Penny Conway says the event she organized back in 1991, Rodeo Education and Children (REACh), and the Stick Horse Rodeo and Mutton Bustin' that she introduced later, are enjoyable events, but a lot of work to put together.
Conway, a member of a ranching family that has been in the Payson area for 125 years, said REACh is now available to students in 26 states.
Through the program, more than 150,000 students at school assemblies, arenas and fairgrounds around the country learn how animals are cared for, how rodeo events are staged, and something of the history of rodeo.
In 1997, Conway expanded her program to include a drug and gang prevention message. She also added the Stick Horse Rodeo to the REACh program. It's a program that has continued to grow and gain new venues.
"I did it at the Houston Rodeo last February," Conway said. "It's the largest in the U.S. They built a little tent that only held a thousand people, and it was filled 17 days, two times a day."
Conway has put the Stick Horse Rodeo on in Payson and at the Arizona Nationals in Phoenix.
"It's a cute event, but boy is it ever something to organize," she said. "The kids get little back numbers. We put chaps on them. They all get little cowboy hats and little stick horses and we run five rodeo events."
Youngsters, ages 3 to 5, get the stick horse thrill of their lives: bareback riding, bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing.
The "horses" the young riders saddle up and the calves and bulls they wrestle and rope are all cleverly-designed stick animals.
The young riders are scored on their techniques and receive prizes, just as they would in a professional rodeo.
"In both the Stick Horse Rodeo and the Mutton Bustin', there are trophies and participation ribbons," Conway said.
She said she first organized the stick rodeo because it adds to the REACh method of teaching youngsters about western traditions and the cowboy way of life.
Audiences at the 116th Annual World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo will get a chance to see how the REACh program, the Stick Horse Rodeo and Mutton Bustin' work before the regular rodeo program starts each day and night.
The Stick Horse Rodeo will be held Friday at 6:30 p.m. Sign-up is just prior to that at 6 p.m. and is limited to the first 30 children, ages 3 to 5, who show up. There is no cost to participate in the event.
The REACh program runs Saturday at 6:30 p.m. No sign-up is required and there is no limit on the number of participants.
Mutton Bustin', in which youngsters ride sheep instead of bulls, runs every performance Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
"We take 10 kids per performance," Conway said. "Sign-up is 1 hour prior to each performance between the main grandstands. It's free to the kids, but there's a 50-pound weight limit and they will be weighed. The sheep don't weigh enough to hold more than 50 pounds."