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Wyatt Kunkee overcomes odds to reach nationals

Wyatt Kunkee (right) and his father, Dean, work on getting Wyatt's positioning right as he prepares for the National High School Finals rodeo (NTV News)

BUFFALO, Neb - Ever since Wyatt Kunkee could remember he's had one love, horses. The animal has served as a faithful companion in a time of need. At age 3, Wyatt was diagnosed with autism. He discovered his affinity for horses by accident one day when he slipped and fell off a young gelding during a ride with his father.

"You know his communication wasn't all that great back then," said his father, Dean Kunkee. "I was asking him and he seemed fine so I threw him back up on the saddle and he quit crying and everything was good."

Little did anyone know, it was the start of a love affair with riding. As a freshman at Callaway High School, he decided to try saddle bronc riding, one of the most difficult events in rodeo. First, his parents laid down the law; Wyatt would have to hit the books, before jumping into the saddle.

"We sat there and said well Wyatt the only way you can rodeo is you gotta have a certain grade point average to do that and until you get that accomplished we don't have to worry about going down the rodeo trail. Well then he got to studying and got his grades up and then we had to follow through," Dean said.

At first, Wyatt struggled to find success, but his determination paid off at in McCook last year, where he earned a 71–point ride, winning the rodeo.

"The difference is that I started a pretty good ride and I just stayed under my reign and kept lifting and moved my feet as well," remembered Wyatt.

In all, Wyatt has earned 6 buckles. However, he still had one more thing on his checklist. He wanted to earn an invite to the National High School Finals Rodeo, according to his mother, Angie. "That was his number one goal from the get go. I mean yes he wanted to make it to state. That was a goal. Earn a buckle and to get a qualified ride."

After hours and years of hard work, Wyatt placed 2nd in saddle bronc riding at the Nebraska State finals, punching his ticket to nationals in Wyoming. His parents were over the moon.

"I don't think I have words for it," beamed Angie. "I'm just happy for him and I'm very proud of him."

"It was just so rewarding to know that he was going to make it to nationals and get a chance to prove his talent there," remarked Dean.

Through all the ups and downs thrown Wyatt's way, he never let autism define him or limit his aspirations.

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