Rodeo lets special needs riders shine

by Erin Andersen
Rapid City Journal

Fourteen-year-old Mary Francis Witte waited an entire year for Aug. 13 — the day when she would once again ride in the Tucker Day Rodeo at Hill City’s Double Diamond Ranch.

Ask the Rapid City teen what events she is competing in and she shrugs. Same when you ask her the name of the horse she will ride.

She won’t know what horse has been selected for her until she throws her leg over the saddle.

But the one thing she does know:

“I love it all,” Mary Francis said with an ear-to-ear grin. “I like barrels. I like going fast.”

And soon, she will ride without a “side walker,” a spotter who walks beside the horse to ensure this tall drink of water of a girl who just happens to have special needs is safe in the saddle.

Tucker Day Rodeo is named for Tucker Blain, who was just 7 when he competed in the 2008 Western Heritage Festival ranch horse competition. The soft-spoken Hermosa lad with Down’s Syndrome left an indelible impression on Double Diamond owners Rich and Lee Ann Jensen.

“My husband fell in love with him,” Lee Ann Jensen said recalling the day they met Tucker.

Not long after, Rich Jensen had an idea — a rodeo for people with special needs. A rodeo where these kids and adults could shine and earn medals for their horsemanship.

He picked the final Sunday of the Sturgis motorcycle rally as Tucker Day because the traffic was clearing and the port-a-potties from the rally were still onsite.

The Jensens collaborated with Rapid City’s Suncatcher Therapeutic Riding Academy, which offers equine-assisted activities and therapy programs for people with special needs, all of it free of charge.

In the eight years since the first Tucker Day Rodeo, the festival has grown by leaps and bounds, attracting as many as 89 participants from surrounding states and even foreign countries, Lee Ann Jensen said.

Rodeo namesake Tucker Blain, now 15, kicks off the day with arrival by helicopter. He not only competes but works serving food at the free barbecue. He’s a busy guy and takes his role seriously.

Rodeo festivities include face painting, rodeo clowns, panning for gold and more. It’s a Hill City community effort, with businesses donating goods and citizens volunteering their time, Jensen said. Everything, including the food, is free for families.

And it truly is a family event said Theresa Witte, Mary Francis’ mother.

“It’s an awesome event,” Witte said. “We look forward to it every year.”

Plus, Tucker Day Rodeo raises awareness that people with special needs are so much more than their disabilities.

One of the day’s youngest competitors was 2-1/2-year-old RubyJene Lehman of Custer. The toddler, who has grown up around her parents’ horses, sat tall in the saddle.

Mom Shannon Lehman admitted she didn’t quite know what to expect at the rodeo.

“But we thought we’d give it a shot,” she said.

Sunday was Ariana Sharp’s fifth time on a horse. But the 6-year-old handled herself like a pro, smiling as she rode around the poles, lassoed sawhorse steers with hula hoop rings and raced in the baton relay.

Proudly holding up her medal at the end of her run, Ariana knew exactly what she was going to do when she got home — show it to her big sister, Abby, who is an accomplished equestrian, said Abby’s mom, Sarah Sharp of Rapid City.

Thanks to Sun Catcher Therapeutic Riding Academy, 13-year-old Nevaeh Smith has been riding horses for as long as she can remember.

“She likes to tell her horse ‘whoa’ and ‘slow down,’” said her mom, Kia Smith of Piedmont. In fact, Nevaeh likes to tell her mother the same thing when Smith drives down the road.

Smith said the riding has been good for her daughter.

“It’s so calming and soothing. It relaxes her and brings her back to center,” Smith said.

But for a mom of a child with special needs, the rodeo does all that and more.

“This is a chance for her to shine. It makes her feel important. All eyes are on her. … It makes me teary-eyed. And it makes me think about what is important in life.”

Gary Alickson echoed that sentiment. His 30-year-old son Garet has special needs but enjoys the thrill of riding, the responsibility of loving and caring for an animal and the excitement of rodeo competition just like anyone else.

“Most of these kids want to be treated as equals. They are just like any other person, but they have a little harder time.”

But as Mary Francis demonstrates, with practice and determination, you can achieve your goals.

And when she got home Sunday night, one of the first things she planned to do was put next year’s Tucker Day Rodeo on the 2018 calendar.