LAS VEGAS — The tiny 5-year-old in the oversized cowboy hat leaned back on the hay-stuffed, fake horse, gazed at the ceiling of the cavernous arena, unleashed a shrill yelp and waved to the crowd.
Jake Barnes, a lanky cowboy whose trade is roping steers, not tending kids, broke into a wide grin as he held onto the youngster bearing the name tag Shuki.
Barnes, 28, of Phoenix was one of 40 cowboys who turned out recently for a special day at the National Finals Rodeo. The Exceptional Rodeo, now in its fifth year, pairs off cowboys who are here to attend the super bowl of rodeos with youngsters who have special needs.
"This is a always a special pleasure for me," Barnes said as Shuki wrapped two tiny arms around his neck. "It's a way that I can give something back to rodeo."
Giving something back was what the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. had in mind in 1982 when they asked for a special event that could provide them the opportunity to do something special for disadvantaged children.
The Exceptional Rodeo began the next year as a part of the National Finals Rodeo and other selected rodeos across the country.
"Handicapped kids have heroes too," said Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, a speech therapist from Albuquerque, N.M., who crafted the program for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. "Many times the cowboys end up corresponding with the kids they meet.
"Rodeo just seems to touch something off in the kids," she said.
Monday's event drew 40 cowboys and cowgirls, who were matched with youngsters ages 5 to 12.
"We include all different kinds of kids with special needs--mentally and physically handicapped, hearing impaired and learning disabled," she said.
The Exceptional Rodeo format features the special-needs child and his or her professional rodeo partner working in a series of modified rodeo events.
One event, the goat relay, features the cowboy and young partner racing to a goat. The cowboy holds the goat while the youngster grabs a ribbon attached to the animal's tail. The two partners then race back to the starting line.
In a flag race event, the children are placed aboard horses and walked around a special arena course, allowing the child to ride horseback in a controlled setting.
The youngsters also get a taste of bull riding and bareback riding astride Wimpy and Payday, a fake bull and fake horse crafted from bales of hay and covered with garb depicting a bull and a horse. Cowboys dressed as clowns gently rock the two animals while the cowboy-partner hangs onto his young charge.
Participating youngsters are given hats, bandannas, T-shirts, lariats, belt buckles, trophies and an autographed picture with their cowboy partner for the day.
The cowboys are also given a photo, which their young partners sign.
"The pictures are always very special," said Barnes, looking at a shot taken with Shuki. "I keep mine in a special place at home. They mean a lot to me."
Shuki interrupted the mood of the moment by tugging at Barnes' weathered hand. He lifted the tiny youngster and grinned while she tried to decide whether to trade hats with him.
Began to Cry
A teacher stepped up and told Shuki it was time to leave. The youngster began to cry and grabbed Barnes tighter around the neck.
Shuki walked away, clutching the photo of her and the cowboy in her tiny hand.