LAS VEGAS – Jared Keylon has been one of the best bareback riders in rodeo for a number of years.
He finally will get to prove it to the world this December when he competes for the first time at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. It’s the sport’s grand finale, and only the top 15 contestants in each event earn the right to play for the biggest pay of the season.
“It’s something I set out to do about 10 years ago, so making the NFR is a big relief,” said Keylon, 28, of Uniontown, Kan. “I’m sure I haven’t gotten the full effect of it sinking in just yet, but the sound of being an NFR qualifier makes me feel good.
“That’s what I wanted to do when I left home at 19 years old, and it’s the dream I’ve had since I planned to be a cowboy.”
It’s the dream of most who ride bucking horses for a living. Keylon has been close before … painfully close. He finished the 2009 regular season 16th, one spot out of qualifying for Las Vegas. He finished 25th in the world standings a season ago.
So how did he get over the hump in 2012? Keylon won, and he did it a lot. He won titles at 16 rodeos. Still, he held on to that elusive, yet coveted, 15th spot when the season ended in September and punched his ticket for the NFR.
“It started in Denver,” he said of the January rodeo. “It pretty much just snowballed. It got a little slow later in the winter and spring, then in May, it started picking back up. June was outstanding.”
But there were down times, too.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” said Keylon, who was born in Dover, Ark., and raised in northwest Arkansas. “There were many ups and downs throughout the year. The good outweighed the bad, but there were some nose-dives in there where I couldn’t win a dime.”
That’s the nature of the sport: Feast and famine. After getting so close to the NFR four seasons ago, he suffered a broken leg in 2010. The next season featured a little more rehabilitation. Still, he remained in the top 35 in the world standings both seasons – a true testament to his talent.
“In 2009 when I almost made it, it was more trial and error,” he said. “In 2010, I thought it was going to be a good year, then I broke my leg. In 2011, I was just coming off the broken leg, then I had a blood clot deal. Still, I had a good finish to 2011. When 2012 started, I was ready.
“I just started putting my trust and faith in the Lord.”
Faith is important to Keylon, his wife, Ashley, and their son, Gunner. He traveled for years with dear friend Bo Casper, who decided to limit his rodeo schedule this season. So Keylon joined a pack that featured Heath Ford, Winn Ratliff and Kyle Brenneke.
“I’m a big fan of reading my Bible every day, and Heath and Winn are, too,” Keylon said. “Kyle reads his Bible, and all three of them have a positive outlook about it. Everybody’s always picking each other up.
“I have the constant camaraderie of having those three guys around and all of us realizing that there’s somebody else that’s bigger in this world than us. We also have someone who is reminding you about that every day.”
Still, it’s a little bittersweet after all those years traveling with Casper, who lives in nearby Fort Scott, Kan., where both cowboys attended college on rodeo scholarships.
“If there’s ever anybody I’d want to make it over me, it’d be him,” Keylon said. “That’s the only guy, other than (2000 world champion) Jeff Collins, that made me feel like I could ride Godzilla if I had to.”
The sentiment is mutual.
“It gives me chills thinking about it,” Casper said of Keylon’s NFR qualification. “After doing it for several years and trying hard and being right there, it means a lot seeing someone you’ve watched progress make it there. He’s one of the top bareback riders in the game. That’s awesome.
“He’s got a big heart, and the good Lord is 100 percent his main focus. He has devoted himself to the Lord, then his family, then to rodeo. I think he’s got his priorities in a row, and that makes rodeo fun.”
Keylon is having fun. The smile on his face is obvious, whether he rides for a win or whether he’s talking about Gunner, his son who will turn 2 years old while the family is in Las Vegas.
“Next to God, my family comes second, or at least I try to make it that way,” Keylon said. “To me, it’s very important.
“I have a very supportive wife. Actually, if it hadn’t been for her, I probably would’ve never gotten to this point. In 2007, she pushed me to go a little farther. My mom and dad have always been right behind. They’re very supporting, and I have a great mother-in-law. She’s always been supportive of me.”
When Jared Keylon began riding bareback horses, he did so with his brother, Bo, who is older by 13 months. They were inseparable no matter what they did.
“We went to school together, and we ended up in the same grade,” Jared Keylon said. “We both dropped out at the same time, and we got our GED together.”
That family presence is tight to this day. He looks at his late arrival on ProRodeo’s grandest stage as a blessing, because young Gunner will get to experience it all.
“For him to be old enough to know what Dad does is a big deal,” Keylon said. “I feel like he likes coming with Dad, and for him to be able to come and for me to be able to show him why Dad was gone, it’s really special. For him to get to watch me in that arena and know that I was in that position is awesome.
“I really enjoy the fact that I’ll have my little buddy with me.”