WOODLAKE — It’s a Mother’s Day weekend tradition, a downtown Woodlake mural proudly proclaims about the annual Woodlake Lions Rodeo.

This year, the rodeo included a new tradition to kick off its 66th year by inviting nearly 40 clients of Exeter’s Center for Discovery and Learning to experience the rodeo for themselves.

During the first-ever High-Five Rodeo, developmentally disabled adults got to meet some of this weekend’s performers and got to try their hand at several rodeo skills like lassoing, horse-riding and other skills.

“I like the horses, it’s nice just to pet them. I ride them when I can,” said client Sam Cruz.

The group got a behind-the-scenes look at how the rodeo works while taking turns at various rodeo-related activities right in the center of the rodeo “stage.” Young Woodlake rodeo stars including 2019 Miss Woodlake Lions Rodeo Ellie Hilvers, 13-year-old lasso specialist Wyatt Rose and others, taught their guests how to mount a horse, how to toss a lasso and other skills.

“Hallelujah,” client Cheri Garfield shouted happily after lassoing a practice cow.

Local firefighters and members of local law enforcement, including Woodlake Chief of Police Mike Marquez gave presentations on their equipment and, what may have been the highlight of the day, performed a mock K9 arrest.

“We wanted to give these young adults the experience of being real cowboys and cowgirls,” Woodlake Lions Club president William Valero said.

Valero expects around 8,000 over the next two days of the rodeo, which will effectively double the population of the town, which is located in the foothills nearly 20 miles east of Visalia.

This morning’s festivities will officially begin with a downtown parade followed by all the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding and other rodeo activities that fans have come to expect from the long-running event that boasts “America’s most beautiful rodeo grounds.”

This year’s entertainment centerpiece is 12-time PRCA Specialty Act of the Year, The One-Arm Bandit, John Payne.  Payne’s will perform a full-throttle exhibition of genuine cowboy skills with a variety of animals.

The One-Arm Bandit showed the visitors from the Center for Discovery and Learning that his name isn’t merely a clever marketing title, telling the group the story of how he lost his right arm over 40 years ago.

“Everybody on Earth has special needs, some just more than others,” he told the crowd while sitting atop his horse. “I can relate, but it’s what you make out of it in life.”

The group also met Rockin’ Robbie Hodges, a rodeo clown and barrel man, who explained that even though he’s a clown, his role in the rodeo is very important.

“Making people laugh and protecting people is the coolest job I can think of,” he said.

The Woodlake Lions Rodeo runs from 1:30-4:30 p.m. today and tomorrow.  Tickets are available at woodlakelionsclub.com.

The Woodlake Lions Rodeo Grounds is located at 19400 Ave 398 in Woodlake, Calif.  For more information on the Woodlake Lions Rodeo, follow @woodlakelionsclub on Facebook and Instagram, or visit www.woodlakelionsclub.com.

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Contact the reporter at pbowman@hanfordsentinel.com

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