You are here
Rascal Rodeo lets everyone enjoy the fun
Ann-Erica Whitemarsh grew up as a city kid in Pasco, Washington, but she took riding lessons, competed in some open barrel races and jackpots, and was even a rodeo queen. While watching her brother at the national high school rodeo finals, she learned about an “exceptional rodeo” for people with special needs.
In 2001, Whitemarsh decided to put on a special needs rodeo of her own as a senior project. There were four participants and 20 volunteers. “It was awesome,” she says.
Her father was recreation supervisor in Pasco, and had played a key role in bringing the Special Olympics to town in the early 1970s. “You could say event planning and a love for people with special needs is in my blood,” she says.
The idea of turning the rodeo into a business or non-profit never left Whitemarsh’s mind. “The name ‘Rascal Rodeo’ came to me in college, and I thought it was perfect because the participants are little rascals who love to play and joke around,” she says.
After college, Whitemarsh took a job in local government. Three years later, in 2009, she lost her job and moved back in with her parents. “I had no job, no car, and a ton of student loan debt, so it seemed like the perfect time to start a nonprofit,” she jokes.
Whitemarsh made the leap and Rascal Rodeo became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2010.
Eventually, she was able to start drawing a salary and became full-time executive director. The purpose of Rascal Rodeo, she says, is “to help those with physical and developmental disabilities discover unknown abilities in a unique, safe and modified rodeo environment.”
In 2019, the group held 14 rodeos throughout the Pacific Northwest plus a special event with more than 100 participants in Las Vegas. This was part of RFD-TV's Cowboy Marketplace during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. “It was tricky asking volunteers to bring their horses into the Mandalay Bay Casino, but it worked out perfectly,” she says.
A Day in the Life of Rascal Rodeo
A typical rodeo day begins with volunteers setting up in the arena around 9:00 a.m. on a day when a local evening rodeo is scheduled. This way, there are potential volunteers already on site, from rodeo queens to rodeo clowns, and sound systems and other logistics are in place. Volunteers are key in allowing participants of all ages to attend at no cost.
When participants arrive, they become cowboys and cowgirls, donning their new t-shirts, cowboy hats, replica rodeo queen crowns, sheriff badges, and bandanas.
Several events are offered, including stick-horse and wheelchair barrel racing, cow milking from plywood cut-out cows with calf-bottle “udders,” steer roping with roping dummies, and horse rides. Participants also saddle up on barrels designed to look like bulls, broncs, and unicorns.
Other features vary depending on local volunteers. Some have brought photo booths, golf carts,
and petting zoos. “A company in northwest Oregon hits a lot of the same rodeos we do, and they bring their Texas longhorns for our participants to sit on,” Whitemarsh says. “It’s so cool to see an empty wheelchair and the person sitting up on a Texas longhorn.”
When the rodeo is over, participants are given belt buckles to commemorate the experience. Whitemarsh says buckle donations of any appropriate design are always welcome.
“The rodeo was started for participants to have the opportunity to be cowboys and cowgirls, but it’s more than that,” Whitemarsh says. “They find new abilities to focus on rather than their disabilities.”
The experience is a positive one for families, too. “Moms sometimes call and say, ‘I don’t know if my child can do this, and I say, ‘Bring them and let them figure out what they can and can’t do,’” Whitemarsh says. “Parents are often in tears because they didn’t realize what their kids could do.”
Looking to the Future
Rascal Rodeo turns ten in 2020, and there are 14 events on the books already. Requests have come from all over the U.S. and Canada, but Whitemarsh isn’t in a rush to expand. “It’s a very high-risk situation and you have to be really smart about everything that goes on in the arena, so that would take some intense planning and training,” she says. She’s considering all that, but for now, expanding may mean adding another truck and trailer so two rodeos can be held on the same day within the Pacific Northwest.
Whitemarsh has a full plate running Rascal Rodeo and raising two-year-old son, Colton, but she says it’s so much fun watching him interact with participants and volunteers. "I’m very thankful this is the life he gets to grow up in,” she says.
Visit rascalrodeo.org or call 509-528-5947 to learn more or to make a donation to support Rascal Rodeo.
Photos, from top:
- Rascal Rodeo founder Ann-Erica Whitemarsh and cowgirl Alexandria Adamson from the UK enjoy a moment during the Las Vegas rodeo.
- Cowboy Hudson Nichols of Las Vegas enjoys a ride around the arena with help from Rascal Rodeo volunteer Charlie Roe of Pendleton, Oregon.
- Cowgirl Elizabeth Williams gives roping a try with help from volunteer Derek Shawley at the Kennewick, Washington, rodeo.
- Cowboy Arthur Miller circles the arena at the Kennewick, Washington, rodeo, with help from volunteers Melissa Burk, Toppenish Junior Rodeo Queen Jazlynn Burk, and Jeff Ossman.
- Cowboy Colton Schmidt of Othello, Washington, rides a barrel-bull while being cheered on by volunteers John and Ryder Gondini of Las Vegas, at the rodeo at the Mandalay Bay Casino.
Photography: David Thomas, Spirit of a Cowboy Images & Alyssa Lindburg