If a picture is worth a thousand words, a smile must be worth a million. The memories behind the smiles at the Exceptional Rodeo held on Monday were priceless.
Held in conjunction with Cowboy Christmas at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena, Exceptional Rodeo brings together rodeo athletes and local children with special needs. This year’s event was presented by NV Energy and gave 25 children from Clark County schools an opportunity to play cowboy and cowgirl for 45-minutes out of their day.
Every child got a new hat, a t-shirt, trophy, rope and bandana, but most importantly of all, they got individual attention from rodeo contestants and smiles and memories to last a lifetime. Children rode bucking horse and bucking bull dummies, got to rope and take a stick horse around a barrel racing pattern and they got to do it all on the dirt, just like rodeo competitors do every day.
The program’s founder Ruth Dismuke-Blakely is like a whirling dervish during the 45-minute event, making sure that all of the props are set up correctly, children are corralled, outfitted and paired up with contestants, and then just checking in and making sure that everyone is having a good time.
Dismuke-Blakely started the Exceptional Rodeo 33 years ago and the first time the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) was held in Las Vegas, they were hosts. The event was held at the Thomas & Mack Center for years, but moved to Cowboy Christmas two years ago. It gives fans a better opportunity to experience the very poignant event.
Every year at the NFR, contestants have more demands put on their time. Sponsor obligations, seeing family and friends, and preparing for the night’s competition takes the better part of each day. Monday was a little longer for those contestants that chose to participate in the Exceptional Rodeo.
Steer wrestler Clayton Hass, from Terrell, Texas, moved an autograph session just so he could come spend some time with a child. After the rodeo was over, he had two sessions and numerous fans to greet.
“These kids are important in this world and I just wanted to be part of this,” Hass said. “They love and enjoy it. It made my day a little bit longer but it’s definitely worth it.”
Putting together the children, getting them out of school and preparing them for the day, then getting them to the event is a huge task. School administrators, parents and staff all pitch in to make it work.
“Each year we try to bring different kids,” said Carol Nelsen, teacher at the John F. Miller School for Special Education. “The kids, being severely handicapped do not get exposed to cowboys or cowgirls on a regular basis. So for them, this is really exciting. It’s fun to watch them learn a little about what’s going on around them. They are having a blast right now.”
The kids weren’t the only ones having fun. Smiles abounded for contestants, spectators and family members.
“This is special,” said Vickie Carter who is making her first appearance here in the barrel racing. “It’s only a little bit of time out of our day and it means a lot to these kids. I love it and thoroughly enjoyed being part of it.”
There has been little change in the production of the Exceptional Rodeo since its inception and that is largely due to Dismuke-Blakely’s planning and understanding of the two cultures. She comes from a rodeo family and knows the ins and outs of competition. She is also a speech pathologists who has her own practice in Albuquerque, N.M.
“There’s an uncommon similarity between rodeo culture and special needs culture,” she said. “In the rodeo world, we are brought up to do the best that we can with the luck of the draw. No matter what animal you compete on, you give it your best competitive effort and do the best you can with what you have. That’s what we as therapists try to impart on children and adults with special needs – that they have to be the best they can be, do the best that they can with the luck of the draw.
“They drew cerebral palsy or they drew a genetic syndrome or a traumatic brain injury. They still have to be the best that they can be. Our rodeo contestants understand that. And so I think that is one of the reasons this program works. That’s the underlying magic – the parallels – the cowboys and barrel racers understand these kids.”
Passion for helping individuals with special needs and sharing the Western lifestyle is something that Dismuke-Blakely has passed down to the next generation. Her daughters Eva and Neita were on hand in Las Vegas to help at every stage of the event. Both of them are also speech pathologists.
“It’s a lot of fun to share the kids with the cowboys and the cowboys with the kids,” Dismuke Blakely added. “It inspires us and makes us feel good to touch peoples’ lives.”
Touching lives and being an inspiration is nothing new for three-time world champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi. Little girls dream of riding horses like her and competing at the NFR. Sherry has been to Las Vegas to compete at rodeo’s championships 18 times. Many of those she has made the effort to participate in the Exceptional Rodeo.
“I have tried to make this a top priority to attend every year I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s a very humbling experience for me. There are always a few kids that stick in my mind and you can create quite a bond in a short amount of time. This is a great thing that we can do to give back to the sport of rodeo and the community.”
Giving back, getting inspired – it’s something that Exceptional Rodeo is exceptional at – for the kids, the contestants, the spectators and everyone involved.