Thirty years ago, a bud of an idea was planted in the rodeo world. Sparked to life by early success, it has grown and grown, has stood the test of time and now stands as an example of all that is right in professional sports.
I’m talking about the PRCA’s Exceptional Rodeo program. The 30th installment of the Wrangler National Finals Exceptional Rodeo will be held Monday, Dec. 10, at the Thomas & Mack Center arena, and it is one of the most special events of the week.
Dozens of Las Vegas-area special-needs children are brought to the arena by their parents and teachers to spend some time with Wrangler NFR contestants, announcers, personnel and even Miss Rodeo America, who take them through a series of rodeo events. From roping and bulldogging, barrel racing and bull riding and even riding a real horse, the kids are able to live their dreams of being a ProRodeo contestant, if only for a short while.
Clad in cowboy hats, commemorative t-shirts and seemingly endless smiles, the kids have a blast at the hour-long rodeo. They aren’t the only ones, however, as the contestants who participate often claim to have more fun than the kids.
“I have a lot of fun going to it,” said six-time Wrangler NFR contestant and two-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Dean Gorsuch, a mainstay at the event in recent years. “Those kids don’t ask anything from you, and I love helping them. You can really tell they appreciate you being there, and it’s something we love doing. The kids deserve it, and I really try every year to do it. It’s fun to do, and they enjoy it and we enjoy it.
“They don’t get the opportunities we get, so it feels good that we get to be with those kids for a little while and be a part of their experience. They look like they’re having a really good time, and we like being a part of it.”
Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, a speech pathologist who was one of the first people in the country to use hippotherapy – which uses equine movement as therapy – has organized the event from the start. She grew up in a rodeo family and was all too happy to combine her two passions.
“In the fall of 1982, Bryan McDonald, who was then the bull riding director, approached me and asked me if I could find a way to get the cowboys and special-needs kids together,” she said. “It probably didn’t take 30 minutes to name it and give it a general format. They’re exceptional children, so we named it Exceptional Rodeo. We just took the classic rodeo events and modified them to make them accessible to the kiddos.
“The inaugural Exceptional Rodeo was at the 1983 Scottsdale Rodeo in February. It was kind of like herding cats to begin with, but as soon as we matched them up, it was like magic. That year, we did about five of them, including the NFR in Oklahoma City, and it was just a huge success.”
The event was a big hit with fans and grew from there. It has been a permanent component in the machinery of the Wrangler NFR ever since.
ProRodeo Hall of Fame announcer Hadley Barrett, who has called the action at the Wrangler NFR five times in four different decades, has also enjoyed being a longtime supporter of the Exceptional Rodeo.
“It pretty much speaks for itself, and I just think it’s been a wonderful project,” Barrett said. “Some of the things that have amazed me over the years is how cowboys you never even dreamed would lend (their time) to a thing like that came up with some unusual and special connections through it. It would be so easy to say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ But there were so many cases where I saw the absolute reverse of it.”
Seven-time World Champion Team Roper Jake Barnes, a 1997 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee, participated in a number of Exceptional Rodeos during his 25 years as a Wrangler NFR contestant. He was one of the cowboys who formed long and lasting relationships with the kids who come out for the rodeo each year.
“During the NFR, you have a lot going on, and it seems like you have a lot of pressure and are consumed with going in 100 different directions,” Barnes said. “It’s kind of overwhelming, so sometimes you’re reluctant to go participate in it. I got more out of it, probably, than the kids did.
“Just being able to give back is just an incredible feeling, and just to see the smiles on the kids’ faces from being able to pet a horse or to be able to ride a horse is pretty special.”
The connection between the contestants and kids is what has propelled the Exceptional Rodeo through three decades, and it is still going strong. Its longevity has been a surprise even to Dismuke-Blakely.
“It feels a little weird to believe this is our 30th NFR, and it’s hard to admit I’m old enough for that,” she said. “I figured it would have a fairly short life span, because events tend to peak and go away.”
She gives credit to the rodeo community for keeping the “feel good” event going.
“A lot of rodeos have developed their own versions of it, and a lot of rodeo associations have their own ones too, and I think that’s a big compliment to the PRCA,” she said. “I’ve always felt like it was the PRCA’s special event, and to say that, 30 years later there’s a demand for it and to be at the NFR 30 years later, I think that’s a pretty big compliment to the PRCA.”
Dismuke-Blakely feels it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
“The Exceptional Rodeo gives those guys and those barrel racers a chance to let (their guards) down and share their sport in such a genuine fashion,” she said. “They’re able to see their sport through the eyes of those kids. Those kids truly look up to the rodeo contestants, and they become their heroes. It’s just so much fun to see the two worlds collide together and be such a natural fit.”
Dismuke-Blakely notes that she has discovered a common thread between the two worlds.
“There’s a parallel between rodeo culture and special-needs culture,” she said. “That is, in the rodeo world, we all grow up where it’s the luck of the draw and you do the best you can with the luck of the draw. If you draw a bucking horse that may not be the best, you’re still going to go out there and ride him to the best of your ability.
“Well, our special-needs kids have that very same thing. They have to do the best they can with the luck of the draw. I think our cowboys understand that, but I don’t know if the general public really does. The general public still feels sorry for the kids, but the cowboys get it and have always gotten it. I think that’s why it works.”
Any event in sports that can teach people something about themselves, others or humanity in general is a home run, and the Wrangler NFR Exceptional Rodeo is a great example of that.
“Since it’s a public event, it’s always been a good way to educate the public about both worlds,” Dismuke-Blakely said. “It’s a good way to remind people that special-needs kids are still kids who love rodeo cowboys and demystifies them a little bit. It reminds the public that rodeo cowboys can also be soft guys who have a lot of heart.
“For them to come out, just hours before they’re competing for that kind of titles and money they’re competing for, to volunteer their time to share their sport with those kids, I think that really speaks to the depth of our cowboys.”
It sure does.