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Cover Story: Rodeo For All

Published September 2023 | In Fall 2023

Monument Health’s Special Rodeo brings an authentic rodeo experience to the Black Hills' special needs community. The fast-growing event is a celebration of inclusion which is gratifying for everyone involved.

Cover Story: Rodeo For All Media

When eight-year-old Rayne Rucker entered the Central States Fair on August 23 for Monument Health’s Special Rodeo, she knew just what she wanted to do: everything!

By the time Rayne was seated in the saddle of a practice bucking bull, she was no greenhorn. She had already ridden a horse, had her face painted, run a barrel race and cuddled with therapy animals. The one constant as she enjoyed the different stations was an exuberant smile and frequent gleeful giggles.

Waving one hand in the air and hanging onto the saddle with the other, Rayne beamed at her mother, Miranda. Rayne is a lot like any other third-grader, she just gets around differently. When she needed a hand or a boost she received one, but nothing was stopping her from getting all over the arena and enjoying the event to the fullest.

At Special Rodeo, no one is defined by their limitations. Participants are rodeo cowboys and cowgirls first and foremost. That’s been the mission behind the event since the start: rodeo is for everyone. Each person has a place here and everyone is a champion.

“It was so much fun,” Rayne exclaimed. “My favorite part was getting to pet the duck, named Cheese. My second-favorite part was the horses; actually all the animals!” Miranda said it is not always easy for Rayne growing up different from other kids. Special Rodeo is meant to provide an inclusive, supportive environment where all feel free to enjoy new experiences.

“Sometimes other kids are a bit standoffish because of her physical differences, but once they get to know her, they do really well with her,” Miranda said. “She’s not different, she’s unique.”

About 100 participants with special needs – aged 5 to 80 – and 170 volunteers converged on the James Kjerstad Event Center, where western activities and fun galore awaited them. Participants were partnered with a “rodeo buddy” who showed them the different stations and cheered them on.

The free event offered horseback rides on certified therapy horses from SunCatcher Therapeutic Riding Academy, stick horse barrel races, roping, a goat ribbon pull, miniature horses, face painting and other therapy animals to interact with. A sensory area was provided for contestants when they needed a break. Each participant received a t-shirt, a trophy belt buckle and lunch. The Special Rodeo is also held in January during the Black Hills Stock Show, in partnership with Rodeo Rapid City.

The success of the Special Rodeo hinges on a sincere mission of inclusion and respect. Among the key organizers are neighbors from the local farm and ranch community who create an authentic western atmosphere, where differences are not only accepted but embraced. Participants have an opportunity to experience the thrill of rodeo and a connection with animals that brings a distinct expression of fulfillment to faces throughout the arena. Kami Peri brought her daughter, Sayler, to Special Rodeo in the past. Although Sayler, 5, isn’t very verbal, she told her mother just how much fun she was having with a mile-wide smile.

“Seeing her shine in her moment and feel like a million bucks just made my heart explode,” Kami said. “We really loved that everything was geared towards her.”

Rhonda Fuhrer, Supervisor of Business Operations at Monument Health Belle Fourche Clinic, got the event started by bringing the idea to Anna Whetham, Community Relations Specialist at Monument Health. She had been involved in similar events and thought Monument Health would make an excellent partner for this rodeo. In just a short time, she said, interest in the event from participants and volunteers alike has exploded.

“It is only going to continue to grow,” Fuhrer said. “You can’t take part in this and not feel good about the impact it makes.”

Rhonda understands how meaningful and therapeutic these kinds of activities and access to animals can be. She lives on a small acreage and is mother to a 23-year-old special needs daughter, Morgan. Morgan rides horses at home with the help of a custom saddle, and her family has long made modifications so that Morgan can be involved.

“It’s humbling. It can take some effort, but she’s made us better people,” she said.

The western spirit shines through when participants and volunteers meet in the arena, pairing together friends new and old. For a growing number of participants and volunteers, returning to the event each time is a chance to reconnect with their rodeo buddies. As they circulate through the stations, accommodations are made and encouragement given with the goal of giving each guest a great experience.

“Rodeo is for everybody, and this is a great event to show it,” said Glen Lammers, Black Hills State University Rodeo Coach. “I thought Monument Health did a great job with the events.

The bull and the roping steers are equipment we would use to train with, so it’s the real deal.” Lammers has brought members of his team multiple times to assist as rodeo buddies.

“What stands out is the enthusiasm and infectious positivity they bring,” Lammers said of the rodeo participants. “You can’t help but smile with them. We get more out of it than they do, probably.”

Amy Morrill, Nurse Clinician for Rapid City Hospital Pediatrics Unit, has helped volunteer along with her fellow pediatric nurses at previous events.

“It is an absolute blast,” Morrill said. “For the pediatrics team, kids are our jam. When we get to bring joy to kids outside the hospital, it’s like icing on the cake.”

Abounding support for the event proves just how much it has resonated with the intersecting communities which cooperate to make it possible. For the participants it is a chance to be celebrated, to feel included and empowered, and to experience the sport of rodeo in a way that is tailored just for them.

“We’re all unique but we can experience the same joy,” Fuhrer said.

“It is only going to continue to grow. You can’t take part in this and not feel good about the impact it makes.”

RHONDA FUHRER

Supervisor of Business Operations, Monument Health Belle Fourche Clinic

Story and photos by Bob Slocum