Queens of the West

Horses, rhinestones, spurs, and heartbreak: the journey to be Miss Rodeo America.

gabriela herman
Oct 6, 2014 · 22 min read

Pendleton Round-Up Queen Brittany Doherty kicks off a performance of the rodeo. Pendleton, Ore., located three hours east of Portland, draws around 50,000 to the Round-Up each year. The town has a population of 50,000.
Miss Rodeo Oregon Nicole Schrock, at her family’s farm outside Corvallis, Ore.
Nicole Schrock, center, and Paige Nicholson, right, banter with the emcee during the Miss Rodeo America 2014 coronation.

The highest title a rodeo queen can hold is Miss Rodeo America.

Who, exactly, will be Miss Rodeo America is decided each December at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s timed to coincide with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which is considered the Super Bowl of rodeo.

Nicole unloads her horse in Pendleton — he’ll stay in a makeshift pen right by her RV.
Dozens of queens from around the country attend the Queen’s Luncheon during the Pendleton Round-Up. Most get their start “queening” at their local rodeos before moving on to regional, state or national titles.

Five months earlier, Nicole and her fellow queens were wandering around downtown Portland, Oregon, in full gear.

There’s Gillian Shields, Miss Rodeo Canada, 22, who already has her national crown and therefore has spent the past year having as much fun as she possibly can. There’s Ashlee Rose, Miss Rodeo New Mexico, who loves Lord of the Rings and dreams of one day being New Mexico’s attorney general. There’s Miss Rodeo Nebraska, Sam Chykta, who is the sweetest — everyone loves Sam, even the clique-y queens. And finally, Miss Rodeo Wyoming, Holly Kennedy, who can make the other girls cry from laughing so hard.

From left: Miss Rodeo Oregon Nicole Schrock, Miss Rodeo Canada Gillian Shields, Miss Rodeo Wyoming Holly Kennedy, Miss Rodeo Nebraska Sam Chytka, and Miss Rodeo New Mexico Ashlee Rose walk in front of Haystack Rock. During Nicole’s host week, the five of them traveled throughout Oregon, met the governor, saw a steam-powered sawmill, and visited downtown Portland.
The “back pack” is most popular amongst Washington and Oregon rodeo queens. In some cases, the floral arrangement is bigger than the queen herself.

“We call them butt bouquets”

A few days later, it is the morning of the Westward Ho! parade, which runs down the main street of Pendleton, Oregon. There are horses everywhere, although the rodeo queens’ horses are the most conspicuous. They are covered in spray glitter — one horse even has green and gold glitter encrusted on her hooves — plus flower garlands, ribbons, and the enormous floral “back packs.” “We call them butt bouquets,” Jessie Tennant, Miss Rodeo Washington, says drily.

“Every state will be sending their Nicole.”

It’s a dreary November Saturday, a week before Nicole, her family, and an RV full of 30 outfits will head to Las Vegas for Miss Rodeo America. Friends and family have gathered at the Schrock farm for an informal send-off.

“Our Western way of life”

Everyone at Miss Rodeo America gets a chaperone. The contestants get chaperones. The judges get a chaperone. The reporter gets a chaperone. If the contestants want to go to the bathroom, a chaperone has to go with them. The constant chaperoning gets to some of them, particularly the older ones.

During a sawmill tour, the owner asks the queens if they have headshots to sign, and they happily oblige. Twenty minutes later, the photos are pinned up to the old wooden walls, and Gillian SnapChats the tableau as they walk by.

“Why would you be all over your boyfriend if you’re at work?”

The conservatism of this world goes far beyond the chaperones. State queens cannot be married, or ever have been married. They cannot have a child, or have ever been pregnant. Many of them are not supposed to travel with unrelated males.

“If you can’t ride, there’s no purpose in being here.”

The heart of the Miss Rodeo America competition is the horsemanship competition.

Miss Rodeo Colorado, Sarah Faith Wiens
Chenae’ Shiner, Miss Rodeo America 2013

A glimpse at their future

The Miss Rodeo America fashion show is one of the biggest moments in Western fashion for the year. One of the unspoken but understood perks of being Miss Rodeo America is setting trends in Western fashion. Whatever Miss Rodeo America wears, you will soon see on women at rodeos across the country. This year, high-low skirts, headbands and pendant-necklace clay figurines of chieftains in war bonnets are big.

The Moment of Truth

After days of competition and years of preparation, it is time for the coronation. The families pile into the theater — so many of them wearing, as usual, the buttons with their daughters’ big, smiling faces.

Paige Nicholson, Miss Rodeo Mississippi, takes the Miss Rodeo America crown.

After the crown …

And then, they’ll stow the hats in hatboxes, pack the RVs with no-longer-needed outfits and head home. Over the next month or so, many of them will post Facebook albums with pictures and prices of the boots, dresses, accessories and hats they’ll sell to next year’s rodeo queens.


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Thanks to Kelly Williams Brown.

gabriela herman

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