Cowboys Compete at Champions Ride to Benefit Children in Need
North Dakota has deep roots in cowboy heritage. Much of the western part of the state is ranch country by design, geographically well suited for the cattle, horses and cowboys that thrive on the wild prairie hills and rough Badlands and among the Missouri River breaks.
It was to this seemingly godforsaken landscape that a man of God came with a dream and a handful of boys back in 1950. Father Elwood E. Cassedy saw a need for a safe home for boys from troubled backgrounds and the granary-turned-living-quarters on Mr. and Mrs. Edward Lievens’ ranch was the beginning of Home on the Range. The couple gave their 960-acre ranch to Father Cassedy after they learned of his desire to establish a home for boys in the country.
“Our mission has always been to provide a therapeutic and safe home for children who have experienced trauma,” said Jolene Obrigewitch, Development Director at Home on the Range. “The ranch aspect is a large part of who we are as well; it doesn’t matter which century. Back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s the boys were out helping in the hayfield with pitchforks. Now we make square bales on a couple of the fields and they help to gather and stack them. They help with fencing and with raising calves and caring for the livestock. I believe it instills work ethic and gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
Father Cassedy’s dream grew quickly. More boys came, quarters were outgrown and he was joined by Fr. William Fahnlander in 1955. Support for Home on the Range was on a donation basis and Fr. Fahnlander spent many hours and miles on the road seeking help to keep the boys well provided for.
Help the Cowboy Way
Help came the cowboy way when local bronc riders Jim and Tom Tescher and Ray Schnell put their heads together and came up with the plan to have a bronc match ride to raise funds for Home on the Range. “The first match was held in May of 1957,” recalled Jim’s son, Gary Tescher. “I was five years old at the time. It was one of those cold, raw, windy days. I remember the cowboys built a fire behind the chutes to try to keep warm. After that they moved it to August and they haven’t built a fire since!”
At first the bronc match was a challenge: North Dakota cowboys versus the rest of the world.
“Initially they got five guys from North Dakota and five guys coming in from other states,” Gary said. “North Dakota had a pretty salty bunch of cowboys back then.”
Eventually it became an invitational ride, but even though the Champions Ride paid well it was not sanctioned by the PRCA so earnings did not count toward a man’s yearly standing. In 2015 the Champions Ride became a PRCA sanctioned event and they set the bar even higher.
“Guys want to come,” Gary said. “We try to get the top thirty-two cowboys every year. Due to injuries that’s not always possible but we come close. The PRCA picks the top two riders from the Badlands circuit for this year and last year. They know that when they get on a horse here it’s going to be a bucker.
“But they also come because they know why we do it.”
Home on the Range welcomes twelve to eighteen year old girls and boys. Children who come have usually been through many different placements prior to arriving. All have experienced trauma, either directly or as witnesses. Most have home backgrounds where they have known parental neglect, have not had three square meals a day, and had little to no parental guidance. Many have either witnessed or been victims of violence or sexual abuse. This has taken a toll on their schooling, their relationships and their ability to cope with life.
“The average length of stay with us is six to eight months,” Jolene Obrigewitch said. “When they come, we have a plan in place for appropriate therapy, for schooling and for a timeframe for them to return home or to a foster home. We hope to give them the tools they need to cope with the trauma they have experienced and with their anger, aggression, grief, suicidal thoughts, depression or whatever they are struggling with as a result of that trauma.”
These kids whose existence has been shaped by trauma and abuse find it difficult or even impossible to process things and learn in a classroom setting. Just as someone who has a broken leg can’t walk like someone who is healthy, a person who has experienced trauma or abuse struggles with normal brain functions.
Hands on Learning Makes a Difference
Home on the Range provides Equine Therapy, Canine Therapy, Adventure Therapy and plain old ranch work---those lessons in the school where kids get dirt under their fingernails, calf slobber on their jeans and break a sweat loading square bales. Staff has collaborated with the North Dakota Department of Education to create an extended classroom setting in the barn, the welding shop, the woodworking shop, the garage or the corrals where children can earn high school credits while learning valuable skills on their work crew assignments each day. Staff track the hours they put in and where a classroom science lecture might fail, they get to look up the nutritional value of the feed they are carrying to the calves, do some math to figure out how many pounds are in their two buckets and compute the daily intake value while exercising muscles and brain cells together. And it sticks.
A Sense of Accomplishment
“The ranching component has always been a part of who we are here,” Obrigewitch said. “Helping to care for the animals gives these kids a sense of responsibility and ownership, it teaches accountability, it gives them a sense of accomplishment."
The children coming to HOTR often have a long list of failures behind them. Many come after being a primary caretaker for younger siblings in a world largely out of their control. A woodworking or welding project is something tangible they can point to and say, “See! I did that.” Feeding and caring for bottle calves gives them a chance to use their caregiving skills and compassion in a setting where they can see a positive outcome. Connecting with dogs and horses in Canine or Equine Therapy helps them find empathy buried deep under layers of hurt and betrayal. Gathering square bales into the barn shows them that hard work pays off, that the sweat and effort they put into the job provides feed for the animals they care for.
Champions Ride - A Chance to Meet Famous Cowboys
The kids get pretty excited about the bronc match. They are involved with preparations for the big day: mowing the grounds, pulling weeds, painting fences, replacing wood planks, leveling gates, hanging banners. Typically, they also work concessions, hand out programs and direct traffic. Afterward they have another workday, picking up trash, rolling up the banners and getting everything ship shape again.
“They get pretty excited that they get to meet ‘all those famous cowboys,’” Obrigewitch said. “It makes a big impression on them. They really remember getting autographs and getting to meet some of the cowboys in person. Four or five rodeo queens came and talked to our girls this year about self esteem and setting goals."
For the fans, too, the Champions Ride is a unique opportunity to see the best of the best, both cowboys and horses, and to connect with Home on the Range face to face.
“Our contractors work hard to pick their top horses,” Obrigewitch said.
“They put their heads together to pick horses from their strings that are pretty similar. We have a reputation for sixty-four years of having the best broncs and that keeps the crowd coming. The Champions ride also gives people a chance to meet our kids in person and talk to them, to see for themselves what we are doing here.”
Making A Difference
“I’ve been here for twenty-one years and it continues to amaze me to see the changes in the kids as they go through our program and to get to know them,” Obrigewitch said. “It is incredible to see how just being there for them and teaching them how to do ordinary tasks on the ranch can make a big impact on their lives. You never know how or when you might touch one of our kids. I know my life is better for being here. We know we’re doing God’s work to help these kids.”
Dad Would Be Proud
“My dad died in 2003,” Gary Tescher said. “The Champions Ride has really taken off since then. When we had our fiftieth anniversary every world champion had been here except for one. Dad would be proud.”