By BRIAN WESTFALL
WATSONTOWN, Pa. – Zane Kilgus will become the youngest-ever competitor in American Finals Rodeo history this weekend.
He turned 12 earlier this month.
Or just three years older than the blue roan, Ike, he will ride in the team roping at AFR 36.
“I knew I’d rope with my brother some day, I just never thought it would be this soon,” said Zane’s older brother Zach, a former AFR all-around and tie-down calf roping champion, who will heel for his brother in the team roping this year.
When Zach confidently said “some day,” it was hardly a stretch.
In rodeo, the bloodline of the family can be just as important as the bloodline of the horse.
Zane’s father, Ned, and mother, DeNiess, will also compete at the finals this year. They will also ride Ike, who will showcase his versatility in tie-down calf roping with Ned, breakaway roping with DeNiess and team roping, as a heading horse, with Zane.
A family that ropes together stays together, right?
Zane was six weeks old when he was first on a horse. He could swing a piece of string before he could walk. Roping videos were more common than Sesame Street. Seeing Topper, a legendary tie-down calf roping horse, was more exciting than seeing Elmo.
At the age of 3, he sneaked outside and was practicing tying a goat in the back of Ned’s cattle trailer. At the age of 4, Zane was competing in dummy roping and goat tying. Naturally, he could ride a horse on his own before he turned 5.
As you would expect, Zane started reeling in the accolades – and prizes (he has already won five saddles) – at a young age.
Zane holds the record for the fastest-ever goat tied in the 5- and 6-year-old division of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Rodeo Association (CPYRA) at just 7.4 seconds. He is a two-time dummy roping champion at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the world’s largest single-breed horse show.
He won the year-end CPYRA championship in the 10-13 age division in the tie-down calf roping – when he was 8.
What else would you expect from a kid, remember, he’s just 12, who used to spend his winnings from youth rodeos to buy goats to practice tying.
What else would you expect from a kid who is up so early most days of week that he wakes up roosters.
Zane – who has now traded goats for calves to practice tying and roping – feeds his cattle and the family horses each morning before school.
And as much as horses are in Zane’s blood – he competes in breakaway roping, tie-down calf roping, team roping, goat tying and barrel racing – you can also find him competing in baseball, football and wrestling, or just hunting or fishing. Yes, he is still very much a kid.
But this weekend, you will find him where nobody his age has ever been – competing on the biggest stage in the American Professional Rodeo Association.
Just one year ago, Jake Edwards earned a trip to the finals at age 13, also in the team roping. He returns this year, at the ripe old age of 14, as the top heeler in the competition.
On the heading side, Zane, one of 12 finalists in each event, will help showcase two of the bright young stars in rodeo.
Reaching the finals is never easy, and Zane had a little luck on his side this year to make history. He missed the top 12 in the standings by less than $300, but moved into the finals when other headers were unable to compete.
The roller-coaster ride for someone who is still more than 11 months away from being a teenager was bumpy, as is life on the rodeo circuit.
But there was pure joy when Zane found out he made the finals, where he would get to compete in the team roping with his brother Zach, who is also the top qualifier in tie-down calf roping.
“Yes,” Zane said when Ned told him he made the finals. “I get to rope with ‘brother.’”
Making history as the youngest-ever competitor, sure, that’s incredible.
Being able to rope with “brother” – what Zane calls Zach – means so much more than making history for this impressive 12-year-old, and is far more priceless than any MasterCard commercial.
Brian Westfall is an award-winning sports writer with more than 10 years of experience covering everything from Little League to MLB.