The House That Built Me

Family First: Hall of Famer J.D. Yates
"There’s nobody I enjoyed roping with more than family, whether it was my dad, my cousin or my son."
Dick and Jan Yates raised the closest of families in daughter Kelly, son J.D. and grandson Trey. | Yates Family Photos
Impulse Photography

The cowboy career J.D. Yates has put together has exceeded every expectation he ever dreamed about. This youngest National Finals Rodeo qualifier of all time—J.D. heeled for Daddy Dick at his first Finals almost 50 years ago in 1975, when he was but a 15-year-old boy—has 21 NFR back numbers and 11 from the National Finals Steer Roping on the trophy room wall in Pueblo, Colorado. J.D.’s also won 47 American Quarter Horse Association world championships. Inductions into both the ProRodeo Hall of Fame this summer and the AQHA Hall of Fame this fall will make this a most memorable year of lifetime achievement recognition. But fame and fortune are nothing next to family for Team Yates. 

“It’s kind of unbelievable,” said J.D., who’s 63 now. “I didn’t set out in this world to get into a hall of fame. Getting there after all these years is very gratifying, and a pretty amazing feeling. I never thought being a hall of famer was an option, much less two this big in one year. 

“The most incredible year of my career was in 1984, when my dad, my sister (Kelly) and me all made the Finals together. I rodeoed with my dad, my mom (Jan) went with my sister, and we all got there. That was 40 years ago now, and it’s still very special to me. Always will be, because we are a tight family.”

It all started with patriarch Dick and matriarch Jan, who headed to Heaven in the spring of 2019. In the early going, times were tough and they really did live on love. 

Daddy Dick

Dick Yates headed at 13 NFRs—J.D.’s first 13. As cool as that was and still is, it was all business inside the arena. They couldn’t survive on the sentimentality of how sweet it was for a dad to rope with his son. 

“Jan and I started off with very little,” said Dick, who’s 86 now and placed at the last roping he entered earlier this year with J.D. “We rodeoed as a business, and if it wasn’t feasible for us to make money, we didn’t go. One of the reasons J.D. was never a world champion team roper or all-around champ was because if, say, winning at a rodeo in the fall didn’t more than cover our expenses, we didn’t go. We were building and accumulating from poor folks to people who made our way. It had to pencil. 

“I was working for the state as a brand inspector a lot of those years, and when I was working, we only went to about 35 rodeos a year. As rodeo got bigger and it took more money to make the Finals, we went to a few more. But in the summertime, we went to a lot of rodeos where we were back home that night.”

Three generations of close-knit Yates cowboys include J.D., Dick and Trey. | Yates Family Photos

Their practice arena was J.D. and Kelly’s playpen. But fun and games were for recess. 

“J.D. and I roped together as a business,” Dick said. “A lot of fathers and sons fuss and don’t get along, especially in the roping pen and when they’re working together. That was never a problem at our camp. We talked about things, but there was never any feuding or fussing about horses or missing. We went out there to work at it and get better, so we could win money. 

“Building a good reputation was always important to me, whether I was roping or training and selling horses. J.D. went everywhere with me when he was a little guy and I was (brand) inspecting. He went with me to the sale barn, and grew up around ranchers and didn’t ever get to play with other kids. He grew up around grownups, so he could talk to anybody about anything when he was just a little old kid.” 

J.D.’s been inducted into a number of rodeo halls now, including Dodge City, Cheyenne, Ellensburg and Pendleton.

“The first rodeo hall they put him in was Dodge City, and J.D. has more Dodge City buckles than anyone,” Dick said. “We won the team roping there twice, he’s won the calf roping and the all-around I don’t know how many times.

“If you enjoy what you’re doing and work hard at it, you generally accomplish quite a bit. Trey (J.D.’s son) fits right in. He gets up early and works hard, just like his dad. I’m proud of my family. I’m still mad at old Jan for leaving so soon. She handled the books, paid all the bills and did all the cooking, and we miss her. But it’s been a good ride for my family and me.” 

Sister Kelly

Kelly Yates is an NFR barrel racer and renowned barrel horse trainer and jockey. She’s also J.D.’s big sister. 

“Mom was the core—the center of our family,” Kelly said. “We all always helped each other. We shared a close bond, and we all pitched in and did whatever it took to make it all work. 

“J.D. and I always fussed at each other when we were little. I always won, because I’d bite him. But J.D. was never mean back. The only thing I can remember him doing was roping me by two feet and jerking me down when I was 10 and Mom was secretarying a college rodeo. I chased him, but he ran into the men’s room and got away. 

“I wasn’t a mean child, just a wild child and go, go, go. J.D. just minded his own business and played in the dirt. We’ve always supported each other, and even more so as we’ve gotten older and matured. I love to rope, too, and I headed for J.D. at the high school rodeos my senior year. We’ve roped at a lot of mixed ropings, too. J.D. is a very loyal brother, and I’m proud of all he’s done. He’s accomplished so much, and a lot of it at a very young age.”

Son Trey

Cheyenne, which didn’t have team roping in Dick’s day, is a family favorite for J.D. and Trey today. | Dan Hubbell photo

Trey Yates is a three-time NFR heeler who won his first Finals with Aaron Tsinigine in 2018. 

“We have a very close-knit bond in our family, and we’re very fortunate that we all enjoy roping, which brings us together even more,” said Trey, who also won the 2018 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association title heeling for Kellan Johnson; Trey’s NIRA and NFR saddles sit side-by-side next to J.D.’s in the family trophy room. “My granddad and grandma hauled me around as a kid when my dad was showing a lot of horses. Kelly would take me at times also. Cousin Jay Lynn (Wadhams) was always there, and helped me a lot with my roping, too. 

“We’re fortunate most of all to be a close family. Roping and rodeo is just what we do. Roping is a big bonus because it’s something we get to do together. There’s no hollering, yelling or screaming in our arena. It’s a place we get to enjoy getting to do what we love to do. Together. 

“The moral code in our family is the most important thing. My dad and my grandpa always say, ‘Just treat people right and with respect, and the roping will take care of itself.’ This is a big year for my dad, and I’m pretty proud of him. I’m always proud of my family.”

Cousin Jay 

Jay Wadhams and his wife, Lindsay, now own and run the American Rope Horse Futurity Association. But he, too, grew up in that Yates arena. 

“All of the Yates family brothers and sisters were close, and Dick and my mom (Raeana Yates Wadhams) have always been extra close,” Jay said. “We lived about 20 miles from Dick and Jan, and I lived there in high school and college because they were closer to town and I was roping there all the time. Mom and Dad (John) came by every day after work. 

“I learned to rope in Dick’s arena. The first year I went and helped J.D. at the World Show, I was still in high school. Our family is very unique, and it’s kind of crazy how it all fell into place, because back when we were young they might have only had seven or eight steers and not many horses. Dick, J.D. and Kelly worked hard at what they made a living at, which was rodeoing, but the beginnings were humble for all of us.”

To this day, J.D. and Jay are more like brothers than cousins.

“We grew up together, and I lived with them for 10 or 12 years,” Jay said. “Even before I was old enough to rodeo, I’d take off driving for Dick and J.D. when I was 16. 

“I only had about four partners in my whole rodeo career, and I roped with Dick forever when J.D. was roping with other guys. I made my first Finals with Jay Ellerman (in 1993), then it got to where J.D. and I were horse-showing so hard that it just made sense for us to rope together at the rodeos.” 

Jay and J.D. made the NFR together in 1996. 

“Winning the BFI with J.D. (in 2010) is my career highlight, for sure,” Jay said. “People may have forgotten that I made the NFR. But nobody ever forgets who won the BFI. And the older we get, the more sentimental we are about getting it done as a family. 

“All those years when I was going to the horse shows with J.D., I was either in front of him (heading) or behind him (heeling). I’m proud to have helped J.D. win a lot of his AQHA world championships, and of the 15 I think I’ve won, he probably helped me win at least 10 of them. Standing back watching now—I don’t rope at my own futurities—J.D.’s still the best head-horse showman there is. It’s no wonder he’s won so much. He ropes great with his right hand. But that left hand of his is great, too.”

James Donald

You can probably double the $1.6 million-plus J.D.’s won rodeoing to get his actual lifetime earnings, which also include a superstellar horseshow and jackpot career. Those 32 National Finals back numbers span four decades, he’s won the average at both the NFR (in 2002 with Bobby Harris) and the 2008 NFSR. J.D.’s also a rare NFR switch-ender who heeled at Rodeo’s Super Bowl 19 times and headed there twice. And those 47 AQHA gold globes speak for themselves.

“This one here (the ProRodeo Hall in neighboring Colorado Springs) was a big surprise,” said J.D., who won two NIRA titles of his own in 1980 and ’81. “It makes all those all-night drives, fast times and no times all worth the trip. I put my heart and soul into the love of the sport and this event. I’ll love it ’til the day I die. I still enjoy going and competing to the best of my ability, and watching the best guys work. That’s why I can’t quit and will never retire.”

J.D. remembers watching the bridle class at the Cow Palace in San Francisco when he was there roping with his dad as a kid. 

“I got to watch the top riders in the world doing the cow-horse stuff in what at that time was called the bridle class in California,” he said. “I was amazed and impressed by it. In 1979, I went and helped at the World Show for the first time, when Sonny Jim Orr hired me to head and heel for him. I was there for five days, and was just amazed by the whole process. 

“I started learning about showing horses in 1980, qualified my own horse for the World Show and didn’t do any good. We came back in 1981, and qualified my dad’s NFR head horse, Hank (Hank Houser was his registered name) and my NFR heel horse, Swevin, who I called Little Gray. My dad’s horse was the reserve world champion head horse that year, and mine was the champion heel horse. 

“I got hired to show some horses in 1982, and my dad took his NFR head horse back to the World Show and won it. To be inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame, well, it’s gratifying when other people see how hard you’ve worked. These are just honors you don’t plan on in your life.”

Making the NFR with his dad and sister. Winning the all-around at Cheyenne thanks to steer roping and team roping earnings with his son. Winning the BFI with his cousin, and placing there years later with his son. These are the memories that mean the most.  

“I roped with a lot of different guys after my dad quit and before Trey came along,” said J.D., who won the 1983 Presidential Command Performance Rodeo with Dick, dined at the White House with him; they were presented their buckles personally by President Ronald Reagan. “But there’s nobody I enjoyed roping with more than family, whether it was my dad, my cousin or my son. That means the most. 

“Dad and I were all business in the arena. We needed to win. But when we walked out of that arena, he was my dad. I wasn’t always as level-headed and strong-minded as my dad when I started roping with Trey. When I messed up for him, it really bothered me. I had a harder time making it business only.”

J.D. looks and sounds more like his dear dad every day. 

“We’re healthy, we’re happy and we still get to do what we love to do,” J.D. said. “I don’t know why I love to rope and ride horses so much, but I do. I couldn’t ask for more than getting to do what I love, and to make a living at it with my family. To make 14 of my 21 NFRs with family—13 with my dad, and one with my cousin—is pretty special to me. 

“We still rope as a family. My sister and I still love to go compete. I’ve had a lot of years competing with my dad and son, and sometimes against them. But when we walk out of the arena, we are united as a family. It’s been a pretty good ride, and that’s the accomplishment I’m most proud of.”

The team of Yates and Yates has had a familiar ring to it for generations. Here’s J.D. spinning one for son Trey. | Bob Click image

—TRJ—

Train with the legends. The Yates family has built a lasting legacy in the sport of team roping, and their exclusive Roping.com series gives members a look into the program that has produced three generations of champions. Watch Grandpa Dick, J.D. and Trey work through horses young and old, as well as preparing up-and-coming futurity mounts. They also give tips for creating the correct swing, scoring and facing. Watch the full series here.

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