Special Kids enjoy themselves at rodeo

Calista Rayos was no stranger to horseback riding and proved as much Saturday during the Special Kids event of the SandHills Stock Show and Rodeo.
Having been to the annual event twice before, the 15-year-old Odessa girl was only too happy to step up a metal platform and mount one of the ranch horses for a walk around an enclosed section of the Ector County Coliseum.
“You’re going to ride again,” asked a volunteer.
“Yup,” was all Calista said.
Calista was among an estimated 90 to 110 horse-riding enthusiasts with special needs who came to the Ector County venue with family members in tow to enjoy three hours of quality time spent with horses, games and face painting run by a group of volunteers.
Other attractions drew the attention of the youthful patrons, but much of the free family event was taken up by the novelty of riding one of the 10 to 12 tamed horses in the company of three “walkers,” one who guided the horse in front and a walker on each side of the horse.
This is done “make sure the kid doesn’t fall off” while the horse walked two or three times around the rectangle-shaped enclosure, said Alice Cumingham, who was one of the coordinators of the Special Kids event.
In the past, the event usually had a few horses available to accommodate a small number of patrons, but over time physical and speech therapists, and educators who work with special needs students, invited their students’ families to have come to the rodeo, Cumingham said.
“And it’s grown into this,” she said. “A lot of these are kids that (they) work with.”
To ensure safety, the type of ranch horses used Saturday were ones that were tame, or “low spirited,” enough to not get overly excited and have had prior exposure to children, Cumingham said.
Volunteers, including students from Permian and Odessa high schools, and the participation of Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis as a walker, helped make the event run smoothly as a handful of spectators watched what was happening from the stands.
“Nobody gets paid,” Cumingham said. “It’s all volunteer.”
Makayla Dominguez, a 21-year-old Odessa resident, had been to the Special Kids event for four years running and she was ready for more action by way of mounting a horse and letting it walk.
“Good job, Kayla,” one volunteer helper hollered out to her.
“Thank you, guys,” Makayla hollered back.
Makayla was so thrilled by the horse-riding component that she showed her interest in the other attractions of the event by simply standing next to country musician Jeff Gore, of Abilene, to hear him perform.
“Let’s give a hand to my friend here,” Gore said to the audience.
Another patron who enjoyed the festivities was 33-year-old Robert Granado, who has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, and, according to his mother Amelia, has the mind of a 15-month-old child.
Amelia Granado wasn’t certain if the event was appropriate for her adult son but decided to attend it anyway since Robert enjoyed being around horses at a ranch in Dallas and hasn’t been placed on one in more than a year, she said.
At first, Robert’s back was reclining too far back to enjoy the ride, but the walkers corrected his position for him to ride in comfort. It was Robert’s first time the Special Kids event of the SandHills Rodeo, his mother said.
“He loves it! He loves it,” said Amelia Granado, who stressed that being around horses is the best therapy for Robert. “This is wonderful that they have this here.”