SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The 74th Annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo and Parade is off to a rousing start.
Under perfect weather conditions on a glorious Thursday morning, the annual event kicked off with the Clarence Minetti Mini Rodeo.
"There's 6,000 third graders coming in from Shell Beach to Santa Ynez," said Elks Recreation President Phil Harwick. "It's their first introduction to in school to an agrarian lifestyle. They start learning the history of farming and ranching in America and this is our first and best opportunity to expose them to rodeo."
The kids are bused in at no charge to schools or school districts. Instead, the cost is picked up by the Elks Lodge and sponsors.
For about 90 minutes, the students were treated to a scaled-down version of the nighttime rodeo. The action included bull riding, bronc riding, barrel racing, calf roping and mutton bustin'.
"I think it's amazing because it's more than I expected," said St. Mary's School third grader Starr Fuentes. "I like the sheep, the bucking horses, ropers, everything."
For many students, the event was their first time ever experiencing a rodeo in person.
"I'm happy a lot of fun and everyone is doing a great job," said St. Mary's third grader Roger Galvan.
Many of the competitors inside the arena were not professional cowboys or cowgirls, but kids themselves. Local students as young as five-years-old competed in a handful of events, such as calf roping, barrel racing and mutton bustin'.
"I think they're very brave and I'm surprised that at that age they're doing the horses and roping and all that stuff," said Fuentes.
The Mini Rodeo is just the first of several action-packed events lined up for this year's Elks Rodeo.
Tonight, the much anticipated Wrangler PRCA Champions Challenge kicks-off the four-day long rodeo.
"We have the top rodeo performers and the world's champions all gathered in one place here in Santa Maria," said Harwick. "First time in our history. The only time you'll be able to see this many top cowboys together is at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas."
The Champions Challenge is expected to draw a sellout crowd. Those who are in attendance will get to watch professional rodeo at its very finest in an event that will be nationally televised by CBS Sports Network.
"Being able to feature the Wrangler Champions Challenge tonight is a special treat, for the cowboys and cowgirls that will be competing and also for the residents and community of Santa Maria," PRCA chief marketing officer Steve Rempelos. "It's gives national prominence with CBS Sports Network. 61 million households have that network available to them and this rodeo will be one of 10 rodeos featured."
On Friday, one of the highlights of the entire rodeo will be the crowning of the Rodeo Queen Competition.
Saturday will bring a longtime Santa Maria staple, the annual Elks Rodeo Parade along Broadway. The parade will be televised by KCOY 12 beginning at 9 a.m.
Saturday's performance will start at 6 p.m., while the finale on Sunday will begin at 2 p.m.
There are several other events happening over the course of the four-day long rodeo, including concerts, dances, special parties and much more.
For more information on the 74th Annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo and Parade, visit www.elksrec.com