Horse-drawn wagons, bucking bulls and a rapping cowboy poet – area youth experienced it all Wednesday at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds.
Approximately 160 children with special needs participated in the annual Partner Up Rodeo, gaining an up-close-and-personal look at the western way of life.
"It's called horse therapy, I think," said Tricia Schaffer, one of the rodeo's founding members. "Who doesn't want to be a cowboy or cowgirl for a day? And, who doesn't want to ride a horse? This event gives children the opportunity to do just that."
The kids spent the morning watching a reined cow horse demonstration by professional horse trainer Jeremy Knoles, listened to tales from cowboy poet R.P. Smith and took line dancing lessons from BoDelle Mueller, a special education teacher at the Sutherland Public Schools.
In the afternoon, the children swung ropes, rode horses, played with animals in a petting zoo and sang songs during a wagon tour of the grounds.
They were partnered up with rodeo queens, high school rodeo competitors and community members who escorted them to the various educational stations. It was a reunion-like atmosphere for many of the volunteers – some of whom have helped with the rodeo for years.
"Once people volunteer out here, they always ask to come back," said Schaffer. "Our volunteers are from all walks of life, but for those who grew up with the western lifestyle, this is an opportunity for them to share it with someone else."
Members of the MPCC Rodeo Team were among those assisting with the event. Nate Bausch, of Waterbury, JW Schroder, of Taylor, and Sam Elliott, of Prineville, Ore., showed the kids how to swing a loop and ride a bucking barrel. They were joined by their coaches, Dustin Elliott and Garrett Nokes.
"I think this is a great event," said Schroder. "It gives the kids an excuse to meet new people and try new things they might not otherwise have the chance to experience."
Keith Hockley, 11, of Brule, had been looking forward to that experience all year. He attended the rodeo last year, and couldn't wait to return and climb back up on the bucking barrel. Shauna Dehning, of Ogallala, also enjoyed the barrel.
"This is my first time here, but I heard the stories before I came," said Dehning. "It's just as fun as I thought it would be. The best part was definitely riding the horses."
The Partner Up Rodeo has grown considerably since its humble beginnings in 2004. At that time, it consisted of about 20 Special Olympics athletes.
It was organized by Schaffer and Sherri Dodson, and the Lincoln County High School Rodeo Team hosted it. Six years ago, Educational Service Unit 16 and community members joined in to put on what is now the largest event of its kind in western Nebraska.