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7:59 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Happy Hearts Rodeo focuses on special children

Courier/Nathaniel Kastelic
Gracie Woodard, 6, waves her hat and rides the bull at the Horses with H.E.A.R.T Happy Hearts Rodeo at the Prescott Rodeo Grounds Thursday night.

Courier/Nathaniel Kastelic Gracie Woodard, 6, waves her hat and rides the bull at the Horses with H.E.A.R.T Happy Hearts Rodeo at the Prescott Rodeo Grounds Thursday night.

PRESCOTT ­ Six-year-old Gracie Woodard waved her cowboy hat in excitement as she rode a mechanical bull during Happy Hearts Rodeo for children with special needs.

Gracie seemed to enjoy the cheering crowd consisting of parents, friends and volunteers who gathered at the muddy rodeo arena, just before the first Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo event began on Thursday.

Gracie was clapping as one of her friends finished bull riding and shaking hands with other friends she just made. She said the entire experience was fun, although the evening showers forced many young rodeo fans away from the field.

Jill Grindstaff, chairman of the Happy Hearts Rodeo, said 30 special needs children between ages 1 and 18 participated this year in the event.

Horses with H.E.A.R.T., Hands-on Equine Assisted Riding Therapy Inc., has been organizing the event for the past six years and has brought the horses from its stable in Dewey. Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo sponsors the event, which offers to children experiences of real horse riding, bull riding, barrel racing, goat ribbon pulling and roping.

David Price, director of Horses with H.E.A.R.T., said the goal is to reach out to the larger rodeo community and to show them how they can help the disabled community.

He said the event also educates the public about the organization, which offers special needs children therapeutic riding.

Therapists widely recognize horseback riding as one of the most beneficial forms of recreational therapy for special needs people. Riding develops self-awareness, builds confidence, and improves self-discipline. It also relaxes, strengthens and tones muscle, increases joint mobility and improves posture, balance and coordination, according to a Horses with H.E.A.R.T. brochure.

"Our goal is to get kids more independent," Price said.

Grindstaff said the goal of the Happy Hearts Rodeo is for the kids to have fun while spending some quality time with a horse and experiencing what the real cowboys and cowgirls do in the rodeo arena.

A rodeo announcer let one of the least shy participants sing a song that echoed around the arena as the fans nearby clapped and cheered.

Volunteer Patti Maniscalco said the "program is wonderful."

The event was even more special with the presence of Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo Queen Ashley Stinebrink and Junior Court Julie Levine, who came to help the children complete their tasks.

Contact the reporter at mburic@prescottaz.com