Exceptional Rodeo at Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo gives special needs people chance to wrangle

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldAugust 25, 2012 

On Friday morning, Jaden Rugg climbed onto a blue barrel decorated with a wooden cut-out of a bull's head in the midst of the dusty expanse of the Benton County Fairground's McCurley Arena.

A volunteer with Rascal Rodeo gently rocked the barrel, and within seconds the 8-year-old Pasco boy with Down syndrome was grinning ear-to-ear and throwing his arm in the air just like a real bull rider while people around him cheered him on.

His mother, Traci Rugg, told the Herald the moment was especially exciting for Jaden because it meant he got to be a cowboy just like his grandfather.

"He's done little cowboy things," she said. "He wears the hat and has a stick horse at home. He was a cowboy for Halloween."

But the two-hour event Friday morning at the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo gave Jaden and 39 other people a chance to feel like real cowboys or rodeo riders as they roped hay bales dressed up like steers or rode ponies or horses around the arena while guided by volunteers.

The event -- called an "Exceptional Rodeo" -- was put on by Pasco-based nonprofit Rascal Rodeo, which has put on rodeo-style events for people with special needs in Moses Lake, Kennewick and Molalla, Ore., since 2010.

This is the second consecutive year the event has been part of the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo, although founder Ann-Erica Whitemarsh did something similar at the fair in 2001 for her senior project while a student at Pasco High School.

Whitemarsh isn't on the rodeo circuit, but said the rodeo is something that's always fascinated her, even though she chose other athletic outlets as a Pasco student.

Creating the Rascal Rodeo nonprofit allowed her to combine her interest in rodeo with a lifelong compassion for children with disabilities.

"I have always had a heart for kids with special needs," she said.

She remembers watching children with disabilities getting picked on in school when she was a young student and wanting to do something to make them feel accepted.

"Those kids getting the rocks thrown at them were the best people I knew," Whitemarsh said. "They lived life with blinders on. They didn't see anybody's flaws."

Friday's Exceptional Rodeo was open to 40 participants ages 2-51, and included 120 volunteers from Washington and Oregon who guided participants through the activity stations to ensure they were safe and had fun.

The horses and ponies were the only live animals -- most activities featured facsimiles, like the barrel Jaden rode, or wooden cut-out Holstein cows rigged with buckets and soft plastic tubes so that participants could get a chance to feel what it's like to milk a cow.

Volunteer Stephanie Leep of Umatilla, who works for Crop Production Services, nicknamed her fake cow Gretchen.

Leep never has milked a real cow, but said her father has and told her how to do it, so she was able to instruct 4-year-old Travis Daniels to "pull and squeeze at the same time" as he rested his head against the cow cut-out and tugged at the tubes.

"Good job!" she told him as he finished.

Joe Daniels, Travis' dad, told the Herald the Exceptional Rodeo was an exciting opportunity for Travis, who had open-heart surgery when he was just 6 months old, and often doesn't get to play outside because of a compromised immune system.

"He's been so looking forward to coming to this," Daniels said.

Rugg said for Jaden, the rodeo gave an opportunity to try things that kids without medical conditions can do.

"It's absolutely amazing," she said. "I wish there were more (activities like this) because our kids are more the same than different."

For Samantha Garcia, 15, the rodeo was a chance to climb onto a horse and play rodeo princess. She had the royal wave down pat as she rode around the arena, showing off a winning smile and an eye-catching hot pink cowgirl hat mounted with a sparkly rodeo crown.

Dan Garcia, Samantha's father, said his daughter loves all kinds of animals, but there's something special for her about being on horseback. She's gotten the chance to ride in two parades as the poster girl for Rascal Rodeo.

"She loves riding horses," he said.

The event also presented an opportunity for a handful of people from the professional rodeo circuit to give something back.

Andy Weldon of Greenleaf, Idaho, stayed until Friday morning after wrestling steers in the Horse Heaven Round-Up rodeo Thursday night to help with the Exceptional Rodeo, manning the cattle roping station.

"I've done this a few times," he said. "It's a great event. It's always great when you can help out with kids and the community. Everyone has a great time."

He said the trick to roping steers is pretty simple -- just throw the rope and pull it back hard.

He was impressed with how well some of the children did at looping the rope over the plastic cow heads stuck into hay bales that stood in for cattle.

"A couple are pretty wicked," he said. "One girl -- with authority -- just cracked it on."

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