Third-grader Alison Bravo of Bonita Elementary in Santa Maria arrived dressed like a cowgirl for her first rodeo experience at the Minetti Mini Rodeo on Thursday morning.

“This is my first cowgirl outfit,” Bravo said. “I’m very excited.”  

She was among almost 6,000 children from Santa Maria to Santa Ynez who were the first to experience the 2019 Elks Rodeo at the Unocal Event Center. 

A string of school buses transported the excited third- and fourth-grade students to the Minetti Mini Rodeo, which serves as a test of skill for local athletes 17 and under. Events on Thursday included bull riding, breakaway and team roping, saddle bronc riding and barrel racing. 

Bravo's teacher, Sally Aparicio, is a veteran attendee of the rodeo, but she said she always looks forward to seeing the kids' reactions once they arrive at the rodeo grounds. 

“It’s extremely exciting. Just driving in and seeing the animals, the excitement builds on the bus,” Aparicio said.

Started by longtime Elks Rodeo Committee General Chairman Clarence Minetti, the event now serves as a tribute to the iconic Elk. The buses are funded by the Elks, who raise money with the help of a variety of community businesses and organizations. 

 “This is such a great event. The kids here have a great time,” said Maggie White, public information officer for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. "For SMBSD, we send our third-grade students because that’s when they’re learning about their community. And that includes Santa Maria’s rodeo tradition. Most of these kids have never been to the rodeo. When they watch the events like the barrel racing and ... roping, they’re just amazed.”

Students from Santa Ynez Elementary traveled the farthest to the area, where they watched local star Ethan Usher, of Santa Ynez High School, compete in bull riding. In the event, Usher attempted to hang on to the bull for 8 seconds. 

Larry Kelsey volunteered his services as a chaperone parent for the field trip and said he liked the fact the rodeo comes with Santa Ynez ties.

“It’s a great experience and it keeps (our children) in our culture here at Santa Ynez, which is rodeo,” said Kelsey, a 1981 graduate of Santa Ynez High School. “It’s pride in our valley and the Central Coast.”

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Students from La Canada, Fillmore, La Honda STEAM Academy and Miguelito in the Lompoc Unified School District occupied the right corner of the rodeo stands near the VIP tents. 

Fillmore teacher Sonya Cross chose one student to lead her class into the arena -- third-grader Criss Nagdaleno.

“It was for a student who I feel has great character, great personality and he represents a student who shows respect and puts effort into his schoolwork. I’m just proud of him,” Cross said. “He always tries well in school.”

Nagdaleno was clad in a cowboy hat and wore a cowboy bandana around his neck for his first visit to the annual event. He enjoyed watching the horses trek on the dirt inside the arena.

“I like how they ride the horses and when they go around,” Nagdaleno said.

Hancock College even represented at the Minetti Mini Rodeo, sending mascot "Spike" to exchange high-fives with the kids who were heading toward their seats. 

Once the students settled in, emcees Tony Gonzalez and Wayne Agin began to energize the crowd by sharing microphone duties, encouraging kids to proudly wave the American flags they received upon entering the arena and competing in the "loudest school" challenge. 

The 76th annual Elks Rodeo will run through the weekend. 

Lorenzo J. Reyna covers sports and news for Lee Central Coast Newspapers, particularly in the Lompoc Valley. He can be reached at lreyna@leecentralcoastnews.com