Competing against others twice her age in the 2023 American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Youth World Championship Show in July and August, 10-year-old Kaycee Younker of Las Cruces placed in three events, including two top-10 finishes: eighth in the stake race, ninth in pole bending and 16th in barrel racing. It was her first ever national competition.
“I was super excited,” said Kaycee’s father, Jack Younker, who owns Younker Performance Horses in Mesilla and has been a horse trainer for more than 20 years. “This is a big step,” he said.
With her strong finishes, Kaycee “achieved more than her goal” for the competition, Younker said, and “created memories for a lifetime.”
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Kaycee’s mother, Shasta Younker, who grew up on a ranch in northern New Mexico and has been around horses and cattle all her life.
“I just like how you can go really fast,” Kayce said about barrel racing, which is her favorite event.
A fifth grader at Explore Academy Las Cruces charter school, Kaycee was among more than 5,000 competitors from 38 states and five countries in the youth championship, held July 28-Aug. 6 in Oklahoma City.
Kaycee is a born competitor, her mother said.
“I can see the change the second she steps in the arena,” Shasta Younker said. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Kaycee is already training for next year’s AQHA youth championship and plans to compete in even more events.
“I’m learning to rope,” she said. “I like that.”
Kaycee’s younger brother, Cooper, 7, is also an avid horseman. Like Kaycee, he competes in 4H and rodeo association events in New Mexico and Texas, and is looking forward to his first AQHA youth championship in a couple of years.
His favorite event?
“Poles for me,” said Cooper, who is a second grader at Picacho Elementary School. “I like how you have to weave in and out.”
Cooper is “a little more laid back” than Kaycee, their father said. He isn’t quite as competitive as his sister, who can be hard on herself when she makes a mistake during a competition.
Both Younker children ride horses every day after school and on weekends at Younker Performance Horses.
“I help them saddle up and get ready,” Shasta Younker said. “Daddy teaches them the technique.”
“They got into it because my dad was a horse trainer,” Jack Younker said.
Jack’s father, the late Jack Younker Sr., started training horses when he was in college in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the 1960s, his son said. He owned a facility in Santa Fe and trained racehorses for more than 20 years.
Jack Sr. had picked out Kaycee’s first quarter horse, Basic San Tango, before she was even born. Tango died four years ago, and Kaycee now rides Grade A Vision (nicknamed Arnold), a gelding born in 2009. Cooper’s quarter horse is Ruby’s Classic Drop.
“He was a huge horse person,” Younker said of his dad, who served as president of the Southwest Quarter Horse Association and received a lifetime achievement award from AQHA.
Kaycee and Cooper are also award-winning archers, and so are Jack and Shasta.
Kaycee joined 4H at age 9, and told her parents, “I want to do something different every year.”
She got a bow for her last birthday and signed up for archery lessons. Naturally right-handed, Kaycee’s parents had to find her a left-handed bow after discovering she was left-eye dominant. It wasn’t a difficult transition for Kaycee, because rodeo cowboys/girls make extensive use of their left hands in controlling the reins of their horses.
Kaycee and Cooper regularly compete in archery competitions in Las Cruces, Deming and Cloudcroft.
Cooper actually prefers archery to rodeo. He also likes boating and fishing and anything outdoors.
Cooper finished second in his age group in a recent archery competition in Cloudcroft that had more than 400 participants, his dad said. Cooper is the top-rated archer in the 8-and-under age group of the High Desert Archery Club the whole family belongs to.
Going forward, Kaycee wants “to be a horse trainer like my dad,” she said, and continue performing in horse shows.
“I want to be a scientist,” Cooper said. He has been interested in genetics and geology “since he started school,” Jack Younker said.