Rodeos are filled with the smiles and laughter of children excited to be in the thick of the action and looking forward to seeing the cowboys and cowgirls they admire. And the smiles are especially contagious during Exceptional Rodeo, a program that lets children with special needs enjoy their time in the arena spotlight. Held at rodeos across the country, Exceptional Rodeo lets these kids experience modified rodeo events—such as barrel racing on stick horses and bulldogging stuffed steers—with the help of rodeo contestants and staff. 

Ruth Dismuke-Blakely is the woman behind all the smiles—she’s organized the event since its beginning. Dismuke-Blakely grew up in a rodeo family that raised Quarter Horses, and when she went to school for speech-language pathology, she spearheaded a study that incorporated horses into patient treatment plans. 

In 1982, stock contractor Bryan McDonald contacted Dismuke-Blakely, asking if she knew a way to get the PRCA involved with children with special needs. 

“It didn’t take more than 30 minutes to design the program,” she says. “And the name was easy—it was named Exceptional Rodeo because these were exceptional children.”

The inaugural Exceptional Rodeo took place at the 1983 Scottsdale Rodeo, and was a huge success from the start. 

“Getting cowboys into the arena was like herding cats!” laughs Dismuke-Blakely. “They were all afraid to take the first step, so we spontaneously matched them up with kids. ‘Jimmie Cooper, here’s your kid! Chris Lybbert, here’s yours!’ And it was like magic. It just worked.”

Three decades later, the program is still going strong. In December, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo hosted its 33rd Exceptional Rodeo. 

“The kids love it,” says Dismuke-Blakely. “Cowboys are cool. Rodeo is cool. So these kids become cool through their association with them. It isn’t about being handicapped. It’s about being a kid.”

And the professional cowboys and cowgirls get just as much out of the event as the children. 

Dismuke-Blakely says, “The feedback I always get is that it reminds [the participants] how precious our gifts are, whatever they may be. These guys get to see their sport reflected through the eyes of children who might otherwise not get a chance to experience it.”

Dismuke-Blakely attributes the success off Exceptional Rodeo to the—perhaps surprising—similarities between rodeo athletes and children with special needs. She explains, “In rodeo culture, you do the best you can with the luck of the draw. If you draw a crummy bull, you still ride as best you can. You do the best you can with what you have to work with. With the kids, if you drew cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, you still be the very best you can be.” 

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