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Cowboys look to expose youths to rodeo

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

A group of Georgia cowboys is trying to make a difference in the lives of young people, and is taking the crusade overseas.

In August, the group known as the World Rodeo Federation, will visit London to meet with leaders like London Mayor Boris Johnson. Then, the group will discuss the prospects of creating a traveling rodeo throughout Europe.

"This is going to be totally new to Europe," said William Ray Higginbottom, also known as Billy Ray Thunder. "Rodeo is not in Europe."

The proposed traveling rodeo would be designed to expose youths in European nations to what has become a largely American pastime.

"It could open up windows to let them know about other events in rodeo, other than bull riding," said Thad Heard, of Atlanta. "We want to also involve the children in the events, too. No one starts out as a superstar. I didn't get involved until what I consider was late. It just wasn't around for me."

Heard, a firefighter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, has been in rodeo for more than 20 years.

"I've been a cowboy since I was a small kid," he said. "I've always loved rodeo ever since I can remember. I would get my cousins, and we'd take turns getting on each other's backs and trying to buck each other off."

"It's for the youth," said Higginbottom, about creating a traveling rodeo to expose the youths of Europe to the sport.

The 53-year-old lives in Riverdale and has ridden bulls and bareback broncos on several professional rodeo circuits for the past 20 years. A truck driver by trade, Higginbottom is sponsored by Huddle House Distribution Center.

"I've always been the type of person to compete in whatever I could compete in," he said. "I've always wanted to do the hard sports."

Higginbottom said he enjoys the thrill of competing against 3,000-pound animals.

"It's just man against nature," he said of the sport. "I said, 'if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do something with something wild.' You definitely have to be competitive and strong and stay in shape."

He said the sport has beat up on him over the years, but has helped him to appreciate animals. "I have a great respect for them," said Higginbottom, who is currently recovering from an injury.

On May 17, he had surgery on his shoulder. Riding a bronco at a rodeo in Milwaukee, he said he dislocated his shoulder, and still "rode all eight seconds."

In the 1990s, his eye socket was crushed. In 2000, he got two cracked ribs riding at a rodeo in Lake City, Fla. And in 2005, he broke his leg, shoulder, and two toes. He had major surgery on his foot in November.

There is more to rodeo, however, than bruises and broken bones, he said. Several rodeo events simply require that participants take care of the animals and demonstrate the respect and skills of an authentic cowboy or cowgirl - good qualities to have among youths, he said.

"If you have respect for animals, you'll have more respect for your parents," he said.

Higginbottom and members of the Georgia Black Cowboy Association, an affiliate of WRF, recently met with state leaders about creating agricultural programs for children throughout metro Atlanta and eventually throughout the state.

On July 3, the 200-member association was invited to the State Capitol to meet with State Rep. Randal Mangham (D-Decatur) and Gov. Sonny Perdue about obtaining funding for different programs in metro Atlanta and throughout the state.

"We went down to [Gov.] Sonny Perdue's office to find ways of getting grants and opening up opportunities for youth in Georgia to get them off the streets and into learning about horses and rodeo events," Higginbottom said. "You have scholarships available that kids don't know about - more than just basketball and football."

Members of the association said they were encouraged by the meeting.

"We got a sense that the government really is on our side and they really want to help," said Daymetrie "D." Williams, CEO of the East Coast Bucking Rodeo Association, LLC., based out in West Virginia.

"Throughout the community, we do a bunch of different things," Williams said. "We're trying to build different programs to reach our youth. We know how dangerous an idle mind is. This will basically reach kids and give them the alternative."

The association conducts different youth programs throughout metro Atlanta to get more youngsters involved with agriculture and high school rodeo circuits.

Williams said the association is presently involved in agricultural extension programs at different area colleges and universities, including Fort Valley State University, to give more exposure to children in agriculture. The association is working on creating an equestrian complex in Clayton County.

"With all that's going on in Clayton County," he said, "we want to serve as a beacon to the children in Clayton County [and statewide]."