By Valerie Baldowski
After walking through the front gate, Miranda Robinson, her fiance, Preston Readdy, and their daughter, 18-month-old Presli Readdy, stopped just long enough to purchase funnel cakes and drinks.
Then, they carefully threaded their way through the crowds inside the Jason T. Harper Event Center, in McDonough, and found a seat several rows up from the action, where they settled in, and began watching two clowns performing in the center of the arena.
The family was among the thousands of fans who attended the first night of the 10th Annual Walt Walden Memorial Rodeo, which began on Thursday.
"My fiance's been to the rodeo before, and really enjoyed it," said Robinson, of Covington. "We wanted to bring our daughter out here, so she would enjoy it this year. She's about at the age where she's enjoying it a lot, with all the horses, and all the excitement."
The rodeo is held each year in memory of the late Walt Walden, a champion calf-and-team roper from Henry County. The contestants come from all over Georgia, and as far away as Indiana and Pennsylvania, according to Traci Walden-Monroe, Walden's former wife, and a competitive barrel-racer.
The rodeo is produced by the Henry County Rodeo Association, and the lead sponsor is Willett Honda South in Morrow.
Thursday's events included Bareback Riding, Saddle Bronc Riding, Bull Riding, Steer Wrestling, Tie Down Roping, Breakaway Roping, Team Roping, and Barrel Racing. During the saddle bronc riding, Robin Brooks, a "pick-up man," guided his horse to one side of the arena, when each rider came out of the chute. Once a rider was bucked off, Brooks and fellow cowboy, Dennis Morris, of Springfield, Tenn., quickly rode between the bucking horse and fallen rider, scooping up the contestant and shooing the bronc out of the arena.
"It's fun. I used to ride bucking horses," said Brooks, 55, of Rockmart, Ga. "[I get] the same feeling I got back then, kind of an adrenaline rush."
Brooks said he returns to the rodeo every year to perform the same duties, and he takes pride in keeping the contestants safe from harm.
"It's something I've been doing for 30 years," he added. "It's just like any job you love to do. You don't want to turn it loose."
Christopher Moore, of McDonough, was one of the fans in attendance. Moore was accompanied by his son, 4-year-old Garrett, who was dressed in full cowboy attire. This was their first time attending a rodeo, and Moore said they were invited by a friend.
"We've driven by here, and we've got a great rodeo instructor by the name of Buck Reynolds, who suggested we come in here and take a look at this," he said. "He's an old cowboy. He's a friend, and also the instructor for my daughter and my son. They take riding lessons."
Moore said they moved to McDonough from Florida last year. "This is part of the culture and life up here," he added. "We wanted to participate and be part of it. This is an all-American event. The Old West is part of American culture."
During the rodeo, the crowds watched while contestants on horseback made a quick start out of the chute, rope twirling overhead, to chase down a running calf, lasso it, yank it off its feet, dismount, and hog-tie its feet.
Vendors moved slowly through the stands, selling "trick lassos," souvenirs, and peanuts. The announcer kept the excitement level high by inviting the children in the audience into the arena, to chase a calf with a ribbon tied around its neck. The first child to catch up with the fast-moving animal, and snatch the ribbon off, was declared the winner.
Nathan Thompson, of McDonough, was taking a break from the action. Thompson was outside the event center, purchasing slushies for his 6-year-old daughter, Caleigh, and his 5-year-old-son, Sean. The children were enjoying the rodeo, said Thompson. "They like it. They just went out there in the middle of the [arena] and chased the cow around a bit," he said.
Thompson said what drew them in was the livestock. "We came by and saw the horses out by the road, and they wanted to ride the horses," he added. "When they were up here, they wanted to go inside and see what it was all about."