Leading the pack

By Ruth Nicolaus, for The Fence Post
Hayes at the 2023 Cheyenne Frontier Days. The 20-year-old cowboy has had a record setting year. Photo by Jackie Jensen

Rookie Colorado cowboy leads the bareback riding going into pro rodeo’s world championship

Keenan Hayes is on a tear.

The Hayden, Colo., man is setting records left and right, on his way to his first trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo next month.

The 20-year-old bareback rider set the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association record for the most money won, in a single event, in a cowboy’s permit year ($108,567, in 2022), and the most money won by a bareback rider in the regular season ($265,805 this year).

And he still has 10 more bareback horses to ride, at the Wrangler NFR, the PRCA’s world championship held in Las Vegas Dec. 7-16.

By the time he was 5, he was riding sheep at local fairs and rodeos. He graduated to calves, steers and mini bareback horses, and by the age of 13, was riding at open rodeos.

In high school, Hayes competed in all three roughstock events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. After high school graduation, at age 17, he wanted to go straight to pro rodeo.

Colorado cowboy Keenan Hayes rides at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up. The No. 1 bareback rider in the world standings, he leads by more than $100,000 going into the Wrangler NFR. Photo by Jackie Jensen


But he was a year shy of being old enough to be a PRCA contestant, and it was the year of the COVID pandemic and there weren’t many rodeos going on anyway. So he went home and worked. He got his PRCA permit membership in 2021 and spent that  year and the next on his permit, instead of applying for his rookie membership, which would have allowed him to qualify for the Wrangler NFR.

He doesn’t regret those two years as a permit holder. “I would have had no business going to every rodeo I went to, this year, in my permit years,” he said. “I’d have gotten schooled hard. My riding, which I thought was really good, ended up being not so great. I always thought I rode decent, but I’ve tuned it up these last two years.”

Not only is Hayes, a rookie, leading the bareback riding going into the Wrangler NFR, but he’s been in the No. 1 spot since March. He has more than a $100,000 lead over the No. 2 man, Clayton Biglow, the 2019 world champion bareback rider.  

Hayes competed at 90-plus rodeos this year, winning money at some of the biggest shows in the rodeo world: San Antonio ($20,000); Rodeo Houston ($20,000); Cody, Wyo. ($7,567); the NFR Open in Colorado Springs ($18,629); Pendleton, Ore. Round-Up ($6,974) and the Governor’s Cup in Sioux Falls, S.D. ($19,000).

To prep for the Wrangler National Finals, he’s been at home, helping with the family business, Hayes Trucking, and working on his collection of semi-trucks and trailers. Some are road-ready and some are bare bones. He likes the older models; he has a 1950s Kenworth cabover, a 1960 Peterbilt, a 1978 Peterbilt cabover, and a 1988 Freightliner.

Hayes smiles after his ride at the Pendleton Round-Up. The Hayden, Colo., man is No. 1 in the bareback riding in his rookie year. Photo by Jackie Jensen


He grew up in a rodeo family: his dad, Donny, competed in the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, and his granddad, John Hayes, was a saddle bronc rider.

His strategy this year has been to hang loose. “I don’t think much about (bareback riding),” he said. “It’s just go out and have fun with your buddies. That’s how I go at it,” he said. A few times this summer, when he began over-thinking his riding, his buddies would make note of it, telling him to relax.

“The less I think about it, the better I do. I take it seriously, but I don’t let it rule everything. It’s go out and have fun. Don’t worry about the little things.”

Hayes at the 2023 Cheyenne Frontier Days. The 20-year-old cowboy has had a record setting year. Photo by Jackie Jensen

Fellow contestant Shane O’Connell, Rapid City, S.D, has traveled with Hayes this year and appreciates his drive.

“The thing I admire the most about Keenan is he had the gas pedal down the whole year,” he said. “He never slowed down. To have a world championship season, you have to have the gas pedal down the whole time.

“He’s made of iron. He’ll be hard to beat in Las Vegas.”

His next goal is a world title, earned after 10 rounds of rodeo in Las Vegas at the Wrangler NFR, and with a lead of $100,000, he’s definitely in the driver’s seat.  

He’s dreamed about this for a while. “I wanted to win the world at 18, but figuring out the pro rodeo stuff took longer than I thought.”

“I’m just out here, having fun, doing what I always wanted to. It’s the coolest. It’s fun going with my buddies, getting on rank horses. It’s fun.”

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