When people ask me what my favorite rodeo is, I usually quickly say the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Thinking about that question a little more, that’s not the correct answer.
Because attending the Wrangler NFR Exceptional Rodeo this morning at the Cowboy FanFest Priefert Arena at the Las Vegas Convention Center reminded me which rodeo I truly love the most. Roughly 30 special-needs children from Las Vegas-area schools went through a variety of rodeo events with the help of Wrangler NFR contestants, staff and personnel, and everyone had a blast.
Smiles and glee are contagious and in abundance at this event each year, and this morning’s rodeo marked the 32nd year it has been held in conjunction with the Wrangler NFR. Whether it’s riding a real horse, running barrels on a stick horse, riding stuffed bulls, wrestling a stuffed steer or roping a plastic steer head, the kids get to experience all of the rodeo events at the hour-long event.
Seeing the children enjoy themselves so much, witnessing the connections that happen between contestants and the kids and watching parents and teachers look on with pride and happiness is about as heartwarming an experience as you can have during the 10-day run of the world’s richest rodeo. I’ve been to a handful of them in my 11 trips to Las Vegas for the Finals, and it never, ever gets old.
“That special smile or look a rodeo contestant gets on their face when they see how the sport they love transmits to these children, it just makes it fresh every year,” said Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, who organizes the event and conducts exceptional rodeos across the country during the year. “There are so many lasting friendships that are made. There’s something about our cowboys and who they are sharing themselves with these kids, and it makes lifetime memories for both sides.”
Barrel racing world standings leader Fallon Taylor helped a new friend named Deshawn navigate his way through the events, and she was beaming throughout the experience.
“This is the most fun thing we get to do all year,” Taylor said. “I think the contestants even have more fun than the kids do. The kids get to see a spotlight of a little of what we do in the arena. It’s incredible how many volunteers it takes to make this happen, and just to see everybody working together is exciting.”
More than a dozen barrel racers were among the group of contestants who attended, and Wrangler NFR barrelman Justin Rumford joined the trio of Wrangler NFR bullfighters inside the arena for the special rodeo.
“We get to do so many fun things and are blessed in and out of the arena, and it’s fun to give back to these kids,” said Rumford, who recently picked up his third consecutive PRCA Clown of the Year award. “It’s really neat to see the kids smile, and we really enjoy it. The cool thing about it is there’s so many things to do, and they get the whole NFR experience, from the roping and steer wrestling to riding a bucking horse and riding a real horse.
“Barrel racing with Fallon Taylor – not many people get to say they get to do that.”
The special contestants take home quite a haul from the Exceptional Rodeo, including gold trophies, cowboy hats, ropes, autographed photos, t-shirts and bags full of other goodies.
What everyone really took home though was memories from a great time, a sense of happiness and the sheer joy from a great experience they will remember forever.
In my book, that makes it the best rodeo in the world.