Since the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo first moved to Las Vegas in 1985 – and even a couple of years before that – the Exceptional Rodeo has been a key component of the week. In fact, although the cowboys and cowgirls competing in the Wrangler NFR have very important matters to tend to, they always carve out time for the Exceptional Rodeo.
This year was no exception, as a group of local special needs children got a taste of the rodeo lifestyle Monday morning at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena, housed inside the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls.
Cody Webster, a bull fighter with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, earns his keep by protecting bull riders after they’ve been thrown off their mount. His job on this day was much easier, and one he was thrilled to do.
“This is my sixth trip to the NFR, and I come to the Exceptional Rodeo every year,” Webster said. “It’s just such a cool deal. It’s so neat giving back to these young kids. The best part of the day is seeing the smiles on their faces, letting these guys enjoy themselves for a little bit.”
Webster was paired up with Braden Braunlich, who was beaming after a successful ride aboard Payday, a simulated bucking horse. Needless to say, Braden made it the full eight seconds and was accordingly awarded.
“I liked the horses,” Braden said. “And I liked the trophy. I’m gonna take it home.”
Sonja Braunlich, Braden’s mother, looked on approvingly as her son soaked in the fun. Like all the other parents this year and at past Exceptional Rodeos, she appreciated the opportunity this event provides, giving her son a very unique experience.
“Braden loves to ride horses. He’s been riding since he was 3, as part of equine therapy,” Sonja said. “It means a lot to me for him to be out here. It’s amazing to have him so involved and included – to let him shine, let him be himself.”
One reason the Wrangler NFR’s Exceptional Rodeo continues to grow each year is because of the tremendous support it receives from the Las Vegas corporate community. In 2014, NV Energy was looking for ways to get involved with the NFR in order to keep the 10-day Super Bowl of Rodeo in Las Vegas, at a time when a move was under consideration.
“It was good for our customers, and we want to support our customers,” NV Energy CEO Paul Caudill said, while noting that branching out to the Exceptional Rodeo was a natural fit. “As part of the sponsorship deal, we thought that this would be a great opportunity to help out. This is the funnest event of the rodeo for us. It grounds all of us. We know what these families go through, and we want to provide them with an outlet to do something fun for the kids.”
That element of fun was abundantly evident, and not just from the kids.
“Just look at the smiles from the NFR contestants,” Caudill said. “It puts life into perspective a little bit. It’s very rewarding.”
Caudill encourages his employees to volunteer for the Exceptional Rodeo, too, and they’ve jumped at the opportunity. Ivory Blue, an electrical engineer with NV Energy, enjoyed every minute in his role helping operate the simulated bucking horse.
“I just love to serve, and I love to see those kids’ faces,” Blue said. “Some of these kids may never be able to participate in rodeo, but this brings it home to them. They get so much pleasure out of this, and I do too. They’re a blessing.”
The Exceptional Rodeo is under new ownership this year. Adam Daurio is in the lead role operating the event, and he sought – and achieved – a seamless transition with Monday’s event.
“We are carrying on the tradition,” Daurio said. “It was a huge success today. We had the greatest group of youth from the Clark County School District, and we were fortunate to have a large group of NFR contestants.
“Those cowboys and cowgirls are the heroes this week, but they now have new heroes. The kids with special needs become the heroes of the rodeo stars.”
Team roper Cole Davison could attest to that, after spending an hour with 8-year-old Jagger Null.
“This one was awesome,” Davison said. “Just initially meeting Jagger was great. I was lucky to have time here with him. He liked to sit on that horse a lot.”
Davison also maneuvered Jagger around in his wheelchair on the arena dirt, including on a barrel race course. It was a challenge that Davison accepted with a huge smile, as he gave a break – and a big emotional boost – to Jagger’s mother, Christine Null.
“This is wonderful. Jagger enjoyed it so much,” Christine said, hardly containing her excitement over her son’s reaction to the bucking horse ride. “When they started riding him fast, bumping up and down, he loved that.”
As Jagger wrapped up his big day with a photo shoot, mom recounted her son’s difficult trek the past three years.
“When he was 5, he was like every other kid,” Christine said. “Then he started losing his eyesight, having seizures, and he lost his motor skills. Then he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. But he has a wonderful soul, a wonderful spirit.”
The same could be said of the Exceptional Rodeo: a wonderful soul, a wonderful spirit.