By Joe Earle

Cowboys and cowgirls gathered beneath a sunny Buckhead sky one recent Saturday afternoon. Boots and cowboy hats decorated the crowd. A mechanical bull tossed riders.

Had some “urban cowboy” country bar returned from the 1980s? Nope, this was the real thing. In Chastain Park, they held a rodeo.

“It’s fantastic to have right here in our neighborhood,” said Courtney Todaro, who brought her children, Morgan, 3, and Harrison, 2, to watch the riding and roping. “It’s not something you think of seeing in the middle of Buckhead, but I think it’s fabulous.”

Harrison Wood is all smiles as he becomes – if only for a frew moments – a cowboy on a bucking bull. The 9-year-old took a ride on a mechanical bull at Chastain Horse Park and got a taste of what real rodeo cowboys face. What its promoters called Buckhead’s first rodeo was held at Chastain Park on Oct. 23. Barrel racers and bull riders competed during the rodeo, which raised money for Chastain Horse Park. Amy Lance, president of the horse park, called the rodeo “country come to town.”

Amy Lance, president of the Chastain Horse Park, which sponsored the fundraising event, admitted a rodeo might feel a bit “foreign” in Atlanta’s toniest ZIP code. But the rodeo attracted hundreds of spectators who packed the bleachers Oct. 23 and cheered the bull riders and barrel racers.

“It’s the first time Buckhead’s ever had a rodeo,” Lance said proudly.

She’d seen her first rodeo out in Montana on July 4, she said, and was convinced folks in Buckhead would enjoy one of their own.

“It’s country come to town,” she said. “People say that all the time, but this is the first time I’ve really felt the meaning of ‘country come to town.’”

Signs of country life popped up everywhere around the Chastain riding ring that afternoon. Horse trailers filled the parking lots. “Dancing Bull” wine appeared at concession stands. (Yes, they had wine; this was still Buckhead, after all.) One patron wore cowboy boots with her Little Black Dress. And the mechanical bull … well, it was a ride for the kids.

“It’s great,” said Stephen Yoder, who lives just down the street and walked over to watch the cow wrangling. Yoder and his wife, two kids and their neighbors had front-row seats for the cowboy action.

What did 2-year-old Marshall Yoder think of the rodeo? He was too shy to tell a stranger. But his mom revealed what he’d told her just moments before. “He said, ‘When I get big, I want to get off that horse and tackle that cow,’” she said.

Hal and Cathy Raper, who said they’ve lived near Chastain Park for 30 years, were taken in by the rodeo action, too. He said he’d attended some rodeos when he was young. She was seeing her first rodeo.

“I think it’s unique this facility could have a rodeo,” Cathy Raper said. “I think it’s great. I didn’t realize it was such a family affair, and the children don’t seem to be frightened by it.”

A good thing, since this rodeo was staged to raise money for the Chastain Horse Park, a nonprofit that offers therapeutic riding programs for children and for injured soldiers. The park also boards horses and offers riding lessons. Members of the equestrian teams from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and Holy Spirit Preparatory School, who ride at the park, worked at the concession stands.

“I like for our team to be able to see this,” said Karen Jimenez, a Holy Spirit teacher who helps coach the equestrian team and was selling popcorn, drinks and candy to members of the crowd during the rodeo. The school teams compete in a different style of riding. Watching the cowboys would “really broaden the horizon” of riding for members of the Holy Spirit team, she said.

Lance said park officials hoped that by bringing in a sanctioned competition rodeo, complete with cash prizes for the competitors, the horse park would be able to increase its number of contributors.

The idea, she said, “was to make it more accessible, more grass roots… This is something that had never been done here, but everyone knows [the rodeo].”

But some didn’t know rodeo all that well until that Saturday. Bill Kelly and his son Stuart, 11, for instance, were both taking in their first rodeos. And they liked what they saw.

“I really like the bull riding,” Stuart said. “I just think it’s crazy how long they can stay on.”