The first round of the 2019 National High School Finals Rodeo is in full swing, and as always there are sweet side stories going on behind the scenes that not many know about. Take the fact that J.D. Yates sent five horses for kids to ride at the high school finals—which will result in lifelong memories for the lucky contestants involved—as just one example.
Yes, Yates sent “a cutter, a cow horse, two breakawayers and a head horse” from the Hitch Rack Performance Horses herd to Rock Springs, Wyoming, for the grand finale of this year’s high school rodeo season. Mind you, these are the caliber of horses that are beyond most people’s price range—and that’s if they were for sale, which they aren’t. The happy NHSFR champs will be crowned this Saturday, July 20.
Why did the guy who’s ridden horses to 43 American Quarter Horse Association world championships do it?
“Because they’re good people and I want to help these kids,” said J.D., who headed and heeled at 21 Wrangler National Finals Rodeos between 1975 and 2002, and is the youngest cowboy ever to qualify for the NFR from when he heeled for Daddy Dick at the Finals at 15 years, 4 months of age at that first Finals.
Last week was a typical one in the Yates family’s Pueblo, Colorado, arena playpen. In addition to J.D., Dick and Trey (the third generation of Yates to hit the big time, who won the NFR average at his first Finals last year heeling for Aaron Tsinigine) helping prime the high school rodeo contestants to hit their stride on peak performance this week in Rock Springs, there were a cast of open ropers in town for a tune-up, too.
The open-roper contingent on this particular day included Clayton Van Aken and Cullen Teller, Dustin and Denton Taylor, Josh and Jonathon Torres, and Kal Fuller and Kasper Roy. An 11-year-old boy by the name of Bray Burnham, who’s roping his way back to the brightest side of life after toughing it out through several serious surgeries, also was in the house at the Yates cowboy compound.
“Bray’s from a cowboy family and he wants to be a cowboy, too, so I’m going to help him be the best cowboy he can be,” said J.D., who on August 15 will turn 59. “He’s run 40 steers here today, and he’s having a blast. That makes me happy.”
Helping others—with an especially soft spot for kids—comes naturally to J.D. and his sister, Kelly. Dick and Jan have been famous for sincere, second-to-none hospitality for decades. Fittingly, the Yates family will be using the money people donated in Momma Jan’s memory after her passing earlier this year to help others. Two Jan Yates Memorial Scholarships—$1,000 each—will be given to a graduating boy and girl at the upcoming Colorado Junior Rodeo Association Finals.
“Family is everything, and my mom and dad have always had a way with kids,” J.D. said. “So helping kids in Mom’s memory just makes perfect sense. We’ve never charged kids who want to come to the house and rope, and never will. I wouldn’t charge a kid a dollar for anything.
“Life’s been good to me in rodeo, roping and the horse industry. I had some of the best times of my life in my childhood. For me to give back to other kids now is my win in life.”
Giving of your time and wisdom is one thing. But back to those horses virtually no one could afford to lease or buy based on street and sentimental value?
“They’re nice people,” J.D. said of his non-monetary motivation to send horses to the high school finals. “If my horses are a better fit for those kids at this moment, I’m going to load ’em up. If I can help these kids get that burning desire to go to college and be successful in and out of the arena, I’m all about it. They come here and work hard to make sure it’s a good fit between them and this caliber of horses before a decision is made. They earn the right to ride them. It’s just very satisfying to help good people.”