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Rodeo is arguably the third pillar of Santa Maria culture.

While the other two — barbecue and agriculture — have drawn national attention to the northern Santa Barbara town, few events have managed to captivate the community for generations like the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo has.

"I came here as a kid," recalled Michelle Merino, a third-grade teacher at Mary Buren Elementary in Guadalupe, "so it's special to be able to bring my students here today."

On Thursday morning, Merino and her third-graders were among thousands of elementary students from across the Central Coast who packed the Elks Unocal Rodeo Arena to watch pint-sized cowpokes compete in the annual Minetti Mini Rodeo.

Started by longtime Elks Rodeo Committee General Chairman Clarence Minetti, the event, now a tribute to the iconic Elk, serves as a test of skill for local athletes 17 and under. Roughly 6,000 students from school districts, private schools and day programs as far north as Shell Beach and as far south as Gaviota were bused in to watch the show.

"This fits in with our third-grade curriculum," said Maggie White, spokesperson for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. As part of California's history-social science framework for third-grade students, teachers are encouraged to "introduce students to the legacy of local, regional, and national traditions that provide common memories and a shared sense of cultural and national identity."

According to Johnna Clark, media director for the Santa Maria Elks Lodge, students received lessons on Western heritage and flag etiquette before attending the rodeo. The lessons, she said, were to help familiarize students with the long-running rodeo's tie to the community.

"For many students, this will be their first time at the rodeo," she said. "Our hope is to keep community interest in the tradition active."

Surrounded by a sea of screaming students, Merino enthusiastically joined in a chorus of claps and cheers after rodeo clown Justin Rumford introduced himself — and the lineup of events — to the audience.

"Just like in school, you have to listen to your teacher; at the rodeo, you have to listen to the fat dude in the purple shirt," he told the crowd, drawing laughs from the audience. "If I say 'cheer,' everybody has to cheer. If I say 'sing,' you have to sing. If I say 'clap,' you have to put your hands together."

Over the sometimes ear-splitting roar of the crowd, finalists from the Minetti Mini Rodeo qualifying runs tried to take first in their final events. Drawing competitors from up and down the Central Coast, many in the audience cheered as they watched friends and classmates try their hand at breakaway roping, barrel racing and team roping.

Though traditional events provided students with a taste of professional rodeo, Thursday's main event — Mutton Bustin' — brought the excitement in the arena to a new level.

Selected through a random lottery, about a dozen children (all ages 5 to 7 years old and weighing less than 60 pounds) were placed on top of untrained sheep and tasked with riding the animal for as long as possible.

A scaled-down version of rough stock bull riding, and saddle bronc and bareback riding, the crowd took to its feet to watch in awe as Brayden Allen, one of three triplets selected to compete in the event, rode his sheep longer than any of the other competitors.

"I really want to ride a horse and rope baby cows like the cowboys did," said 8-year-old Sonia, a student at Liberty Elementary in Santa Maria. Dressed in jeans and a pink cowgirl hat, the excited third-grader screamed and shouted with each horse that was let into the arena.

"They're so cute," she loudly exclaimed. "I want to ride one!"

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.