Bareback rider Keenan Hayes chose rodeo as his sport after breaking his jaw while bull riding a ...


Keenan Hayes was a pretty accomplished all-around athlete as a kid. He wrestled and played football and began riding mini-steers at 9 years old. He did all the rodeo roughstock events in high school.

In his sophomore year, he fell off a bull and broke his jaw. And then he gave up all sports … except rodeo. Which really tells you where his heart was.

“It sort of chose me as much as I chose it,” he said.

He hasn’t looked back since, now 20 and one of the best bareback riders the circuit knows, a rookie who will compete in his first National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas &Mack Center on the campus of UNLV on Dec. 7-16.

He will enter ranked No. 1 in the world in his event, with a lead of more than $100,000 in winnings over the next closest competitor.

Hayes broke the single-season earnings record in bareback with a total of $265,895.60.

He has been on fire all season.

In the realm of bareback riding, where a decade ago you might have had just a handful of world title contenders annually, Hayes is one of several up-and-comers who are turning heads and collecting cash. Rodeo has some new blood in it.

“It’s pretty cool to be one of those young guys coming into it now,” Hayes said. “There had been a pretty steady decline of bareback riders. So now others are competing, and we’re giving the older guys a run for their money.”

Literally and figuratively.

It’s one reason he chose rodeo, the ability to begin a professional career early while making a living at it. He grew up around horses in Hayden, Colorado, which sits along U.S. Highway 40 in the Yampa River Valley. Its population was a shade over 1,900 in the 2020 census.

His drive and determination to be the best have known no bounds, Hayes was as much a disciplinarian on the football field as a youngster as any coach. His mantra: If he was going to give 110 percent, you better also.

It was the same with wrestling — he made the state tournament as a freshman in high school — and rodeo. Went hard at everything he did. But he only ever had one real goal.

“He never talked about just making it,” said Donnie Hayes, Keenan’s father, who owns a trucking company. “Even in junior high, it was always about winning.

“He was a mega-determined kid. He could get sort of ornery, so we made him do pushups when he got into trouble. But that sort of backfired on us. We’d be watching TV and he’d head off to his room. He’d be in there doing pushups and situps and pullups, 100 each a night.

“He’s just built that way. Always has been.”

History of the sport

Bareback riding as a rodeo sport traces its roots to 1900, near the end of the Wild West time period, reflecting a cowboy’s way of doing things out on the ranch. It was born from the act of breaking in horses.

Which means all rough and tough and dangerous.

There is no saddle or rein for the rider, and there was a time when cowboys spurred with the motion of a horse while merely gripping its mane. But equipment improved over time, and eventually a rigging was invented similar to a suitcase handle for the cowboy to grip.

It is arguably the most physically demanding of all rodeo events, the horses bred for their strength and bucking ability. Both are exceptional, and often the cowboy pays for it.

There was that time in Bozeman, Montana, when Hayes had a bad hangup and was dragged around the arena a few times. The pickup men didn’t get there, so the chutes opened and several cowboys got to the horse and cut Hayes free.

“It’s dangerous,” Donnie Hayes said, “but I was far more scared when he rode motorcycles as a kid than I am about this. I get nervous, but more about the other competition and scoring.”

The cowboy’s challenge is to spur up and down from the horse’s point of shoulder for eight excruciatingly long seconds. The idea is to spur at each jump in rhythm with the horse. Much easier said than done.

The further a cowboy leans back, meaning the more he risks being thrown and injured, but the better his score might be. Both the cowboy and horse are scored on a scale of 0-50. Score a ride in the 80s and, well, you might be collecting money. Score one in the 90s and you’re collecting a lot of it.

“I’ve been fortunate enough this year to draw (good horses) everywhere I’ve been,” Keenan Hayes said. “It has made my job a lot easier. I haven’t been on many horses that aren’t good. It just allows me to focus on my part of things. That, and staying healthy is a big part of it.”

There isn’t an accomplished rodeo athlete going who doesn’t own some sort of workout program, of strength and stretching, of keeping one’s body as healthy as possible for the rigors of the sport. Hayes is no different. His is a compact mass of muscle at a listed 5 feet, 6 inches and 160 pounds.

He credits, in part, such consistency to his wrestling days, to forcing yourself into doing things you don’t want to, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, training at a merciless rate.

“I think wrestling is one of the greatest sports in the world,” he said. “Absolutely, it helped me with rodeo. With knowing what it took.”

He has impressed many, including one of the greatest of all time.

Focus is key

Kaycee Feild is a six-time world bareback champion who has qualified for the NFR on 13 occasions. His take on Hayes is simple: If he can avoid some of the distractions that come with being a rodeo athlete, he will make runs at world titles and be around riding bucking horses for several years.

That he’s the full package as a rider, physically fit and mentally strong. That he has a little wild side to him. That he’ll be even better with experience.

“Being a rookie and making a run at a world championship is really, really impressive,” said Feild, who finished second in the world in 2022. “I’m a big fan. I’m pulling for him. A lot is happening for him fast. You have to be smart about your body to rodeo for a long time.

“I think Keenan had some goals and started dreaming, and that’s a big part of it.”

Feild also believes Hayes reached this point because of his wrestling days, that instead of being on a mat staring at an opponent, it’s just you and the horse in an arena. Just you against another in the moment.

“You need to know the difference between being injured and sore,” Feild said. “You don’t want to be in pain and to develop habits. Keenan is still a young man. But he has a durable body. That’s the key for lasting long. He’s a very cool, unique young man. Wish him all the best at the Finals.”

Family ties

Kaitlynn Hayes runs companies that deal with futurity horses and mini-broncs out of Hayden. She and her younger brother started one for the latter years ago before rodeo took him away from the day-to-day operations.

But he still lends a hand. Still drives trucks and delivers horses and coaches at an annual rodeo school. Still gives back in countless ways.

“If it’s easy, he wants nothing to do with it,” Kaitlynn said. “He’s always going 100 miles per hour, 24-7. He chose rodeo because he doesn’t have to count on anyone but himself when competing. He wants to be the best at anything he does. Not to mention you can make money, and Keenan loves his money.”

He doesn’t always like the down time between rodeos, those days when you find yourself sitting around waiting for the next time you grasp that handle and lean back on a horse. Doesn’t always like the long, lonely back roads in profound darkness.

But the light has shined on Keenan Hayes this year unlike anything he could have imagined. He will arrive to the NFR with every chance to be crowned a world champion.

“I’ve been a few times watching and have done some junior rodeos out there,” he said. “I’m not sure what to expect. Hopefully, everything goes well. I’m just super excited.

“Nothing really surprises me. I just want to win.”

He’s being doing a lot of that lately. ◆

Ed Graney is a sports columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.



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Mike McNamara

Mike McNamara

A Las Vegas Realtor since 2008. Mike has a wide range of knowledge around all things Las Vegas.

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