day, so he started teaching me when I was about 10 years old. I started breakaway roping. Then Jayme Marcum helped me a whole bunch, and I taught myself to rope steers a few years later. I just decided I wanted to do it one day.
Q: Do you ride horses you train yourself?
A: I make most of my own horses. I like it because I can finish them the way I want to. They know me and I know the moves they’ll make because I put them there. Growing up I always had finished, solid horses, but the last three I’ve had, I’ve made. It’s a lot of work. My family and Sean Vargas taught me a lot about horse training. My dad really taught me on the calf horses, and Shawn on the head horses. I like one with a big motor, one that gets excited when they see a cow, one you don’t have to ask to run. I like them broke, but not really super-broke, because sometimes I don’t ride as well as I should.
Q: You live in Stephenville, considered by many as the Team Roping Capital of the World.
A: I’ve been there 11 years. I have nine acres, an arena and two barns and a brick house. I moved to my place as a freshman in college and I stayed. I love it here. It’s a good little place.
Q: You just sold a horse to a PRCA cowboy, didn’t you?
A: Yes, I did, to Chase Wiley. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Her name is Sugar (registered with the AQHA as Va Va Via), and she’s 13 this year. When I got her, they were heeling on her, and she wasn’t very good to heel on. I played with her and thought she’d make a nice head horse. She did a lot of things I really liked, she just needed to know what she was supposed to do. A good friend of mine had her, and he said if I wanted her I could have her. I worked with her for three weeks and took her to two ropings and won second at one and third at the other one. She was still super green, but she worked great. She had quirks—she’s a little different. She was really scared of a lot of things, but we learned to trust each other.
Q: Do you heel very often?
A: I used to heel a lot, and then I decided I wanted to be one of the top female headers. I’m a big goal person. I set goals for clients and set goals for myself. And I don’t like not achieving them.
Q: How important is it for you to set an example for young girls who want to team rope?
A: I just think—there’s not a lot of us. All those younger girls need people to look up to. They want to see us rope with the guys. Maybe 6s are as high as we get, but that’s like a 9 for a woman in team roping. I want to work hard and let girls see they can too. I give a lot of breakaway and heading lessons to young girls, and I try to set a good example and give them something to work toward.
Q: What’s been the biggest adversity you’ve had to overcome in team roping?
A: My shoulder surgery last year has really caused a lot of problems. In November 2015, I did something to it roping. I tried to go to Vegas and didn’t have enough strength in it. I had bad bursitis, tendonitis and I was bone on bone. I had a tear in the labrum and a tear in the rotator cuff, and my bicep wasn’t in good shape. We did two injections and 16 weeks of physical therapy. I would be swinging and lose all feeling in my arm and wouldn’t be able to move it. After five or six months of bad pain, I decided to have surgery in June 2016. So they left the tears—they didn’t fix those. They wanted to start with one thing so they shaved the bone off in my shoulder so nothing touches. They did reconstructive cleanup of the bursitis and tendonitis. I won the first roping back I entered, but I came back too soon. It’s created bad habits with my roping because I’m trying to offset the pain. A year later, I’m still fighting things with it. It’s better than it was. That’s something I’ve really had to deal with lately. I don’t have the range I used to have and the power I used to have, and especially to be able to pick my first swing up. I haven’t taken it very well.
Q: Who are your heroes?
A: My two best friends—JJ Hampton and Jayme Marcum. I’ve always looked up to them.