Skip to main content

Steamboat Magazine

Hang Tight

05/16/2024 07:00AM ● By Suzi Mitchell
(Photo: Keenan Hayes showing why he's the world's best at Bareback riding. Courtesy of Jace Romick.)

Steamboat Springs, CO - Hayden native, Keenan Hayes has been described as undaunted, determined, and a darn fine cowboy, among a host of other feisty attributes. In December 2023, the then 20-year-old became the first rookie to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) World Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada with a record breaking single-season event earnings record of $434,050.

“It was a dream come true,” he says. Keenan is a fifth generation Routt County cowboy who spent his childhood immersed in rodeo. As a five-year-old, he remembers being placed on the back of a calf by his grandpa after a day of branding. “It’s pretty much where it all began.”

Keenan grew up in Hayden where he excelled in sports. He played football and wrestled in high school – he made the state tournament as a freshman and competed in all rodeo rough stock events. In his sophomore year, he came off a bull and broke his jaw. It served as a turning point and told those around him where his heart lay. He gave up all sports except for rodeo.

“He was always a determined kid, even in junior high he was all about the winning,” says Donnie Hayes, Keenan’s dad. “He was so hardheaded and could get pretty ornery. We’d make him do push-ups and sit-ups as a punishment, but it backfired, and he’d be doing them because he wanted to and now, he’s a bulldog,” Donnie says, laughing.

Keeping in shape for the five feet, six-inch, 160-pound champion is paramount for bareback riding, which has the reputation of being the most physically challenging event in rodeo for the rider. Originating back to the start of the 1900s, it derives from the act of breaking horses and was said to test even the most rugged of men. Back then the cowboy had nothing but the horse’s mane to hold on to. Today, they have a rigging with a grip like a suitcase handle on a strap at the horse’s wither to cling to.

The cowboy must spur up and down from the horse’s point of shoulder and keep in rhythm with the horse for eight seconds. The further back the rider leans, the more chance he has of scoring higher, but the risks become greater. A score in the 80s is great, a score in the 90s is outstanding.

Going into the world championships in 2023, Keenan was placed at number one, after 17 rodeo wins, 24 Go-Rounds, and set a PRCA record of 57 rides of 85 points or more. “What he did is incredible,” says Brent Romick, chairman of the Steamboat Springs Professional Rodeo Series board. “He’s a hero to my grandkids and for so many of our local kids in gymkhana.”

Despite his success, he’s kept his boots on the ground continuing to help his sister Kaitlynn when he can with driving trucks, delivering horses and occasionally coaching for her multiple businesses, KH Bucking Horses and Rocky Mountain Mini Broncs.

His own travel schedule does not permit much down time, which his dad says doesn’t faze him. “He’s never been one to sit still and he’s had his heart set on success from the beginning,” Donnie says. He remembers watching the 1994 movie “8 Seconds” and seeing Keenan’s face light up, telling his dad and mother Jackie, he wants to be a professional rodeo champion.

Despite the risks, his parents are nothing but proud of their son’s trajectory.  “It’s dangerous,” Donnie says, “but I was far more scared when he rode motorcycles or snowmobiles as a kid than I am about this.”

Keenan takes competition in his stride. As he readies himself in the chutes, he isn’t thinking about his nerves or the horse he’s drawn. “You get what you get, and it’s about going out there and getting the job done,” he says. His emotions come during the singing of the National Anthem at the start of every rodeo and then he’s all about business. Unlike many athletes he isn’t bound by a personal routine, and he rarely buys into superstition. “I won’t throw my hat on the bed, although it wouldn’t be the end of the world, and I don’t wear yellow in the arena – not because everyone says it’s bad luck, but because I don’t like the color,” he says laughing.

(2023 National Finals Rodeo Bareback World Champion, Keenan Hayes, stands behind the chute, getting ready to compete in the 2023 Cheyenne Frontier Days. Courtesy of Jace Romick.)


The rodeo community is a tight knit one and the support he’s garnered from fellow competitors, family and past legends is testament to the young champion. 1981 Bareback World Champion and Routt County resident JC Trujillo summed it up when he said “to win a world title is a lifelong tour. What Keenan has done in the world of rodeo and bareback riding has never been done before.”

As he enters a new year, eyes will be on Keenan, who is one of a growing number of young bloods in a sport where numbers had been dwindling. He has shown the world what a career in professional rodeo can offer, with money to be made. If anyone can reach their goal of being the greatest bareback rider of all time, it’s Hayden’s Keenan Hayes.