When Karen Skordinski set out to help her teenage daughter, Ali, learn how to become competitive in barrel racing at youth rodeos, she says she felt very “out of place.” The single mom and eighth-grade science teacher at Keller’s Indian Springs Middle School had only ridden a horse a handful of times.
“We were city people,” says Skordinski, who grew up in Denton. “I was into cheerleading in high school.”
Today, however, she cheers for Ali at youth rodeos, thanks to guidance from the Keller-based Western Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps local youth compete in rodeos and other ranching and agricultural-related activities. Currently, the foundation supports student groups from two Keller ISD high schools — Central and Timber Creek — as well as teams from several area private schools and other school districts.
“I don’t think we could have done half of what we’ve done without them,” Skordinski says. “They’ve helped us train our horses. They’ve helped me figure out how to drive with a trailer. We go to them with every horse question — not only with riding, but also with animal healthcare. They’ve been a tremendous help in every aspect of rodeo.”
Skordinski also appreciates the close-knit atmosphere she’s encountered by getting to know other parents and students involved with WHF. It’s helped her feel more at ease when Ali, a 15-year-old Keller Central High School sophomore, gallops her explosive horse around three barrels in a loose dirt-floor arena, attempting to turn in one of the faster times of the rodeo performance.
For her part, Ali has a strong sense of bonding and belonging to WHF, too.
“They’ve done a lot of my coaching,” she explains. “A lot of people who rodeo receive advice from their family who have done it for 50 years, but I didn’t receive the tips from family members that a lot of other people get.”
Karen and Ali Skordinski represent a growing number of parents and kids who, despite living in urban North Texas and not having any sort of Western riding background, want to break into the area rodeo scene or to engage in the world of agriculture and ranching.
John Yeatts, WHF’s founder and president, founded the organization in August 2012 with just four participants at Timber Creek High School. Today, there’s a roster of about 40 kids who come from nine schools. Activities range from competing in rodeos and taking trail rides to camping out on ranches and riding in parades. The group is scheduled to ride in the 2016 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo All Western Parade and the grand entry at the Stock Show and Rodeo on Jan. 16.
An Expensive Proposition
Yeatts explains that he perceived a need in the Fort Worth suburbs for financial help for kids who wanted to compete in rodeos but didn’t have the means — either in funds or space — to board their animals and “pay to play.” Traditionally, Western sports require even top competitors to pay their travel expenses to rodeo competitions. Riders must buy and board their horses, purchase their saddles and riding gear and pay entry fees to participate in the rodeo.
“We started the whole foundation to be able to legally fund the programs for kids to participate with anything to do with ag or rodeo or Western sports,” Yeatts says. “There’s no money out there — from FFA or 4-H — to help (students and families) pay for it.”
In an urban environment, he adds, it can be hard for families to stable a horse for less than $500 a month, so the costs are often untenable — especially for students “who don’t have rodeo families with large tracts of land for their animals to stay on.” The foundation fills in the gaps with sponsorships and donations and by producing rodeos. In the past 3 1/2 years, Yeatts says, the organization has raised more than $140,000 for the cause.
“We serve the community through empowering these students to rodeo,” he says. “Our goal is to be able to pay for their entries, to help subsidize travel, to create opportunities for them to get out in the community so they can make an awareness of our sport and what their passion is.”
Yeatts grew up competing in the North Texas High School Rodeo Association and the National Little Britches Rodeo Association and says many WHF members now compete on the NTHSRA and NLBRA circuits, as well.
Sport Without a Season
“We want kids to know that livestock is a responsibility,” says Yeatts. “You have to be there every day, when it’s hot and when it’s cold, when it’s fun to ride and when they are sick.”
Yeatts’ wife, Rhonda, who serves as WHF’s secretary, hails from Keller and remembers when it had more of a small-town, rural feel. Given the city’s rapid growth in recent years, however, she says local students are finding it much more challenging to become involved in Western life.
“When I grew up in Keller, my dad wanted to have more of a country type of life and we were able to do so,” she says. “It was a smaller area to grow up in. We had chickens and things like that. A lot of my friends had horses and animals that kids are not able to have now because they are in neighborhoods and homeowner associations where they are not allowed. So, this (WHF) helps them have that same type of experience I had when I was younger.”
Thanks to WHF, the Yeattses say they believe they’ve been able to provide their 18-year-old daughter, Aubrie, a Timber Creek senior, a better rodeo experience. Currently, she’s serving as WHF’s student president.
“We have a lot of members who don’t know about horses,” Aubrie says. “So, we teach those who don’t have experience many things such as how to work a horse, how to feed, how to take care of a horse and how to ride. Our coaches are more experienced and they teach us more in depth about riding. We just all come together, and those who have been competing for a while will help others learn the skills that we’ve learned so that everybody gets better.”
Team and Family
Another recent Western Heritage Foundation success story is that of 14-year-old Rebekah Richardson, a Central High School freshman.
“This is my family now,” she says. “This is something I can go to and forget about school and forget about everything else. ... It’s taught me responsibility such as how to care for my horse and all the details that go with a horse.”
Rebekah credits the organization and its activities with teaching her better people skills and giving her a better understanding of things like punctuality. “I’ve learned about taking constructive criticism from my trainers and my friends,” she says. “I’ve learned about being on time for rodeos. Learning time management has been huge.”
Like Ali Skordinski, Rebekah didn’t come from a traditional rodeo family. But all that has changed. She began taking horseback riding lessons six years ago and, today, competes in the barrel racing and pole bending rodeo events — and it’s become quite a family affair.
“To get to a rodeo, we have to work as a family, as a team,” Rebekah says. “For example, my dad will go get water for my horse and my mom will help me brush my horse or she will take me to the barn to ride. It’s really helped us learn to communicate a lot better.”
Rebekah’s mother, Julie, says the activity has been a confidence-builder for her daughter and rodeo life is something the whole family has embraced.
“There is serious training, but it’s without yelling or putting you or other people down,” she says. “It’s good solid training in a loving way.
“Rodeo was not our comfort zone,” Julie adds. “As a family, we have learned the aspects of rodeo life such as how to deal with horses and how to haul horses. It’s something our whole family has gotten involved in. My mom now comes to the rodeos and my friends want to come and watch.”
Bryant Richardson, Rebekah’s dad, is similarly impressed with WHF, although he has a slightly different perspective.
“Aside from what it’s done for my daughter, it’s forced me to slow down a little bit, to take it easy and engage with a lot of wonderful people and a lot of great kids. ... I’d say one of the best ways to keep your kids out of trouble is to keep them busy and productive and this fits the bill.”
The Western Heritage Foundation’s mission is to build “team environments and create financial resources ... for young people interested in Western sports, agricultural science and animal science.” The organization also seeks to mentor students who are drawn to the Western lifestyle and help them “recognize the myriad professional careers available in the agriculture and animal industry.”
Founder and president John Yeatts says the organization has a long-range goal of creating a facility that will help kids cost-effectively board and tend to their animals as they engage in rodeo and livestock disciplines.
For more information, visit www.westernheritage