Exceptional Rodeo celebrates 40 years of bringing roping, riding to children with special needs

exceptional rodeo national western stock show
Colorado State University's Temple Grandin Equine Center hosts the 40th annual PRCA Exceptional Rodeo on the Spur campus. Photos by John Eisele/CSU Photography

Rebecca Zentner couldn’t help but smile as she watched her 4-year-old son, Everett, hop off his stick horse just long enough to give his mom a huge hug.

“He didn’t even want to come today,” said Zentner of Arvada, as she watched him return to practicing wrestling the replica steer. “He was determined he wasn’t going to do anything, and now look at him — he’s just having a ball.”

It’s the first time any of Zentner’s four boys – all of whom have autism spectrum disorder – have participated in the annual Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Exceptional Rodeo, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year during the National Western Stock Show. Held at the Temple Grandin Equine Center within Colorado State University’s Spur campus in Denver, the adaptive rodeo provides children with special needs the opportunity to be a cowboy or cowgirl for the day.

“We typically take the boys to the stock show’s rodeo, but with their autism, it’s really hard with all the crowds and everything,” Zenter said. “So, this kind of experience is really perfect.”

Up for the challenge

Just like a traditional rodeo, the event includes everything from roping and barrel racing with interactive props to riding a real mechanical bull. The bull was 7-year-old Jameson Crow’s favorite part. When asked why, his answer was immediate. 

“It’s challenging,” he said.

Crow’s dad, John of Northglenn, said both Jameson and his brother Teddy, 5, have been looking forward to the rodeo for weeks. 

“They told me, ‘We’re gonna ride the bulls first, and we want the bull to be on the hard level,’” he said, watching Jameson raise one arm in the air while riding, just like a pro. 

The opportunity to experience new things particularly those that might be considered outside of their comfort zones is exactly what children need, said CSU professor of animal sciences and renowned autism activist Temple Grandin, who attended the event, meeting with the children and signing copies of her new book, “Visual Thinking.” 

When given the chance, children  especially those with disabilities  can often surprise you, Grandin said. 

“I just got back from a big veterinary show, and there was an 8-year-old autistic kid there with his parents, and he was loving it,” she said. “He got to play with the ultrasound scanner and experience things and handled the trade show quite well.”

Temple Grandin Equine Center

Providing confidence in tackling new opportunities is a big part of the event and of the Equine Center, said TGEC Director Adam Daurio. 

“It’s taking an environment that they’ve actually not been part of before and welcoming them in,” Daurio said. “And then giving them just enough instruction so that they can have some confidence and letting them do what they want to, allowing them to take the time to approach different obstacles.” 

Part of CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, TGEC hosts equine-assisted services in Fort Collins at CSU’s main campus and at the now fully opened CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center. 

“Being able to host an event like this in such a stellar facility is two really great worlds coming together,” Daurio said. “We are using the CSU Spur campus exactly how it was intended – it’s outreach, it’s engagement, it’s bridging urban and rural. It’s everything you could hope for.”

Ram for a day

The impact that the center has already had is well known to Mark Johnson, whose son, Jacob, 25, receives occupational therapy there.  

“I get to see it firsthand for him,” Johnson said. “He loves it. This facility has just been a blessing.” 

While he can typically be found as the play-by-play announcer for the University of Colorado Buffaloes, at the Exceptional Rodeo, Johnson happily volunteered his distinctive booming voice to emcee the events, along with the kids’ names as each was presented with a trophy. 

Getting the chance to try their hand at roping and riding is amazing, he added. But what makes the event extra special is that it allows participants to interact with the professional rodeo cowboys and queens who volunteer their time and attention. 

“You cannot overstate how important that is,” Johnson said. “Getting that experience and love, it’s such a phenomenal experience for all of them.”

An honor for volunteers

Professional rodeo riders and queens volunteered at the event, working with the participants on barrel racing, steer roping and bronc riding.

The feeling is mutual, said the first-time volunteer Miss Evergreen Rodeo 2023, Amanda Cook. 

“I was honestly really honored to be chosen to help work this event because I’ve never seen something like this before,” said Cook, who quickly bonded with participant Brody Zentner over their shared love of horses and the fact that they are both members of the Westernaires, a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth horsemanship.  

“That’s so cool,” she told a beaming Zentner as they petted Harley, one of TGEC’s horses. “Whenever I see a little kid from Westernaires, it warms my heart because I know how much that organization did for me.” 

Now, she sees that same impact happening at the Exceptional Rodeo. 

“It’s amazing connecting one-on-one with a kiddo like Mr. Brody over here,” Cook said. “Watching him light up and go from a little shy to being my right-hand man is pretty cool.”

About CSU Spur

CSU Spur is a new, free educational year-round public destination in Denver focused on engaging K-12 students, families, and visitors around food, water and health. 

CSU Spur is a non-degree granting campus that showcases the work of the CSU System campuses: CSU, CSU Pueblo and CSU Global. Spur is built upon the land-grant mission of access to education and the belief that students can be anything they want to be. To inspire students and visitors to engage in important world issues, CSU Spur will bring together scientists to collaborate, put science on-display and showcase career paths. The CSU Spur campus provides immersive learning experiences and cutting-edge research across three buildings: Vida, Terra and Hydro. Learn more at CSUSpur.org.