Nine-year-old Maddy Moran squealed with excitement as she rode a horse for the first time Thursday morning during the 33rd annual Children’s Rodeo at the Pendleton Round-Up.
“This is so fun!” laughed Moran, a third-grader at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Pendleton. “I like this horse.”
Moran, who has autism, was all smiles and waves inside the Round-Up Arena where she participated in the Children’s Rodeo, experiencing events such as horseback riding, American Indian drumming, milking a pretend cow, roping pretend steers and barrel racing on hobby horses.
The Children’s Rodeo, sponsored by the Round-Up and InterMountain Education Service District, invites kids ages 5 to 10 with special needs to be cowboys and cowgirls for a day, cheered on by spectators watching in the stands. Each participant is partnered with a real life cowboy or cowgirl, who accompanies them to each activity.
Calgary Smith, a team roper who lives in Adams, was Moran’s partner for the rodeo. The two held hands as they walked freely around the grass infield while Moran, wearing a white cowboy hat and pink bandanna around her neck, decided what to do next.
Smith, who competed in slack earlier this week, said he has volunteered with the Children’s Rodeo for several years now, drawing inspiration from the kids he meets.
“It shows you how to enjoy life,” Smith said. “The challenges that they face, if they can get through that every day, then the stuff I face is nothing.”
Smith’s older brother, Cain, a fellow bull rider and team roper, was also one of the cowboy volunteers Thursday. He was paired with Lenny Hurtado, a fourth-grader at Sherwood Heights Elementary with Down syndrome. They took turns playfully lassoing each other’s feet with a lariat rope while waiting in line for a horse and buggy ride.
“This is definitely the highlight of the week,” Cain Smith said. “Just seeing their smiles and everything makes it worth it ... I think they enjoy getting to be out here and doing stuff they don’t get to do every day.”
Nearly 80 volunteers from the IMESD, Round-Up Association and Pendleton community come together every year for the Children’s Rodeo. There were 47 kids who signed up to participate Thursday, each taking home a T-shirt, lariat, cowboy hat, scarf and trophy.
The rodeo is set up in a way that allows kids and cowboys to move from station to station as they feel inclined. Kids have one full hour to take in the excitement, and no child is pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.
For Alexis Lane, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Stella Mayfield Elementary School in Elgin, her favorite activity by far was milking the model cow named Carron. Lane, who is visually impaired, giggled as she squeezed pretend milk — actually water — into a bucket placed beneath the udder.
“It’s really fun, and you get messy,” Lane said, water dripping down her arms.
Lane was joined by Staff Sgt. Gregory Stalker with the Commanding Generals Mounted Color Guard, which arrived from Fort Riley, Kansas to take part in this year’s Happy Canyon Night Show. Stalker also ended up getting sprayed with water in the milking frenzy.
“This is a great experience,” Stalker said of the Children’s Rodeo. “It’s definitely, 100 percent, about the kids. It brings a huge smile to their faces.”
Karen Parker, who has organized the event for the last 30 years with the IMESD, said she believes the rodeo can make a big difference in the kids’ lives.
“They don’t get to participate in sports and activities. This is something they can do, and feel like a cowboy or cowgirl,” Parker said. “These kids, when they do this event, they go home and sleep with their trophies and shirts. They can’t wait to get back next year.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.