Originally Published: June 30, 2012 12:01 a.m.
After Thomas Shepherd, 4, rode a stick horse during a barrel race against rodeo queen contestant Shelby McCaslin Thursday in the Prescott Rodeo Grounds arena, he headed over to the ribbon-tying event.
"This is Wooly Bully; he's pretty friendly. Do you want to walk up here with me?" asked a volunteer with Horses With H.E.A.R.T.
Thomas was among the many special-needs children who participated in the 18th annual Happy Hearts Rodeo for Exceptional Children by riding horses, petting goats, riding a faux bull, and lassoing a makeshift steer, among other events.
"You can see the smiles on the kids' faces - they're having such a good time," said McCaslin, a graduate of Tri-City College Prep who's pursuing a teaching degree at Prescott College. "I definitely enjoy it as much as they do. This is my fourth time helping with this rodeo."
Horses With H.E.A.R.T. and the Prescott Frontier Days Inc. team provided a rodeo experience for the children just prior to the opening performance of this year's Prescott Frontier Days World's Oldest Rodeo, said Trudy Chapman-Radley, riding director with Horses With H.E.A.R.T.
"A lot of these kids will stay to watch the rodeo tonight, and participating in these events helps them understand it better," Chapman-Radley said. "This is a big event they look forward to, and it's good to see them so confident, relaxed, and having fun."
Linda and Bob Harrelson, who were there with their granddaughter Ashley Hitchcock, said it was heartwarming seeing all the kids having such a good time.
"The rodeo means more to them when they watch it, since they've been doing these events," Linda Harrelson said. "It's good to see the people in the stands who came out to support these kids. Horses With H.E.A.R.T does a wonderful job."
Some children tried lassoing a metal steer, and other children, parents, and volunteers cheered them on.
For John Wilhelmsen, 17, Ethan Maisenbach, 6, and many other children, the highlight of the event was riding the horses while wearing helmets and cowboy hats as volunteers led the specially trained horses around the arena.
"He probably won't want to get off," said Deborah Chandler, as her son Trevor Wills, 14, rode around the arena. "He's never been on a horse before, but he said he'd like to give it a try."
Kids nearby cheered when Yavapai County Sheriff's Office mascot Deputy Do-Right rode the "bull" - a large box with fur, a rope rein, and a PVC pipe underneath to make it buck and roll.
"Miss Arizona rode the bull, and she still kept her crown on," Horses With H.E.A.R.T. volunteer Josh Lindblom said.
"That's because I have a lot of bobby pins up here," said Miss Arizona Piper Stoeckel, who graduated from Prescott High School and attends the University of Arizona. "I grew up coming to the Prescott rodeo, and couldn't wait to come help out. When you are making someone smile like we are today, you are making someone else's day better." (See page 2A for a story on Stoeckel.)
Pam Berry, Special Olympics head coach and executive director, said a parent called her just yesterday to see if it was too late to sign up her child for the Happy Hearts Rodeo.
"I like watching how the children change through the years as they grow, and how taking part in activities like this builds their confidence and draws them out of themselves," Berry said.
For more information about Horses With H.E.A.R.T., call 533-9178 or visit www.horseswithheart.org.