A rodeo at MontanaFair Saturday afternoon had a small, excited crowd and very enthusiastic entrants.
The 14 young contestants ranged in age from 4 to 10, and the horses and the bucking bulls they rode were all on sticks. The free kids’ rodeo, put on by Montana Agri-Women, will take place at 2 p.m. every day of the fair in the Ag Sprouts barn.
It’s only one event the statewide agricultural organization is putting on at MontanaFair. Kids can also learn horse safety at the barn or enjoy petting a variety of animals, among other activities.
Like a regular rodeo, the youngsters all wore numbers on their backs for the stick-horse version. Some had kerchiefs draped around their necks, a couple wore cowboy hats and at least one little girl wore pink ribbons in her hair.
The riders took part in three events, pole bending, barrel racing and, of course the most death-defying, bull riding. Some raced as if they really wanted to beat the clock in the timed events, while others looked a little sheepish on their stick rides.
But the audience, made up mostly of parents and siblings, clapped, cheered and whistled for all the entrants when they finished their turns. Overseeing the proceedings was Justin Mills, who announced the names of participants, narrated their actions and handed out the ribbons to the top finishers.
Pole bending came first, with the youngsters twice weaving through a series of poles in the dirt enclosure and then racing back to the starting point. Second came barrel racing, where entrants ran around a series of three red barrels and then back to the starting line.
Some of the youngsters rode on their stick mounts, while others ran and carried it alongside. Either way worked.
For the bull riding, each participant got to use a little imagination. They’d get more points, Mills told them, if they really bucked around on their bull.
Nine-year-old Lane Garrison of Fort Collins, Colo., managed to finish first for all three events. That wasn’t a big surprise, considering Lane rides in actual rodeos.
His favorite event on Saturday was pole bending, he said afterward.
“I always do it on my own horse,” he said.
He recently rode in the county fair at home, his mother, Kathy Garrison, said.
Jason and Alynne Rhoades, of Laurel, sat in the stands watching as their two daughters, Faith, 7, and Haley, 5, competed.
The family stopped by to visit the petting zoo, Jason Rhoades said, and decided to enter the girls in the rodeo.
“Our oldest daughter loves rodeos,” he said. “She’s very much into horses.”
Faith also showed her humorous side, letting the bull “buck” her off during that event. She flashed a smile at her parents as she walked back to the starting gate.
Before the rodeo, members of the Pony Club put on a horse safety demonstration for kids and adults who sat in the stands. As Gabe, a black-and-white thoroughbred/quarter horse cross, stood patiently inside the makeshift paddock, Moriah Krafft, a Pony Club instructor, showed her audience how to do everything from brush the horse to clean its hooves.
She also demonstrated how to approach a horse and how to feed it a treat.
“What happens if I try to feed Gabe with my fingers?” she asked the youngsters.
It might eat her fingers, too, they said. Instead, she held the treat in the palm of her hand and offered it to Gabe, who took and munched on it.
Once the demonstration was done, Krafft invited the young members of the audience to come up and give Gabe a treat. Dayshe Schell, 10, took Krafft up on the offer, holding her hand out to the horse until he took what she proffered.
“It tickled and it felt pretty good,” she said after, a smile on her face.
It was the first time Dayshe had ever been that close to a horse, she said. Asked what she learned during the brief class, she said she discovered how to brush a horse and how to approach the animal from the side, so it could see her.
That’s the idea, said Maggie Howley, a chief horse management judge with the United States Pony Club and president of the Montana Agri-Women.
“We just thought we’d do basic horsemanship and basic safety,” Howley said. “So wherever they go, if there was a horse, they would know not to exhibit behavior that would scare the horse and possibly hurt themselves. That was our original thought, just as a public service.”
The Montana Agri-Women hope all of the activities in the Ag Sprouts barn this week will be a learning experience for kids and adults.
“Our goal is to educate the public about all parts of agriculture,” she said.