CHEYENNE – Grant Ray couldn’t wait to receive his belt buckle.

The 11-year-old had just completed his first Challenge Rodeo on Wednesday morning alongside several other children at the Frontier Park Arena. During the two-day rodeo, special needs kids are guided through modified events like horse riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, steer roping and bull riding by teachers and other volunteers, paired with them based on their needs. There are visits from Indian Village dancers and rodeo contestants, and even from baby goats.

As Grant stepped up to receive the buckle, his prize for attending, an announcer introducing each participant asked him what he’d loved most about the morning.

“The goats,” he answered.

“Me, too,” the announcer replied. “And you know what? The goats love you.”

It was Grant’s first time at the Challenge Rodeo. His mother, Jennifer Hardy of Cheyenne, said she’d been coming to the rodeo for much of her life, but with two special needs children, attending the regular competition isn’t easy. The Challenge Rodeo seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out to Cheyenne Frontier Days while getting her son involved.

“Everything that you can do to encourage these kids to get out and be social, that’s really, really a big thing,” she said. “This was just the best experience.”

Hardy became emotional as she spoke about Elizabeth Stoner, a para educator at Fairview Elementary School, and other teachers that had come out to the event. Stone had been paired with Grant to help him through the rodeo events.

Stoner said it was valuable for special needs kids to get to enjoy time with other kids like themselves.

“I think it means a lot, because they don’t get to participate in a lot of events, and this is great for them to see kids in their own element,” Stoner said.

The Challenge Rodeo officially got its name at the 100th annual “Daddy of ‘em All” in 1995. The event was based on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Exceptional Rodeo, which took place between 1992 and 1994.

Todd Burns, a Challenge Rodeo organizer and the incoming principal of McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne, said the event was a unique chance to expose special needs children to the rodeo.

After the event, participants are treated to lunch and get to explore the Frontier Days midway with their families and volunteers. Burns said the Challenge Rodeo also provides reduced-price armbands for its participants’ siblings, as they know the rodeo can be expensive.

Typically, there is a larger turnout, Burns said, but he and the volunteers are just happy to be back this year after the cancellation of Frontier Days in 2020.

Still, Burns said he wishes they could get more spectators in the stands to watch the moving event.

“There are many years where the people that are here are wiping away tears or hiding their eyes behind their sunglasses or hat because of the incredible kids that we have out here,” he said. “It touches your heart, and it’s usually my best two days of the summer.

“They’re all champs out here. Every one of them is a world champ.”

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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