Smile, win or lose

While not going so far as to use the expression “clowning around,” it can be said that professional rodeo clown JJ Harrison and participants in the Y’s Mens Rodeo took time Friday to deliver an important message to students at Longfellow Elementary School, after visiting Bel Air Elementary earlier in the day.

“Rodeo is the only sport where competitors work together to beat themselves,” Harrison told his rapt audience.

Hemmed in by teachers seated on folding chairs, kids sporting miniature Stetsons and riding boots sat cross-legged on new wooden, flooring for their school gym’s first assembly since its construction, built after the 2011 Souris River flood.

“You’ll see the teacher in me come out,” Harrison had told The Minot Daily News before the show began. Hailing from Walla Walla, Wash., he was a middle school teacher for eight years before pursuing full-time rodeo clowning.

He used that experience to his advantage, being energetic and engaging while drawing in the students’ attention with a twirling lasso. The clown described the camaraderie that rodeo riders share, with even rivals quick to help each other up from the dust, regardless of the tensions that may otherwise build up around the large cash prizes they might compete for.

Why is that? Harrison pondered aloud. It’s not because they share the money, he replied to one offered answer.

“I don’t think everyone should get a ribbon,” he told them, because competition is ultimately about winning and losing.

“The important thing is how you treat each other,” especially being able to win and lose gracefully and to be there for your friends in a pinch. At the end of the day, it is the friendships riders forge in the often dangerous ring, and the respect they share with each other by way of support that matters.

To illustrate this, he gave Longfellow’s principal, Tracey Lawson, the opportunity to be the first-ever school administrator to escape his lasso. She made the effort, but failed, and as she feigned an air of disappointment he asked her students what might be the best thing to say to cheer her up.

“It’s okay!” was one. “Better luck next time!” another.

“It’s more important to help each other than it is to win,” said Harrison.

He introduced a pair of bullfighters, who use themselves to physically distract a ton of wrathful bovine as a rider makes a break for safety. The two demonstrated with a teacher and student how they get a bull’s attention once a rodeo rider has dismounted or fallen from it, working together to confuse it and effectively protect themselves at the same time.

A quartet of rodeo queens representing Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minot, also spoke to the assembly, describing themselves a bit and explaining why they enjoy different aspects of the sport. Nabbing some volunteers from the audience, they then showed the students how a barrel race works. A pair of students raced for best time, and the assembled kids showed Harrison his message was not lost on them by wishing the slower of the two better luck next time.

“It’s fun,” Harrison explained. “We’re building a little knowledge about rodeo” as they alsoteach an important character trait.

The 59th Annual Y’s Men’s PRCA Rodeo is hosting the Badlands Circuit Finals through tomorrow at the State Fairgrounds, featuring “the best of the best” rodeo performers in the region. For its military appreciation day, Sunday admission will be half-price for both active and retired personnel.

Proceeds from the event go to support the Triangle Y Camp at Lake Sakakawea, a youth development camp not far from Garrison. For more information on the rodeo, its contestants, and ticket availability, check out the Y’s Mens website at (

For those interested in seeing the gym and Longfellow’s other new and refurbished facilities, the school will be hosting a community open house the Monday evening of Oct. 28, from 6 until 8 p.m.

“It’s going to be wonderfull to see their reactions,” Principal Lawson said of her elementary school students’ parents.