Learning the Ropes at South Dakota's Special Rodeo
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Emily Tupper, Special Rodeo
Emily Tupper

When Justin Tupper and his son Taylor returned to their ranch near St. Onge, SD, from the national high school rodeo competition four years back, along with their tack and horses, they brought back an idea. After Taylor competed in the saddle bronc events at the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs, Wyoming, he and his dad spontaneously volunteered alongside other high school rodeo athletes and families to show the rodeo ropes to kids with physical and developmental disabilities. What Justin experienced touched him deeply. “They brought folks in on buses from all over, and I was amazed by how many people there were and how the local kids reacted with them,” says Justin. “I told my son we better go check that out and see what it’s all about.” As another volunteer led, Justin and Taylor flanked an aspiring rider as his horse gently walked a barrel pattern. “The minute this young gentleman got on, he threw his hands in the air and it was just jubilee and happiness,” says Justin. “It brought new light to everyday living and the things we take for granted.”

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Back in Belle Fourche, Justin put forth the idea of organizing a similar event to the Black Hills Roundup committee, which he chairs. “The Roundup tries to do different events that help the community,” says Justin. “This event was paramount to me, and I felt to do it right, we needed to pair with high school kids because what I saw back in Rock Springs was those high school kids getting as much out of it and more as the kids they were helping through the rodeo. I really believe that.”

The state high school rodeo community agreed, and carved time and space for the special rodeo to take place during the annual high school championships, held every June in Belle Fourche. Together with the Roundup committee, Justin reached out to SunCatchers Therapeutic Riding Academy, a Rapid City non-profit that provides equine activities for special needs individuals. SunCatchers provided the specially trained, gentle horses and saddles needed by riders with physical or developmental issues. In 2016, the first year Justin and company got the special rodeo up and running, the event attracted over 80 participants and Justin figures over 100 of the high school rodeo contestants worked side-by-side with them.

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When Justin says “side-by-side,” it can be interpreted literally. One of his favorite experiences from the special rodeo’s first year involves high school volunteers taking his directions to heart. “I announced that pairs of high school kids needed to reach out to an individual and stay with them through the events,” says Justin. “One older lady decided she’d rather just sit and watch. Well, the rodeo kids sat right down with her and just stayed right there visiting with her until the rodeo was over. It’s amazing what we get from those kids.”

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Rhonda Fuhrer has been with the special rodeo since its inception. Rhonda, who supervises Belle Fourche’s medical clinic, is mother to two riders: 15-year-old Lan, who’s been rodeoing since fifth grade, and 18-year-old Morgan. Rhonda knows intimately the joy riding can bring to people with limited mobility. “Morgan has cerebral palsy,” says Rhonda. “She doesn’t walk or talk and she’s completely dependent on us. Our family spends a lot of our time riding and practicing at an arena. We would put Morgan on a horse and she loved it. I think she feels like she’s doing what all the other kids are doing. Seeing how much she enjoys that, feeling like she’s a part of the group, made me want to let the other kids and adults experience that.”

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In addition to roping and riding, the special rodeo includes a petting zoo, pictures with the rodeo queens, and a meal, all supplied by area sponsors and volunteers. After the events, each participant visits the prize table, which gleams with shiny belt buckles, trophies, and plaques – prizes won in rodeos past and donated by their recipients. “One of my favorite stories is when one year high-schooler Taylor Bothwell from Pierre was paired with an older gentleman,” says Rhonda. “She’d taken him around to all the different events, then to the awards table. He’s looking at the different buckles, then he looked at hers and said, ‘I like your buckle.’ Well, she took it right off and gave it to him. No hesitation.”

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More volunteers and donors have signed on to help the special rodeo grow. A gift from a local bank enabled the building of a new, portable ramp that lifts limited-mobility riders up into the saddle. The event is free to all participants and organizers hope to engage more individuals and families, even helping with costs for travel. Nonetheless, severe staffing shortages at facilities for people with disabilities can hamper participation. Oahe Inc., a special needs organization in Pierre that has sent two busloads of participants since the special rodeo’s beginning won’t make it this year. “Unfortunately, they’re in a staffing crisis and don’t have the staff to get any of the residents here this year,” says Rhonda. “That’s probably been one of the biggest challenges,” says Justin. “With the amount of high school kids we have to volunteer, we can accommodate many more. We’ve been reaching out as far as Gillette. We really believe we have the resources to even reach more people.”

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“People, they’re just so giving with this event,” says Rhonda. “I think it makes everyone feel good, so people want to be a part of it. People just show up that day and pitch in where we need help.”

For more information about the Black Hills Roundup Special Rodeo, contact Rhonda Fuhrer at 605-210-3267 or check out the Black Hills Roundup Special Rodeo Facebook page.

The special rodeo takes place each June during the South Dakota High School Rodeo Championships. Finals air Thursday, July 5, at 8pm (7 MT) and Sunday, July 8, at 1pm (noon MT) on SDPB1.