The Mathewson Exhibition Center was full of fair-goers for a rodeo Friday morning, but they weren’t just spectators — they were the cowboys and cowgirls for a change.
The 24th annual Exceptional Rodeo took place Friday morning with clients from the Center for Human Services in Sedalia and volunteers from the Missouri Rodeo Cowboys Association. The annual event pairs cowboys with clients to give them the rodeo experience firsthand.
“They really enjoy it and have a lot of fun,” said MRCA President Greg John, of Vichy. “A lot of us weren’t scheduled (to compete) so we came up (Thursday) night or (Friday) morning just for this. We like giving them an opportunity they don’t usually get.”
Participants travel from all over, including Warsaw, Columbia and Marshall, to attend the rodeo, said Susan Mergen, Director of Development at CHS.
“(The rodeo) makes them feel special,” Mergen said. “MRCA does an exceptional job of making everyone feel like it’s a real rodeo. And it’s an opportunity to get together under one roof. … It’s a much looked forward to event, and they get to experience the Fair, get a participation medal, T-shirt, bandana, flag, and lunch, and socialization is key to anyone’s life.”
Participants learned to rope a “calf” in various ways, rode a bucking “bull,” rode a “horse” while roping a “steer,” petted a real horse, played games, ate lunch and did a little line dancing to close out the event.
Some participants were at the rodeo for the first time, while others were old pros, such as Glen Cromley, of Sedalia. He has worked for Ewing Vocational Center for 48 years, he said, and has attended all 24 Exceptional Rodeos.
“I like coming, it’s fun. Plus I got to see the rodeo queen,” he said, referring to Miss Missouri Teen USA 2014 Christina Stratton, who had signed his rodeo shirt during the event. “… I look forward to it every year.”
The Exceptional Rodeo isn’t just a place to learn the ropes of being a cowboy; it’s also a time to reconnect with old friends. Such is the case for Luke Shafer, of Clarksville, with MRCA, and Mallory Graves, of Sedalia. She has been coming to the rodeo since she was 7 or 8, and she finds Shafer every time.
“She finds me every year,” he said with a smile. “She finds me and I’m her cowboy. She writes me letters throughout the year and I keep up with her that way.”
Graves spoke with the Democrat while eating lunch with her mom, Marty. Sporting a blue bandana and sparkly blue nail polish — chosen to support her favorite baseball team, the Royals, of course — she talked excitedly about the rodeo, giving answers as if she was a professional cowgirl.
Graves proudly said she has been attending the rodeo for most of her life, and when asked why she likes it so much, she quickly replied with a simple answer: “Luke Shafer.”
“He makes me laugh,” she said of why they’re friends. “He’s a cute cowboy.”
Graves has improved on her calf roping skills over the years, thanks to help from Shafer. She said it’s her favorite station at the rodeo.
“He’s really good,” Graves said of Shafer’s calf roping ability.
“He’s taught her a few tricks,” said Marty Graves.
Although they weren’t able to attend with Mallory and Marty this year, Mallory typically has family support in the audience, and for good reason — it’s one of her favorite events every year, and she always asks Marty when her letter from CHS will arrive.
Shafer, who competed Thursday night, said he stayed the night in Sedalia just to volunteer at the rodeo.
“The rodeo is one thing, when every thing else is bad, if there’s bad weather outside, this is always fun and we look forward to it,” said Shafer, who has volunteered for 17 years. “I like to think we’re doing a good service for the community.”
Austee VonAhn, of Palmyra, said she competed Thursday night as well and also stayed to help with the Exceptional Rodeo.
“They’re the best, I can’t say enough good things,” she said of the participants and the event. “… A lot of them say it’s their favorite part of the year, and that makes us feel good.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.