Adventure August 14, 2008

Queens of the West

They have the gift of grit, gab and glamour. They proudly carry the flag and they are guided by the Cowboy Code. They are legend. They are emulated. They are the ambassadors of rodeo.

A girl of roughly nine in a colorful cowgirl costume stands before a mirror throwing poses. There’s the shoot from the hip, the tip of the hat, and the toss of the ponytail. She tries out her expressions, from silly to sincere, seductive to severe.

Not too many years beyond this girlish goofiness, in an image held in the girl’s mind’s eye, a young woman is being formed.

If the child looks deeply, she can see her future self. Her costume more sophisticated, her glances more refined.

"These girls tend to be the types that excel at many things."
-Michelle Bobbitt, queen coordinator.

One can only wonder why one girl looks in the mirror and sees a soccer player, another sees a dancer, and another sees a rodeo queen.


But then, there they are, at any self-respecting rodeo: the girl in the glitzy outfit, riding hell-for-leather into the arena to add to the excitement of America’s unique celebration of the cowboy and cowgirl at their best. She’s the queen of the rodeo. As with any dream or aspiration, perhaps it is fortunate that in its vestiges the dreamer sees only the final outcome of inspiration.

What the dreamer sees is a young woman in matching brightly-colored boots and chaps. A blouse bedecked in sequins, belt buckle and sash, and topping it all, a high-crowned hat with the famous gold tiara announcing her, for the world to see . . . “Queen.” She sees little more than the exhilaration. When she slides into the saddle and embarks on what could be a 10-year ride to meet that future title, she does not immediately see the endless hours and miles ahead.

Learning to be a beauty in boots

Soon enough, she will learn what is expected: She’s got to look all sparkly and happy while charging around a dust-filled arena at full tilt on a strange horse, trying to stay in a saddle that’s too large, with stirrups too long, while carrying a flag that’s too heavy.

It doesn’t look that hard from behind the chutes of a small town’s rodeo ring, where she watches a friend check her makeup, or helps her sister tuck in her sequined shirt and tighten down her cowboy hat. And oftentimes it is here where admiration feeds the imagination and possibilities are revealed. It’s now when she inserts her name after the speakers blare, “And this year’s queen is…”

And now the work must begin.

Once she secures a horse, plants herself in the saddle and her eye firmly on the crown, the foundation of this path may be something simple, like a parade. Accompanied by the music of marching bands, snapping flags and the clopping and sideways dancing of horses on asphalt, it’s a fitting dress rehearsal. A parade has all the color and pageantry of a stage, with the audience constantly renewed block by block. Each wave of the hand and tip of the hat bringing fresh applause. Enough adoration to allow any queen to hone her signature moves.

But before she even gets there, before there is glitz, there is grit, and the real cowgirl—one who can balance both with a smile—will be defined.

Winning titles to reach the top

Witness the current Miss Rodeo Idaho. Her coronation in January of this year marked at least nine years of competing. Beginning with her first win as a Princess at the 1997 Elmore County Fair in Mountain Home, Idaho, Scharlee Roberts went on to win the coveted queen’s tiara in several local and regional events. Most notably, she was Miss Jr. Rodeo Idaho in 2000, Miss High School Rodeo in 2001, and Miss Teen Rodeo Idaho in 2004. These awards helped prepare her to clinch the state title at the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho, in 2005. As reigning queen, Scharlee is expected to represent Idaho and the sport of professional rodeo for one year. In December, she will compete for a final crown—Miss Rodeo America 2007—at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. Should Scharlee acquire the Black Hills Gold Tiara, she will bring Idaho the status of tying Texas for the most representative wins from any state—seven­—in the pageant’s 51-year history. She will be expected to travel approximately 100,000 miles and attend at least 100 events as queen and foremost representative of the sport of rodeo. That’s one appearance roughly every 3½ days, enough to frighten a rock star! The end of that sort of year would mark over 10 in the queen competition business. For Scharlee, at age 21, that would mean . . . half her life. This sort of dedication is not unusual. Shelly Williams, the last young woman from Idaho to claim the national title in 1999, also spent at least 10 years pursuing that particular dream, and counts them among the most memorable years of her life. 

“She is a cowgirl, an athlete and a gifted communicator . . .”
America’s home-grown sport

Rodeo, a public competition where bronc riding and calf roping are graded for the skill demonstrated, is often billed as “America’s home-grown sport.” Its uniqueness lies in the sense that it evolved from a ranching necessity to a popular sport. It developed from the everyday chores performed by the American cowboy. Most of the elements of the work have trickled down intact into the competitive sport it is today. Most­—like calf roping, team penning, and bucking horse riding—are a true part of everyday ranch life.

 The cowboy life has a rich and varied history and a strong sense of tradition. That tradition is rooted deep in Spanish influences that came north from the great ranches of Mexico in the early 1800’s. Even our “Western” language owes much to that history. For instance, “Buckaroo” comes from early Texans mispronouncing the word “Vaquero.” The word “Paniolo” (Hawaiian cowboys, some of the best ropers in the world) resulted from the islanders’ inability to pronounce the word “Spaniards,” men imported to help them deal with cows overrunning the islands.

Today’s rodeo is sort of like a traveling circus, but one with different management at each location and where the participants pay to perform. Almost anybody with the price of entry can get in on the act. >>>


Girls who excel at many things

But not just anyone can be Queen.

The best competitors in this business are no different from the best in any other sport, like skiing or acrobatics. These girls display a determination and focus that would be admirable in any type of competition. One should not be fooled by the glamour, for beneath the spangles beats a spirit and will that is remarkable.

“These girls tend to be the types that excel at many things,” says Michelle Bobbitt, Queen Coordinator for Hailey Days of the Old West. “They set goals and strive to achieve them. They are not quitters; they are often hard-working farm girls taking a chance to get educational opportunities they might not otherwise be afforded.

“For me, I wanted to compete, but I wanted to be on a horse instead of in a bathing suit,” she says.

The concept of selecting a queen predates rodeo to be sure. Matriarchal societies exist from ant colonies to African villages, the Bible to Barbara Bush. In other words, queens rule and they long have.

Since the advent of the written word, the choosing of “the fairest of the fair” to reign over celebrations of Spring and the Harvest, to the combats in the Circus Maximus, is well documented. Who can forget Alice’s nemesis, the Queen of Hearts? >>>


Miss Rodeo America

But when it comes to selecting a rodeo queen, here’s where the wheat separates from the chaff.

“For more than 50 years, Miss Rodeo America has traveled the length and the breadth of our country, promoting and representing the great sport of professional rodeo and the Western way of life . . .” transcript from the website of Miss Rodeo America

While they clearly are the beauties of the rodeo circuit, these young women don’t get their titles by mere looks, marriage, birthright, or battle, but they do get them through bone-busting rides, book study, and passion. They are expected to be beauties with brains who are proud of their country roots. They are genuine cowgirls.

“She is a cowgirl, an athlete and a gifted communicator who knows her sport and works diligently to raise the awareness level of professional rodeo and its related industries . . .”

While there are any number of events and hometown rodeos where local girls and young women can vie for the honor of queen—just as local boys can participate in the riding and timed events—there is also a separate group that takes a more professional and long-term approach to “queening.” These contestants have the ultimate goal of “Miss Rodeo America.”

The ideal Western-type girl

For those fully committed to being a rodeo queen, time is what they must spend the most of. To remain in the top ranks of local, regional, and state competition takes miles in the saddle, travel, and self-education.

“Miss Rodeo America is the ideal Western-type girl who, with great enthusiasm, takes to heart the job of representing America’s number one sport . . .”

Here is a brief rundown on the weeklong competition for Miss Rodeo America and the minimum requirement rules for all state and local contests:

Contestants are judged equally in three categories: appearance, personality, and horsemanship. The scores from a contestant’s speech presentation, photogenic judging, interviews, extemporaneous questions, introductions, and fashion show presentation are also included.

The horsemanship competition is a vital part of the Miss Rodeo America Pageant. Miss Rodeo America is introduced during professional rodeo performances, rides horseback in parades, and makes countless appearances where she is expected to ride an American quarter horse. During each of the two rounds of competition, the contestants draw for the horses they will compete on. These horses belong to rodeo stock contractors and are unfamiliar to the contestants.

In the appearance category, (supposedly this is not a beauty contest, but good looks don’t hurt) contestants should be aware of what is fashionable Western dress and should be knowledgeable on current trends in the Western wear industry. Other considerations are attractiveness and grooming. Meticulous care and grooming in every detail is essential for a young woman to be considered for the title.

For more than 50 years, Miss Rodeo America has traveled our country promoting the Western way of life . . .
Common sense, charm, and a good seat in the saddle

Intelligence and common sense are big factors in the personality division. Education and conversational ability in professional rodeo current events and other areas are vital, with special emphasis on grammar and enunciation. A contestant should radiate self-confidence, showing maturity, high moral standards, sincerity, and integrity. Contestants should have the ability to project their personality, whether from horseback in an arena, on television, or before an audience. Also considered are a sense of humor, showmanship, ambition, desire, enthusiasm, and a happy outlook on life in general.

Whew! And all a cowboy has to do is stay on an enraged bull for eight seconds!
Gathering from the above (which is just the bare-bones, black-and-white version without the myriad subtleties) it’s possible to get a small idea of what goes into the making of a rodeo queen.

Bad food, doing makeup in a pickup mirror, and sharing cheap rooms are a few more “bennies” of the circuit. But don’t underestimate the dangers of the sport.

Constantly working around horses and other stock, riding in noisy parades on poor footing, taking those fast circuits of the rodeo arenas in less than perfect conditions. It’s all part of the game and like many of their cowboy compatriots in the sport, the queen often “rides hurt.”

It’s about prizes . . . and pride

So what’s in it for these young women? What are the rewards? Some are obvious, like scholarships, horse trailers and tack, clothing, possible modeling contracts, and national recognition. All of these are worthy and tangible rewards, but nothing that any young woman with the drive and perseverance to spend 10 years in any endeavor, could not acquire for herself. As contestants, these women have learned to articulate and project themselves onto the public consciousness. And there is not much talk of the material gains or rewards. Instead, conversations are laden with meaningful descriptions. “Pride,” “perseverance,” “friendships,” all good words and true; and almost always combined with that most basic of human aspirations, “a sense of belonging.”

So now . . . at the end of 10 years what does the mirror reveal? The awkward young girl is long gone, and in her place, refined by years of hard work, defined by steadiness of purpose, stands a fully-formed young woman. Poised, physically fit, and confident. Ready to accept the responsibility of representing herself, her sport, and her way of life, to the world.

The Queen.


Clarence Stilwill is not ashamed to say he is devoted to his wife, business partner, and best friend Tona, with whom he created, and runs, a successful organic farming business in Camas County. When he is not farming, he reads, writes for his own enjoyment and edification, and “when I can be bullied into it by threatening editors,” writes for magazines.


This article appears in the Summer 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.