A Special Livestock Show

On a Saturday afternoon in October, Jacob could have been doing any number of things. He’d been at the show barn that day since 2:30 a.m, his final day at the North Carolina State Fair showing cattle. The beef cattle shows were finished, so Jacob’s work was done. He could have been riding rides, enjoying fair food, or taking a nap.

Instead, he was standing in center ring with his heifer, Penelope, waiting to meet our oldest son, who has Autism. Ryan was participating in the Special Livestock Show for the first time, and he was paired with Jacob and Penelope.

The Special Livestock Show started 22 years ago with one participant and now has over 40. It has expanded to include both weekends of the fair. There is no age limit for special needs participants. My son is 7 and was one of this year’s youngest; there were several in their 50s.  

We’d like our son to show, but he isn’t able to halter break and train cattle. This show gives him the experience of walking an animal around the ring and talking with the judge while being himself. The Special Livestock Show is a safe place where he can be exceptional and not have to fit in any box. If he didn’t look at the judge, if he dropped the halter, if he decided he was done and walked out of the show ring, it was OK.  

When he showed earlier this year in our local county show’s fun show for kids under age 9, I was terrified. He’d worked with a local family, practicing with their pigs at their house, but the show ring was a new place. With Autism, we never know if he is going to get overwhelmed, anxious, or have a sensory meltdown. We don’t know if he is going to talk about the animal he’s showing or his latest obsession with trains if asked any questions.  We don’t know if he’s going to stay with the pig or decide to dig in the shavings. We expect any of these things to happen and are prepared for them. What we aren’t prepared for are the the looks, comments, and judgement that can come from adults or participants. You can’t always look at Ryan and see Autism unless you know him. We had a great experience at the county show, but any special needs parent will tell you they can’t help but worry about the what-ifs.

At the Special Livestock Show, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I can’t tell you what it means for my son to have an opportunity to do what everyone else can do – yet, be himself. Honestly, that’s one reason it’s taken me two weeks to write about the show, because every time I start writing, I start crying tears of gratitude. I’m struggling to find the words to express just how much this show means.

Jacob didn’t care that my son has Autism. He was wonderful with my son, talking to him, keeping him safe, and engaged all while maintaining control of Penelope.  

Penelope didn’t care about Autism. She stood patiently while he mooed in her ear. She turned her head when Ryan showed her the pictures I took of him standing with Penelope. She didn’t flinch when he used the show stick to rub her belly, sometimes like he was trying to saw her in half. All of the animals were on their best behavior, like they knew the participants were special.  

Jacob is a second-generation volunteer with the Special Livestock Show. I talked with the show’s organizer and learned finding youth to volunteer is not an issue and some even come back to participate when they’ve aged out of showing. Volunteers didn’t receive any accolades for their time, earn any extra premiums, or get any media attention. They got a “thank you” from participants and heartfelt gratitude from parents like me.  

Agri-Supply continued its long-time sponsorship of the show, so participants received t-shirts, medals, a trophy, lunch, and earned a premium for showing, just like everyone else. The judges, who had finished the work they are paid to do, are asked to volunteer their time to judge the Special Livestock Show. No judge has ever turned down the opportunity. Many of the families who helped start the show, including Jacob’s, are still involved. Mike, the first participant, walked his 22nd heifer and lamb around the show ring.

The Sale of Champions was later that day, but as far as I’m concerned, the champions had already been recognized. In this momma’s eyes, the youth volunteers, their animals, and the participants in the Special Livestock Show are true champions.

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