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Fort Armstrong Championship Rodeo dazzles crowd despite rain

| Monday, July 12, 2010

Mud flew and spattered shirts and blue jeans. Horses churned up layers of mud as they cantered, galloped and bucked. Steers charged and were wrestled to the ground by cowboys and riders who weren't afraid to get a little dirty.

That was the scene in the Crooked Creek Horse Park arena Friday night after a day of heavy rain fell just in time for the 2010 Fort Armstrong Championship Rodeo.

"We ride rain or shine," said Travis Sanderson, 21, of Slippery Rock.

Sanderson competes in bull riding events and has been riding bulls since he was 16. When it's time to compete, the rider is assigned to a bull with a corresponding number, which has been drawn at random.

"It's an adrenaline rush," said Sanderson, smoking a cigarette before the event. "And it's fun - you can win money, too."

The prize money was raised by the entry fees and from the rodeo sponsors, a spokesperson for the Fort Armstrong Championship Rodeo said. Livestock used during the rodeo was provided by Sam Swearingen of Rawhide Rodeo Co., and a portion of the rodeo proceeds is donated to the Armstrong Community Action Food Bank. Last year's event raised enough money to buy more than 10,000 pounds of food for the food bank.

The crowd seated in the bleachers pumped their umbrellas up and down in time to the music blaring from the loud speakers as the steer wrestling event started up. A cheer rose from the stands as Hunter Scheerbaum, 16, leaped off a galloping horse onto a running steer and wrestled it into the mud.

Scheerbaum, a student of Moniteau High School in West Sunbury, is a member of the National High School Rodeo Association and, according to the announcer at this year's event in Crooked Creek, Scheerbaum has earned recognition for rising up through the ranks of High School Rodeo.

"I always wanted to ride bulls," said Scheerbaum. "Dad didn't want me to, but I convinced him."

There is always the potential for danger when a bull is loose and a rider is thrown from a horse. That's where Wade Hazlet comes in.

Hazlet, 29, of North Washington is a bull fighter. With his bright clothing and painted red chin, he distracts the bull's attention from a fallen rider and onto himself, giving the rider enough time to scramble out of the way.

Hazlet said when he was a kid the rodeo came to his hometown. When he was old enough, he attended a rodeo school in Wichita, Kan. When he's in the arena with a bull, Hazlet said, it's important to stay in the bull's front shoulder area, known as the pocket.

"As long as you stay in the pocket, they can't hurt you," he said. "They can't hurt you if you keep running in a circle. Never run in a straight line."

The rodeo drew contestants from across the county and included many who travel the rodeo circuit nationwide. One such contestant was Steve Merle, 40, of western New York. He said he has been competing in Calf Roping competitions for about 20 years. He said his good horse was injured, so he had to bring an inexperienced horse with him to this year's rodeo at Crooked Creek. Merle named the horse Lightning because of the lightning bolt mark on its left shoulder. Merle said he was concerned about Lightning's inexperience.

"It takes him a little time to get used to the noise of the crowd," he said. But as far as continuing with the rodeo circuit, Merle said he'll keep doing it as long as it's fun.

The mud in the arena made Willard Powell, 67, concerned for his trick dancing horses.

"They're young horses," said Powell, of Bonifay, Fla. "The arena is muddy, and they've never worked in conditions like this."

Powell said he's been working with horses his whole life. He performed a tribute to the Native American Ghost Dance at the rodeo with his horse Ghost Dancer. Powell's connection to Native American lineage comes from his mother's Cherokee heritage and his father's Seminole ancestry. He makes the elaborate costumes for his performance, but because of the rain he chose to wear the more durable head piece made from coyote skin instead of his usual ornate feathered head piece.

"We'll have our rain outfit on tonight," he said.

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