It’s rodeo season in Coeur d’Alene, but this time those with special needs will be the ones in the spotlight. Individuals with special needs of all ages will get to be cowboys and cowgirls for the day as they participate in Rascal Rodeo, hosted for the third time by North Idaho Fair and Pro-West Finals. Rascal Rodeo is a free event held at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds on Saturday, October 1 from 10 to 11:30am. 

Rascal Rodeo is a nonprofit organization that produces rodeo events for people with special needs. With “Willing Hearts; Outstanding Abilities” as their slogan, Rascal Rodeo hopes to show special needs participants that they are loved, cared for and accepted. Participants need no prior horse or rodeo experience. During the Rascal Rodeo event, participants will get to try “stick horse” barrel racing, calf and steer roping, horse and pony rides, cow milking, and mock bull, bronc and unicorn riding. Rascal Rodeo hopes participants will experience both the adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment that is part of rodeo’s western way of life. Special needs men, women and children are accustomed to fighting battles in many arenas of life, but at Rascal Rodeo, they will have the opportunity to focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities.

Rascal Rodeo began in 2001. Ann-Erica Whitemarsh, its founder, organized her first rodeo for participants with special needs as a senior project for high school graduation. That initial rodeo had four participants and 20 volunteers. When one participant, Amber, caught the “calf” in a roping event, the crowd went crazy with cheers, and Whitemarsh knew she had found her calling. Ten years later, she organized her next rodeo for individuals with special needs, and Rascal Rodeo has been growing ever since. 

With over 15 Rascal Rodeo events in Washington, Oregon and Idaho this year, Whitemarsh readily acknowledges this would not be possible without numerous volunteers from the various communities. Rascal Rodeo has benefitted by the donation of a truck and has a trailer full of props, but otherwise pulls into each hosting community with only a small core group of volunteers. Local volunteers provide the rest. Volunteers in each community get involved by providing horses, doing face painting, taking pictures of the event, working with the animals, handing out T-shirts or goodie bags, and filling many other roles. Volunteers don’t need horse or rodeo experience. Whitemarsh says, “Volunteers just need a heart, so there is something for everyone.” Volunteers of all responsible ages are gratefully accepted and often have as much fun as the participants!

Whitemarsh admits, “This is my passion and my calling in life, so I forget how much work it is. When I see the volunteers provide horses, capture priceless moments in photography, and give warm smiles to make this a meaningful event for each participant, I feel a debt of gratitude for their service.” 

Rascal Rodeo and its volunteers work together to make this rodeo a life-changing experience for its participants. Participation is entirely free because Rascal Rodeo understands these families often have additional expenses. Aiming to have one volunteer per participant, Rascal Rodeo wants to give as much love and attention as possible. In addition, Rascal Rodeo hopes to show special needs participants that they can do more than they thought they could. “Rather than focusing on disabilities, at Rascal Rodeo we focus on abilities,” says Whitemarsh. Parents and care providers are often surprised, and even shocked, by what they see their loved ones accomplish during the rodeo event. Participants begin to shine. 

Before each event, parents and caregivers often call with questions regarding unique concerns for their participant with special needs. Rather than focusing on these disabilities, Whitemarsh encourages parents and caregivers to simply bring their loved ones with special needs and let them decide what they’re capable of. Whitemarsh explains, “We so often focus on the disabilities of a mental or physical special needs person that we overlook their abilities.” Often parents and caregivers are in tears as they watch their loved ones overcome obstacles and discover new abilities at the rodeo. 

During one particular event, Whitemarsh noticed a mother crying while her boy was being lifted up onto a horse. Concerned that the mother was crying out of worry for the participant, Whitemarsh approached to console her. She then learned that the mother was simply crying because her boy had never been that happy before. She later wrote to Whitemarsh and explained that she had never seen him smile like that. The boy had also never spoken a word before. That night, however, he spoke his first word. It was “horse.”

“This is really something very special,” explains Whitemarsh. “My faith plays a big part in all of this. It’s not just me. It’s the Lord and the volunteers making it what it is.” Whitemarsh started the non-profit organization Rascal Rodeo when she was just 27 years old and at a time in her life when she was struggling. She had been laid off from several jobs when she decided to start this non-profit organization. People told her she was ridiculous and that she should get a real job. 

Since then, Rascal Rodeo has been gifted a truck and trailer and has grown to serve those with special needs throughout the Northwest. Whitemarsh feels grateful to be a part of it. “All of this came from nothing,” she says. 

Organizing a rodeo event that relies so heavily on community volunteers is a stressful undertaking. Whitemarsh admits that sometimes she wonders whether all the details for an event are going to come together. She explains, “But that’s where my faith comes in. Sometimes things can go wrong with big events like this. I have faith in the Lord that He’s protecting us and watching over us, though. There’s been some scary times, but it’s always worked out. I’m so grateful for the many volunteers that make this possible.” 

Volunteers and participants can register online at rascalrodeo.org and also on site the day of the event.

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