Several years ago, Toni Ruiz took her young grandson, Tyzavien Cleveland, to a local rodeo. Tyzavien had always been into cowboys and Western movies, and the spectacle of that event—with its roping, riding and athleticism—captured his attention. 

“That’s all he could talk about” when the rodeo was over, Ruiz says of the days following the event. “He talked about how he wanted to be a cowboy and how he wanted to do [rodeo].”

But Tyzavien has cerebral palsy. Now 11 years old, Tyzavien’s motor disabilities require him to use a walker to get around. Ruiz wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to see him overcome that hurdle in his path toward his rodeo dreams.

Enter the Exceptional Rodeo.

The Amarillo Tri-State Exposition introduced the event in 2018 as a supplement to the annual Tri-State Fair & Rodeo. Scheduled a few days prior to the Fair and located within the Bill Cody Arena, the Exceptional Rodeo is designed to give children with special needs and/or disabilities the opportunity to participate in rodeo opportunities. It’s co-hosted by the Turn Center, a local nonprofit that provides therapy services to children with special needs across the Texas Panhandle.

Though the 2020 Exceptional Rodeo was cancelled, it’s back this year, taking place Sept. 9 at 6 p.m., and open to the public. 

“What the Cowboys Do”

Tyzavien participated in 2019’s Exceptional Rodeo and was able to try out events like roping, horseback riding, stick horse barrel racing, simulated bucking bronc riding and more. “He got to go out there and ride a horse,” Ruiz remembers. “He had so much fun out there ‘getting to do what the cowboys do,’ as he described it.”

According to Angela Ragland, sponsorship and marketing director at the Tri-State Expo, the Exceptional Rodeo treats its 30 or so contestants just like competitors at any other rodeo. “There’s a grand entry and national anthem,” she says, followed by an official introduction of each participant. 

Some participants, like Tyzavien, get around with walkers. Others may be on the autism spectrum or have Down syndrome. A few may be in wheelchairs.

But at the start of the Exceptional Rodeo, all of them are escorted out onto the packed dirt of the Bill Cody Arena, accompanied by youth volunteers from the 4H or FFA (Future Farmers of America), West Texas A&M Ag students, and members of the Junior Board of the Amarillo Tri-State Exposition. Once the introductions and pageantry are complete, the participants and their helpers disperse among seven different rodeo stations.

One of those stations is roping. “They learn how to throw a rope if they’re capable,” Ragland says. “If not, they can walk up and put it around the [practice] steer’s head, pull back on the rope and get a feel of what that’s like.”

Other events, like goat petting, aren’t typical rodeo events but offer students a safe, hands-on experience with animals.

Smiles, Laughs and Rodeo

Carolina Walden, director of development at the Turn Center, says the inclusive program gives participants a chance to do something truly unique—especially for kids who haven’t necessarily grown up in an agricultural setting. But there are other benefits, as well. Being horseback, she says, can be therapeutic and calming for children with sensory needs. The various activities also help them engage their core strength and balance. 

Then there’s the confidence they gain from doing new things. “This particular event is really geared toward the social aspect,” Walden says. “Children get the opportunity to engage with their [volunteer] partner and participate in the activity. For children on the autism spectrum, to be able to participate with a volunteer and have their parents in the stands—that’s huge. The child has a sense of independence and accomplishment and the parents get to spectate and cheer their child on. That’s a really, really cool thing to see.”

Barrett Bradshaw is a senior at Canyon High School and has served on the Fair’s Junior Board for four years. He volunteered for the 2019 Exceptional Rodeo, accompanying a 7-year-old, non-verbal participant. “Even though he couldn’t talk, we had a lot of fun and our own ways of communication. He had a total blast,” says Bradshaw. “His dad and siblings were there, and the dad came up [after the event] and said, ‘Thank you so much for including my kid. He doesn’t get a lot of experiences like this.’ That was really cool.”

Walden says positive, patient youth volunteers like Bradshaw are critical to the experience. “They’re just incredible to step up and say, ‘Yes, I’ll do what it takes,’” she says. “We don’t always know how each child will react. There’s a lot of sensory input going on. It’s a lot to process. It keeps everyone on our toes.”

But the end result is beneficial for everyone involved, from the families who get to see their children doing something new to the teenagers who assist them. “The volunteers’ eyes are opened to a whole other world. They walk away from it feeling so good about being able to give children opportunities to rodeo. The smiles and laughs are so heart-warming,” Walden explains.

It warms the hearts of the Tri-State Expo team as well. “It’s a great opportunity to involve more of the community and show them what rodeo and the Western lifestyle are about,” Ragland adds.

But most importantly, it benefits the rodeo participants, introducing them to unforgettable new experiences, fostering new friendships, and instilling newfound confidence. “Disabled children don’t always think they can do what other kids can do,” explains Ruiz, Tyzavien’s grandmother. “But here they are able to do those things and feel normal.”

Tyzavien wants to be a cowboy and has been looking forward to the Exceptional Rodeo now for two long years. He’s excited about it. And for a kid like him—in fact, for any kid—that kind of childhood anticipation is exceptionally normal.