AQHA Benefits Youth Ropers

AQHA Benefits Youth Ropers: Pros Speak Out

Rodeos and jackpots can be lucrative for youth ropers, but here’s how AQHA roping can benefit you too.

J.D. Yates turns a steer as soon Trey Yates heels it (Credit: AQHA)

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Abigail Boatwright

For youth competitors, rodeos and jackpots are an exciting way to rope fast and win cash. But several experts agree that the experience gained in AQHA ropings is invaluable to the long-term development of a true horseman.

1. The Draw of the Jackpot

All of our sources concede that the main attraction for youth competing at jackpots or rodeos is the potential to earn prize money. At an AQHA show, unless the producer also holds a jackpot, you’re gunning for points and prizes.

The sources here are involved with both timed and judged roping and see the value in both arenas. Now a AQHA Professional Horseman, J.D. Yates competed in rodeo and AQHA competition at the highest levels as a youth. The youngest team roper to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, J.D. Yates grew to understand the value of both spheres.

“I could see that (AQHA competition) added to my rodeoing to make me more successful and to be a better horseman,” J.D. says. “I believe it helped me be a long-term horseman in rodeoing. I learned more and more about being a horseman.”

2. Improving Horsemanship

AQHA roping is judged not on time but on technique. Unlike a jackpot, you and your horse need to demonstrate each element correctly to earn a good score. Tie-down roping trainer James Barton says the judge factor is what makes AQHA competition so good for youth riders.

“Horsemanship is emphasized so much more at horse shows than at the jackpots, so it really encourages riders to step up in that area,” James says. “It’ll make them a better competitor in the long run.”

Even if you’re handy in timed roping, you’ll probably need to step up your knowledge and technique to place at a horse show. James says it’s a good idea to connect with a trainer to improve your performance in the show pen.

AQHA Professional Horseman and trainer Brad Lund says horse shows are great for improving your horsemanship.

“The time is not really a factor – you need to catch, of course – but just learning how to be smooth, how to be good in the box and the aspect of the entire run, rather than just dropping two coils and trying to be fast,” Brad says.

J.D. says while jackpots garner more money, youth who participate in AQHA horse shows end up with long-term benefits.

“I believe in my heart, it will make you a better roper in the long run if you go learn how to show horses, and learn how to ride better while at a young age,” J.D. says. “It’s awful important: The better you want to become as a roper, the better you need to be able to ride your horse.”

Riding properly doesn’t always mean a slower time, says J.D.

“I believe that the correct way to ride your horse, actually, in a lot of ways, speeds up your time,” J.D. says.

Heather Fuesz’s son Cash Fuesz competes in both AQHA and jackpot roping. She firmly believes that AQHA competition gives riders a new perspective.

“Whether it’s roping or western pleasure or showmanship, the competitor has to put their horse first, and for youth, this is a great life skill that will transfer to many arenas,” Heather says. “ ‘How is my horse performing? How can I best show his skills?’ Ropers don’t always have the luxury of asking these questions during a performance. We appreciate that these learned horsemanship skills are never wasted, but invested for the future.”

3. Shaping the Horse

Brad says taking your horse to an AQHA show can help your horse refocus on technique.

“A lot of times, horses will relax a little bit when they are not going as fast,” Brad says. “If you’re only going for time, sometimes your horse won’t stay as honest.”

J.D. agrees. The quality of performance needed to excel in AQHA competition serves horse and rider well in both judged and timed roping.

“You will never rope better than you can ride your horse,” J.D. says. “The better you can ride your horse and the better you can make your horse work as an individual, when there’s a competition with big money up, you’ll have the advantage that your horse is going to perform for you at a high level and not try to cost you any money.”

4. Relationship Building

James recommends that youth get involved in their respective state Quarter Horse affiliate.

“You’ll be able to get experience and network with other kids,” James says. “The camaraderie is one of the best things about state affiliates.”

Many state affiliates bring teams of riders to the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show that didn’t qualify through competition. To connect with yours, visit

“Many times, all you have to do is become a member and be involved, and then you can go to the (Youth) World Show with the team,” James says.

Networking with youth competitors outside your roping community can also benefit your progress as a rider, says James.

“You’ll see what else you can do with your horse and broaden your horizons,” James says. “Whether it’s stay in the roping events, or do other events like cow horse, cutting, rail classes, English … it’s a really great way to explore.”

Heather says Cash got a lot out of competing at the 2018 Ford Youth World, more than just the time in the show pen.

“We loved the AQHA Youth World,” Heather says. “As a member of the Kansas team, we felt a lot of camaraderie with the team members and were able to cheer for our teammates and learn about other disciplines. As a roper, it was fun for Cash to be able to be on a big stage with many old friends but also kids and families we’d not met before.”

5. Education on Multiple Fronts

One of the top assets youth can tap into by becoming involved with AQHA is the opportunity to receive scholarships. The American Quarter Horse Foundation awarded $700,250 in scholarship money in 2018. There are dozens of national scholarships youth can apply for, as well as more at the regional level. But requirements vary to qualify, including being an active member of AQHYA, a member of a state affiliate, showing at Quarter Horse shows, getting involved in leadership in your local Quarter Horse club or choosing an agriculture degree, for example.

J.D. says the opportunity for scholarships is an important incentive for youth and strongly advises young riders to consider pursuing higher education in addition to equine experience.

“We need to encourage youth to go on to college and get that education, not just being a cowboy,” J.D. says.

6. Getting Started

James says you should do two things to jump into AQHA shows: find an AQHA Professional Horseman to mentor you and join your state affiliate.

Brad suggests finding a local AQHA horse trainer who is successful in roping and start working with them.

“You’ve got to get help from somebody who has done (AQHA shows) before,” Brad says. “Most of the time, it’s just the little things: box, run to a spot, rating, making sure everything is correct.”

7. Well-Rounded Competitors

There are a number of youth competitors who excel in both AQHA horse show roping, as well as jackpots and rodeo. Brad cites Tyler Merrill of Poolville, Texas, as an example. Tyler started out competing in AQHA shows before venturing into rodeo competition, and he’s back competing in AQHA competition. He’s a six-time AQHA youth roping world champion and has been successful in rodeo, as well. Today, he’s a performance-horse trainer for cutting, cow horse and roping.

Trevor Hale of Perryton, Texas, 18, is well-known for his accomplishments in AQHA competition, including multiple youth world championships, and in rodeo, competing and doing well in the National Junior High and High School rodeo competitions.

J.D. Yates’ son, Trey Yates, is the 2009 youth heeling world champion. He also competed in jackpots and rodeo as a youth. In 2018, he won the team roping at the College National Finals Rodeo. After completing college, he earned his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card and continued showing in AQHA competition aboard a horse (Romancing The Chics) that has a background in AQHA roping. Qualifying for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2018, heeler Trey and header Aaron Tsinigine won the average with 69.6 seconds on 10 head. Trey finished third in the PRCA world standings with $226,900.48.

“I think one reason that the horse he rode all year long lasted so long is because the foundation put on that horse from showing together, correctly, has been a good education for the both of them,” J.D. says.

Cash Fuesz of Eureka, Kansas, is a great example of a rodeo kid-turned-AQHA competitor. When Cash acquired a younger horse, he turned to James to help transform his jackpot performances into AQHA-winning runs.

“Cash is an example of someone who has excelled academically, as well as at jackpots,” James says. “He (began competing in AQHA shows) to improve his horsemanship and showmanship in the roping arena, and he wanted to get to know the youth and experience events he might not have seen at rodeos.”

Cash has competed at Kansas state and National Junior High  and High School rodeos and was the year-end champion for the Kansas Junior Rodeo Association. He won the Level 2 breakaway champion and reserve Level 1 breakaway titles at the 2018 Ford Youth World.

“I know I can be fast and rope, but going slow and doing it right, making it look pretty is so much harder than just being fast in roping,” Cash says. “It helps you and your horse with everything.”

Cash loved competing in Level 3 breakaway at the Ford Youth World in Oklahoma City because it was the old site of the National Finals Rodeo.

“I watched Trevor Hale go out and rope a 2.09 or something, then I went out and roped a 2.12 and even though I lost, it was just so fun to compete like that,” Cash says.

Cash encourages any youth to consider trying AQHA competition.

“It teaches you to do things right and you meet so many good people through it,” Cash says. “Go to a show – you don’t need to try to be fast, just try thinking about doing everything correctly.”

About the Experts

James Barton of Bluff Dale, Texas, specializes in tie-down roping and team roping horses. He trains youth and non-pro riders, as well as great PRCA equine competitors such as Tuf Cooper’s “Topaz” (Big Smokin Otoe), AQHA world champions like Mamas Duel N At Boon and Checkaboon, and former AQHA show competitors now competing in rodeos, like CSR Big Smokin Jake.

AQHA Professional Horseman Brad Lund of LaCygne, Kansas, is a 15-time AQHA world champion and he has trained and shown horses to win the AQHA Superhorse title three times. In addition to roping, he also trains reined cow horses. In 2017, he won the intermediate open at the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity.

J.D. Yates is an AQHA Professional Horseman from Pueblo, Colorado, who specializes in roping and working cow horse. He’s a PRCA competitor with more than $1.4 million in earnings and has qualified and competed at 21 National Finals Rodeos, winning multiple rounds. He was the youngest NFR qualifier at the age of 15 in 1975. In AQHA competition, he has earned 36 world champion titles and has guided seven horses to win AQHA High-Point Junior Horse, nine High-Point Senior Horse and five Superhorse titles.

Supporting AQHYA Programs: BFGoodrich

Every time you buy a set of BFGoodrich tires, the AQHA corporate partner gives $100 back to AQHA to support youth programs. You'll also get two free years of roadside assistance.

BFGoodrich believes in the future of AQHA and what better way to ensure its future than helping fund AQHYA programs. 

Learn more about this AQHA member exclusive offer.