Goat tying, barrel racing on stick horses, riding a buck machine and the biggest smiles around.
The Arizona High School Rodeo Association hosted its annual Special Needs Rodeo recently, welcoming approximately 20 participants from across the state.
Teenage contestants from the State Finals Rodeo were by their sides as they swung ropes around heading dummies and hand-painted horses, sharing laughs in the process.
“He looks forward to it every year because he gets to come out and do things that he couldn’t normally do,” said Jim Brice, a grandfather of one of the participants.
His grandson, Brandon, has participated in the Special Needs Rodeo for years and enjoys the opportunity to try new things, Brice said.
AnnDee White and Barbi Berge Woolsey, coordinators for the event, helped bring it to the AHSRA after seeing it at the National Finals Rodeo.
“We witnessed it, saw how wonderful it was, how much they gave back to the communities, and we just decided that we wanted to do something on the high school level with the high school kids,” White said.
The event continues to draw more and more participants while still bringing back familiar faces.
At the check-in booth, hugs and wide grins marked the reunion of competitors that previously met at this event.
“To watch the contestants smile when they put them on a horse or when they throw the rope with them, its impacted our kids more than its impacted the special needs kids,” Woolsey said.
It can be a process for the special needs competitors to grow comfortable. Some wouldn’t go near horses in previous years, but then the high school contestants helped turn their fear into excitement.
The association said it has benefited from parental involvement.
“I’ve had family members come up to me and say that their child will not stop asking about the next rodeo,” AHRSA President Jack Assini said.
Why has the sport connected with so many of the participants?
“Rodeo is so great because there is so much interaction with the high school athletes, there is just always somebody out here to have a good time with,” Brice said. “Everybody is so nice and so easy to get along with. It’s just a bunch of good people.”
Encouraging children with disabilities to participate in sports helps encourage inclusion, experts say.
Moving forward, Assini said the organization’s goal is to try to continue growing the Special Needs Rodeo.
What is the biggest reward for Assini?
“Just the kids … seeing the smile on their faces.”
By Jade Hanson, Cronkite News