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Ruth Nicolaus
Courtesy Adams County Ag Society

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Sitting tall in the saddle: Young cowboy doesn’t let autism define him

Autism hasn't stopped Wyatt Kunkee from riding bucking horses.

The parents of the 18-year-old cowboy, who just graduated from Callaway (Neb.) High School last month, first used rodeo as a way to get him to improve his grades.

When he was a freshman, his mom and dad, Angie and Dean Kunkee, told him he could rodeo in the Nebraska High School Rodeo Association if he kept his grades up. As for other high school sanctioned sports, a certain grade level is required to compete in rodeo. "This whole deal started as a way to get Wyatt to bear down in school," Dean said. And it didn't take long. After Wyatt was promised he could rodeo if his grades improved, they did. His parents agreed to let him. "I couldn't lie to him," Dean said. "He met his end of the bargain."

So he chose saddle bronc riding, possibly the most difficult event in rodeo to master. In an 8-second ride, there are many little things that must be done right for a ride to be good.

But Wyatt wasn't deterred. He attended six different saddle bronc riding clinics and at each one, showed his determination. It was at a school in Burwell put on by former bronc riders Cory Hughes, Wes Bailey, Jon Clark and Casey McGooden where his dad realized Wyatt might have a propensity for riding broncs. His first horse took a tumble in the deep sand, but it didn't bother him. His second horse was a 4-year-old colt who was nervous in the chute. Dean told Wyatt, 'this horse is just as scared as you are; now's the time to make the decision, if this is what you want to do.' Wyatt rode the horse three-quarters across the arena, even blew a stirrup but stayed on him. Hughes made the comment, "this kid has the determination, the balance and the athletic ability to do it."

Success didn't come immediately. It wasn't till his junior year in high school that he made a qualified ride. In the spring of 2016, at the McCook, Neb., high school rodeo, he made a 71 point ride, to win the rodeo. It was a special moment, said Justin Boots, stock contractor and co-owner of Boots and Phillips Rodeo Co. "When he rode that bronc, it was so loud in that building. Everybody was up and cheering. I was in tears."

WINNING SEASON

Since then, Wyatt has earned five buckles, all for wins at high school rodeos in Lexington, Nelson, Burwell, and again in McCook this spring. He qualified for the Nebraska High School Finals Rodeo in 2016 and again this year, winning reserve champion saddle bronc rider for the 2016-2017 season.

Autism never defined Wyatt's life; his parents didn't treat him any differently than their other two sons, Weston and Dalton. But rodeo has enhanced his life and has brought him out of his shell, Angie said, helping him socialize. "It's made him to where he's more apt to visit with other people," Dean said. It's given him more confidence, too, Angie said. Kids with autism don't always handle loud noises or routine changes well, but rodeo has helped Wyatt adjust to noise and changes of plans.

His parents had an inkling that Wyatt might be good at riding bucking horses. As a kid, he religiously watched all 10 rounds of the National Finals Rodeo each year. And once, when he was 4, his dad was ponying him on an old gelding. When Wyatt slipped out of the saddle and fell to the ground, he cried. He didn't communicate well at the time, so Dean didn't know what was wrong. "As soon as I threw him back up on the saddle, he quit crying," he said. He wasn't hurt, he just wanted to continue riding.

Rodeo people have been more than helpful, his parents said. Dean and his three boys all team rope, but Dean had no experience as a saddle bronc rider. The clinic teachers went out of their way to make sure Wyatt had a good learning experience, and at high school rodeos, dads, who are former saddle bronc riders help out: Brad McCully, Cooper McBride, J.W. Simonson, Deon Daniels and John Schroder "have all been so gracious as to give pointers" to Wyatt. They all have helped at the chutes many a time, especially with a rank one in the chute. "We're a big family in rodeo."

Wyatt will go on to study agricultural business at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte this fall, competing on the rodeo team there. He achieved one of his goals this year: making the honor roll. The last several summers, he's been employed at a local cow-calf operation and this year at Dawson Public Power in Lexington.

There is hope for parents of kids with autism, Dean and Angie believe. They were devastated when Wyatt was diagnosed with it. "Everybody says parenting is hard," Dean said, "but parenting at this level is a whole different ball game." Wyatt has come a long ways, Dean said. When he was little, "he would have a meltdown to where he'd get so frustrated, you'd have to hug him and hold him tight." Riding saddle broncs "has given Wyatt a new lease on life, it's given him happiness."

"He's come a long ways. He loves it."

The Nebraska High School Rodeo Association finished their season in Hastings, Neb. Wyatt finished second in the saddle bronc riding, and will compete at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyo., July 16-22. For more information on Nebraska High School Rodeo, visit hsrodeo-nebraska.com. ❖

— Nicolaus is a freelance writer from Blue Hill, Neb., and a Great Plains girl at heart. She can be reached at Nicolaus@gtmc.net.