CHEYENNE – It was an inspirational sight, with lots of smiles and happy faces.

About 30 special-needs children from Laramie County School District 1 got a chance to be a cowgirl or cowboy for a time Wednesday during the Cheyenne Frontier Days Challenge Rodeo.

The unique children’s rodeo is modeled after the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s “Exceptional Rodeo,” which was a CFD fixture from 1992-94.

In 1995, the CFD General Committee, and other volunteers and sponsors of the children’s rodeo, decided they wanted to make it a permanent feature. The Challenge Rodeo was introduced for the 100th annual event.

Will Luna, a volunteer with the CFD Concessions Committee and a coordinator for Wednesday’s Challenge Rodeo, said they run the gamut of rodeo events – modified and kid-sized, of course.

“We’ve got some steer wrestling, we’ve got barrel racing, they get to ride some bulls and broncs,” Luna said. “We’ve updated a lot of our equipment, so there are fiberglass horses. The volunteers will rock them on it, so they get that somewhat rodeo experience. They get to be part of the ‘Daddy of ’em All.’”

The children are paired up with a specially selected volunteer, chosen according to their knowledge, medical training and expertise in working with children who face mental and physical challenges.

Jessica DeFreece, whose son, Curran, 6, participated in Wednesday’s event, said the Challenge Rodeo represents a special day for the kids.

“I love it,” DeFreece said. “I’m also a special ed teacher, and I love the opportunity that’s offered to these kids. I think it’s a really great thing to be active in Frontier Days and see what they can do.”

Like many of the children who participated, DeFreece said Curran was trying these rodeo events for the first time.

“Right now, he’s into being a cowboy, so it works really great with him getting to try all these activities that real cowboys get to do and get to meet them,” she said. “He’s a little nervous today, now that it’s here, but he seems to be opening up some.”

If Curran was nervous about trying out the various rodeo activities, he wouldn’t admit it in front of his mom, his volunteer buddy and a reporter. He said no when asked, but then shared his favorite event of the day, and added he wanted to come back and try it again.

“I liked the lassoing,” he said.

Parents and family members watched from the stands. Many took photos and videos.

Some of the children hollered as they rode bulls and bucking broncs, holding their cowboy hats in the air.

The children share one-on-one attention with the volunteer and a rodeo VIP – PRCA cowboys, bull fighters, barrel racers, Dandies, committee chairmen and others – while participating in the modified rodeo events. After running barrel race patterns with stick horses, kids also got a chance to ride a bona fide real one.

“We tell the volunteers that come out to wear sunglasses, because they will start tearing up,” Luna said. “A lot of these kids will jump on with a smile on their face. It lights up your day and makes it a lot better.”

Patrick Keefe, in his ninth year as a volunteer for the event, was giving participants advice for successful steer roping.

“I’m telling the kids how to open and close their elbow, roll their thumb over and keep the tip coming around,” Keefe said. “And then when you throw, roll your thumb over, and that brings around the tip to the inside of the horn.”

Not an easy task for first-time ropers, he said.

“It takes some practice,” Keefe said. “But they’re having a blast out here. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

Each Challenge Rodeo child received a T-shirt, a cowboy hat and a canvas bag to tote stuff in.

The kids were also recognized individually for their efforts with a certificate and a belt buckle. They received a snapshot of themselves taken with one of the VIPs.

For some of the kids, the rodeo “makes their summer,” said Todd Burns, principal at Cheyenne’s Bain Elementary and one of the coordinators of the event.

“These kids have a real special place in my heart,” he said. “I was out here a couple of years before I started volunteering for it and just watched. It was amazing to see the looks on their faces, how happy they are. They walk off with that buckle, and you can’t tell one of those kids is not a world champion.”

After the event, the children were treated to lunch and a trip to the carnival by the volunteers.

Thirty more kids will get their chance to participate in the Challenge Rodeo today at 11:15 a.m. at Frontier Park Arena.

The Challenge Rodeo is supported by donations from the Swire Coca-Cola Foundation. Other sponsors and volunteers include members of the CFD Buckle Club, CFD Concessions Committee, F.E. Warren Air Force Base and Laramie County School District 1.

Steve Knight is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3182 or sknight@wyomingnews.com.

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