The 36th Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo: The Largest Outdoor Rodeo East Of The Mississippi

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Three and a half decades ago, when Sheriff Mike Blakely and other like-minded members of law enforcement as well as various investors were “giving birth” to the first rodeo, they were long on vision and short on “rodeo-runnin’ experience.” Sheriff Mike will be the first to tell you that he had just been a “redneck rodeo rider” in his youth, and the fact that our rodeo has grown into the largest outdoor rodeo east of the Mississippi River is the proof of hard work, tons of volunteers, trial and error, and most importantly, a community that believes in it. This year’s rodeo will be on May 19 and 20, with festivities beginning on May 12. It will be held at the Sheriff’s Rodeo Arena, which is located at 101 West Elm Street, Athens.

I spoke with Steve Young, who is the Public Affairs Officer for the Sheriff’s Department, and he told me, “The rodeo has developed into a successful model as a result of a lot of changes made over the years.” In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (My sass, not his). This is Steve’s “first rodeo” only in the sense that this year he is stepping into the event-organizer shoes of Paul Cain, who retired last winter. “Those are big shoes to fill,” we both agreed. Our rodeo is considered to be one of the top five outdoor rodeo events in the nation, and as always, it serves to purchase new equipment and training for our law enforcement personnel.

Over the years, Rodeo Week has gotten into a rhythm that we both anticipate and enjoy, and the complete list of activities can be seen on the rodeo Facebook page. Saturday, May 12, is the kickoff for the week’s festivities with the Rodeo Parade. It starts at the arena and winds through town. “Anyone can participate, and there is no entry fee,” said Steve. “Bring your horse, your bike, yourself,” he added. Monday the 14th is the day that Preston’s Western Wear, one of the main sponsors of the event, opens up their place for young buckaroos to get pony rides. That begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday the 15th is the street dance and the fashion show. It will be held on the Courthouse Square and starts at 6 p.m. Once again Jeff Whitlow Country will be providing the music; so come and get your boots scootin’! Thursday the 17th is the slack rodeo. “Slack” refers to accommodating expert riders who may wish to compete but need to be at another event by Thursday or Friday.

The Special Needs Rodeo will be held on Friday, May 18, from 10 a.m. until 1p.m. This is wildly popular with the whole community, and as Steve said, “Nothing else the rest of the week compares to this.” The Special Needs Rodeo was actually the brainchild of a former rodeo queen, and now they are part of rodeos all across the nation. Guys from Athens Utilities come and cook out. The Fire Department shows up, gives demonstrations, and the kids have the opportunity to get into the fire engines, under supervision, of course! The Lions Club gives train rides, and this year there are parents whose kids have gone through the Sheriff’s Mentor Camps who are volunteering in order to give back to the community that helped them. Volunteers of all kinds are welcome and needed, and retired Deputy Sheriff Paul Cain put it this way: “If you’ve never seen one, you’ve got to come. Once you have been to one, you’ll never miss another one.” Close to 500 kids will be a part of the Special Needs Rodeo, and for many, it is the best part of the week.
Another outstanding set of events is the Queen’s Pageant. We have several rodeo queens who have won the national title, and the entire program is quite challenging. The contestants are judged on their interviews, written test results, poise, and, of course, horsemanship. The queen will be crowned on Saturday night. Debbie Blakely and her crew work tirelessly to make sure that every aspect of the contest goes smoothly, and they deserve a shout out for the contest’s success.

Heather Bundy, the 2017 Miss Limestone Sheriff’s Rodeo, has been a beautiful example of grace and grit, and has served her community well. Currently, Heather is a student at Athens State University pursuing a degree in business management. Working part time at a daycare facility, along with breaking, training, and showing horses for Tidmore Performance Horses and Winsalot Stables, she also enjoys competing in rodeos – Barrel Racing, Breakaway Roping, and Team Roping. She teaches riding lessons to kids, and is highly involved in coaching “cowkids” to become their very best. Heather was the 1st Runner-up in the 2018 Miss Rodeo USA pageant competition, and the whole area is proud of her accomplishments.

The Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo is a completely family-friendly event, and it’s one you don’t want to miss. Tickets are available online at the event’s Facebook page, which is See you soon, rain or shine!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner