HARRISBURG — Marissa Faust waited all year to experience the rodeo thrills of sitting on a live horse, roping a steer and barrel racing.
The 10-year-old Halifax girl did those things and more Thursday at the First Frontier Circuit Finals Rodeo’s annual “Exceptional Kids Rodeo,” a laid-back part of the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show. First Frontier cowboys and cowgirls escorted children with disabilities and disadvantages around the Large Arena to various rodeo activities.
“Our rodeo circuit has 13 states,” said Kevin Clanton, president of the First Frontier Circuits Finals Rodeo. “We get a lot of support from Harrisburg. We wanted to do something to give back to the community.”
The giving back was appreciated by the children, whose eyes sparkled with delight as they became rodeo champions for an hour.
Each youngster was paired with a cowboy or cowgirl who helped them make their way around the circuit. For the fourth straight year, Marissa was paired with Olin Ellsworth of Warrensburg, New Jersey.
“Marissa is very special to me,” Ellsworth said. “She and I are buddies.” That was obvious when the little girl with developmental disabilities didn’t speak much but never stopped smiling at Ellsworth.
When he helped her lasso a small wooden calf, she looked up in wonder. When she sat atop a simulated bucking bronc and two cowboys gently rocked the bale of hay underneath, she laughed in delight.
When she sat atop a quarter horse named Jello, she gently petted his coat. Cowboy Tye Eglin of Gloversville, New Jersey, who owns Jello, smiled.
“I just love seeing the excitement the kids have sitting on a horse,” he said.
Marissa took special joy in barrel racing. She selected a pink stick horse with a white mane, straddled it and ran with Ellsworth, on his own stick horse, around three barrels.
“I like Olin,” she whispered shyly when asked her favorite part of the rodeo.
Other children seemed equally happy. Sophia Eck of Wrightsville, who has cerebral palsy and attended the rodeo in her wheelchair, did barrel racing as Alana Roth, Miss First Frontier Circuit, pushed the wheelchair. “I love to see these kids having so much fun,” Roth said.
Parker Gilbert, 4, of Hershey, climbed aboard the bucking bronc a few times, enjoying each ride and sometimes exuberantly waving his cowboy hat to the imaginary crowd.
As the rodeo ended, each child was given a cowboy hat, T-shirts and memories to last a lifetime.
The First Frontier Circuit Finals Rodeo will perform in the Large Arena at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday. Tickets can be purchased outside the PA Preferred Banquet Hall.