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Tall in the saddle: Cowboy meets challenge of autismTell North Platte what you think
Photo by Jill Saults
Wyatt Kunkee rides a saddle bronc at the 2017 Crawford High School Rodeo.
Photo by Angie Kunkee
Riding a calf at the Overton rodeo, age 8.

Autism hasn’t stopped Wyatt Kunkee from learning the art of riding bucking horses.

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

When Wyatt 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 is the case with 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 for his grades to improve.

Wyatt chose saddle bronc riding, possibly the most difficult event in rodeo. To ride for eight seconds, many little things must be done right.

Wyatt attended six separate saddle bronc riding clinics and at each one, showed his determination. At a school in Burwell put on by former bronc riders Cory Hughes, Wes Bailey, Jon Clark, and Casey McGooden, his dad realized his son might have a propensity for riding broncs.

His first horse took a tumble in the deep sand, but it didn’t bother Wyatt. His second horse was a four-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; he, even blew a stirrup but stayed on. 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 competition. In the spring of 2016 at the McCook 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,” Boots said.

Since then, Wyatt has earned five championship buckles, for wins at high school rodeos in Lexington, Nelson, Burwell, and again in McCook. He qualified for the Nebraska High School Finals Rodeo in 2016 and again this year. He was the reserve champion saddle bronc rider in the 2016-17 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 Wyatt’s 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.

Angie said it’s given him more confidence. Kids with autism don’t always handle loud noises or routine changes well, but rodeo has helped Wyatt adjust to noise and change 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 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo each year. And once, when he was four, 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 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 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: the honor roll. The last several summers, he’s been employed at a 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.”

The Nebraska High School Rodeo Association finished the season last weekend in Hastings. Wyatt was second in the saddle bronc riding, and he will compete at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyo. on July 16-22.

For more information on Nebraska High School Rodeo, visit www.hsrodeo-nebraska.com.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 6/20/2017
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