Peeking from under a cowboy hat that swallows half his head, 7-year-old Ryan Calderon, rope in hand, ventures into the rodeo arena to try his luck at lassoing a "bull" -- a bale of hay with a plastic bullhead at one end.

For the last 22 years, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has held a very special event for some particularly distinctive kids. The Lil Rustlers' Rodeo is an event held each year to allow children with illnesses and disabilities in on the fun.

The kids are invited onto the dirt floor of Reliant Stadium before the actual rodeo and concert events of the night take place. There, they find an entire miniaturized version of the rodeo for them to "compete" in. The kids can break the bucking bronc or the raging bull, both consisting of saddled see-saws manned by volunteers. They are given lassos to rope the calves (hay bales with bullhorns attached). Volunteers lead them around the barrel racing course while they race with the stick-plush horse head combination we all know and love.  There are also baby animals to pet and a ride around the arena on the back of a real horse.

After a tough ride on the bunkin' bronco, the announcer came over to interview Ryan which was televised on the mammoth, Reliant jumbo screen over the center of the arena.  All smiles, Ryan explained how he "rode" the bronco like a cowboy on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.

Fear is not an obstacle for these rodeo contestants, and the thrills and smiles are all genuine.  These remarkable cowboys and cowgirls look and feel just like their professional rodeo partners in their cowboy hats, bandannas, lariat ropes and official contestant numbers.

Members of the Speakers Committee broadcast the entire performance, citing the participants’ achievements and promoting audience support. Following the competition, each contestant is presented a trophy with an autographed picture of the child with his/her volunteer cowboy/cowgirl. 

This is an opportunity for these kids to have a memorable night, just for them, and just to have fun. It was gratifying to watch the competition and camaraderie between the pairs, as the youngsters compete as real rodeo contestants.