Sweet Hearts of the Rodeo
In a fast changing world, rodeo queens are still
Western horse culture's best ambassadors.
By Tim Keller and Christina Boyce
Photography by Tim Keller
Sugarite Canyon Ranch straddles the high border east of Raton Pass, touching both Colorado and New Mexico. Micheli Walton is the fifth generation of her family here, growing up horseback, working cattle since she was six. Now 12, she’s helping her guest Anne Sporleder choose a horse for a winter ride up the canyon. Avoiding the deep snow on the slopes, the girls ride along a snow-packed road and around a frozen lake.
They ride easy and well, not surprising to anyone that saw them sprint their horses around the Las Animas County Fairground arena last Labor Day weekend when Anne carried the flag as Trinidad Roundup Rodeo Queen and Micheli was the junior queen. Anne is fourth generation on her family ranch near Walsenburg and, at 18, she’s been riding much longer than Micheli.
“I’ve been riding since day one,” Anne says. “In fact, my mom rode throughout her pregnancy. We went riding the day before I was born.” Now a barrel racer and avid photographer, she enters college this fall to become a trauma or surgical nurse. “My family, we’re all so close that I think I can be a nurse and still be a cattle rancher,” she says.
With impressive horsemanship and ranch skills, and long lists of other accomplishments, Anne and Micheli are ideal representatives of Western ranch and rodeo culture. It’s not surprising that they emerged from the rigorous competition to become the queens of the rodeo.
Except that there was no competition. No one else entered.
In its 106th year, the Trinidad Roundup Rodeo Queen competition is open to girls from six counties—four in southeastern Colorado, two in northeastern New Mexico. Last fall the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art mounted a window display of past queens going back 105 years. “A few of my aunts and cousins were queens,” Micheli says. Yet, from six counties, only Anne and Micheli entered last year’s competition.
December’s Miss Rodeo America pageant in Las Vegas drew representatives of 33 states, up from 27 just two years earlier, but participation at state and local levels has fallen not just to single-digit numbers, but sometimes to ones and zeroes.
“We are losing numbers,” concedes Dayna Jenkins, former rodeo queen and now executive assistant at Miss Rodeo America. “And we’re in danger of losing our culture if we don’t fight for it. Rodeo queens are uniquely positioned to represent not only rodeo but ranching and the Western lifestyle. Rodeo contestants don’t have time to serve as representatives of rodeo because they’re busy competing and earning paychecks and moving on to the next rodeo. It’s the rodeo queens that are available to meet the fans and make personal appearances and represent the rodeo.”
Long active in the Miss Rodeo Nebraska program, and sister to a former Miss Rodeo America, Tricia Schaffer has been director of the National High School Rodeo Association queen contest for more than 20 years. “NHSRA membership now includes 42 states, 5 Canadian provinces and Australia for a total of 48 potential contestants, making it the largest rodeo queen competition in the world,” she says. “These are the best kids. They’re responsible and hardworking. They’re been taking care of horses. They’re from great families. The product they’re selling is rodeo.”
But the world is changing. “Girls participate in a lot more activities these days,” Schaffer says. “Schools used to have volleyball for the girls but now they’re in sports and other activities all year. The decline in queen programs in recent years is a social phenomenon, too. Media doesn’t promote the good girls. It promotes the bad girls. Look at magazines and ads. It’s not a wholesome look. Girls don’t want to look like their grandmas.”
“People stereotype rodeo queens,” says Miss Rodeo USA judge Jamie Rauch, “as dumb blonde pretty girls in pretty shining shirts, a girl that can’t ride a horse to save her life.” The author of “Teach the Teachers: A Guide for Rodeo Queen Committees” runs Rodeo Queen University & Bible Camp each summer in her home state of Washington. “Rodeo queens are more than cowboy hats and rhinestones,” Rauch says.
Schaffer adds, “Nine out of ten of our high school rodeo queen contestants are also entering rodeo events. They can look pretty and also ride and rope.” Big smiles and beautiful outfits are part of the package, but if you can’t ride a horse you can’t enter the ring.
Ashlee Rose Mills started life without horses. “Mom watched John Wayne movies and I fell in love with the horses then,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to them.” Her dad arrived in northern New Mexico’s Moreno Valley as a new teacher drawn by the area’s rich hiking and fishing opportunities. He’s now the longtime principal of Eagle Nest Elementary & Middle School.
“One of Dad’s teachers offered to teach me to ride in exchange for cleaning stables and other chores,” Ashlee says. “I got my first horse in the second grade.” Soon she was in 4-H, then entering several events in a bi-weekly summer youth rodeo series. “My love of horses grew into my love of rodeo,” she says.
At 15, Ashlee began an eight-year run of rodeo queen competitions that included two reigns each as Cimarron Maverick Rodeo Queen and Colfax County Fair & Rodeo Queen in addition to Eastern New Mexico State Fair Queen and, finally, Miss Rodeo New Mexico, which sent her to Las Vegas to represent her state at the 2013 Miss Rodeo America pageant. The other MRA contestants voted her “Miss Congeniality,” which went alongside the horsemanship award she won at the New Mexico State Fair.
When she won Miss Rodeo New Mexico in 2012, Ashlee Rose Mills was the only contestant.
That’s become common around the country. For the past four years, Miss Rodeo Mississippi has had only one contestant, or none. DeShannon Davis was Miss Rodeo Mississippi 1998. She’s since earned a PhD, been Miss Rodeo Mississippi national director for eleven years and a member of the Miss Rodeo America executive board for seven.
“Having only one contestant has not stopped our queens from doing well on the national level,” Davis says. Her state’s queens won Miss Rodeo America in 2010 and 2014, with a top-ten finish in 2013.
The falling numbers may threaten the existence of rodeo queen programs, but the quality of today’s rodeo queens reflects the strength of the Western horse culture they represent, its families and ranches and the sport of rodeo. Mississippi’s queens, along with Micheli Walton, Anne Sporleder, and Ashlee Rose Mills—these young women represent what’s best about America.
“In a time where you have iPhones, instant Wi-Fi, fast food, everything here and now,” says Mills, “it’s easy to forget the traditions that our country has. Rodeo is such a great tradition that needs to stay special to our country.”
The skills she’s developed through queen competitions are taking her far. “You address your weak areas,” she says. “You say, ‘This didn’t work, what am I going to change to improve?’ You always compete to win. You win or you learn. And as a rodeo queen, you represent something so much greater than yourself.”
One semester after her Miss Rodeo America competition, Mills graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in criminology and minor in psychology. In May 2017 she’ll graduate from UNM Law School. “I want to work my way up to the New Mexico District Attorney’s Office,” she says. “My heart is with the victims.”
Around her hometown, she’s already known as Judge Mills. In 2014, she became the municipal judge, the youngest elected official in the Eagle Nest’s history. She credits horses with teaching her faith, patience, and persistence. “When you’re bucked off, you get back on. You learn to push through and not quit.”
Although six years younger than her sister, Janna Mills admits to a fiercely competitive nature that’s kept her close on her sister’s heels. “When Ashlee started riding alone, I had to ride alone,” Janna says. Her own successes included competing at the National Little Britches Rodeo Association Finals in goat tying. She started entering rodeo queen competitions one year after Ashlee and she’s since won many of the same titles, plus New Mexico State Fair Rodeo Queen, a title that eluded her sister.
“Entering rodeo queen programs has taught me to set goals and work through the ranks,” Janna says. “I started in a county program and I’m working my way to the national level. Anything is possible. I’m starting a career as an elementary school teacher and I want to become New Mexico’s Secretary of Education. My success will depend on the skills I’ve learned through rodeo queen programs.”
Miss Rodeo America’s Dayna Jenkins says, “Everyone knows that earning Eagle Scout takes hard work, that it’s a pinnacle of success. We want people to realize that rodeo queens go through a comparable process.”
Competition typically lasts all day at the local level, several days at the state level, and a full week for Miss Rodeo America. Judging includes a personal interview, an on-camera media interview, a prepared speech, extemporaneous questions that include current events and state facts, and modeling Western fashions. A girl competing unopposed must still pass every segment.
A prescribed horsemanship pattern, done in the arena, is followed by a horsemanship interview. A written test on horsemanship and rodeo is so rigorous that Ashlee Rose Mills credits it with helping prepare her for law school. In addition to equine science and horsemanship, test questions cover PRCA leaders, names of stock contractors, hall of fame members, ProRodeo Sports News, the 300-page PRCA Rule Book and the 600-page PRCA Media Guide.
“Studying the PRCA Rule Book helped me read cases in law school,” Mills says. The horsemanship and rodeo portions of the competition count almost 50 percent of the final result.
Each winner spends a year or more representing rodeo and her community. Micheli Walton and Anne Sporleder have ridden in parades and helped present children’s events at the rodeo. Anne has represented Trinidad Roundup Rodeo at four other Colorado Pro Rodeo Association events. She’s especially loved appearing at the National Western Stock Show in Denver for the past three years. “I’ve been fascinated by rodeo queens since our first trip to Cheyenne Frontier Days when I was seven,” she says. “Getting their autograph sheets is special. You get to meet someone in the rodeo.”
Now kids line up to meet her. In Grand Junction last September, “I went through all 75 of my autograph sheets in one evening. Kids lined up to meet me. They get excited.”
“Part of the job is being accessible,” Janna Mills says. “You’re part of the community. As a queen, I’ve attended everything from football games to flea markets to concerts. I’ve traveled to various PRCA rodeos. It’s opened my eyes to seeing that there are thousands of children out there that love horses, love rodeo, but don’t have the opportunity. People love horses.”
Her sister Ashlee created a weekly rodeo show at KRTN radio in Raton. “It allowed me to promote rodeo, and then when I went to Cheyenne they had me announce the saddle bronc event on the radio. You encounter people who have never experienced rodeo. You’re an ambassador and a promoter. The more crowds you can bring in, the better support that rodeo has.”
This year’s Western Horseman Award honoree, Pam Minick, followed a similar route from Miss Rodeo America to a successful media career. “All young women who compete in rodeo queen contests learn life skills that help them in any situation,” she said in these pages (WH Aug 2014). “They learn poise and confidence, learn to communicate better to an audience, learn to smile when they don’t want to, talk to people when they may not want to, get up before the crack of dawn and stay smiling until the last light is turned out in the arena.”
“It’s true that stereotypes have hurt our programs,” Ashlee Rose Mills says, “but the reality is that becoming a rodeo queen is a huge accomplishment. You’ve studied and practiced and impressed the judges. They’ve chosen you to be the one out there promoting their program.”
Mississippi’s DeShannon Davis says, “The stereotypes of the pageant world in general are strong, but it’s up to each queen to work hard to dispel those stereotypes.” Miss Rodeo America’s Dayna Jenkins says, “The media is our best ally in fighting negative stereotypes. This year’s Miss Rodeo America, Katherine Merck from Washington, is in law school and she knows how to weld. Having her in the media helps eliminate stereotypes.”
Jenkins sees nothing wrong with the way rodeo queens look. “You can be conservative without looking like your grandma. In order to be a rodeo queen, the girls have to be conservative. They’re representing ranching and the Western way of life, where you wear the clothes to get the job done.”
Concerned about falling participation in local and state contests, Jenkins likes to say, “We’re burning daylight! What are you going to do?” Local programs might redouble their promotion and recruitment via the media including effective websites. Facebook, Instagram and other social media can help spread the gospel and bring people.
Janna Mills has gone further. She recruited her own competition, enrolling three girls, even loaning them horses and giving them lessons. She’s presented monthly summer riding clinics. Four kids came in June; by September the group had grown to 12. This summer she’s recruiting her own rodeo team, helping with everything from lessons to entry forms, “to open up doors to kids who would never have that opportunity,” she says. In a fast changing world, there’s plenty of room for innovation.
Anne Sporleder and Micheli Walton like the challenges of rodeo queen competitions. They love being public ambassadors for rodeo, ranching and the Western lifestyle. Most of all, though, they enjoy living that lifestyle.
They’re on horses far more often than crowns are on their heads. Crossing a high snow-covered pasture on the Sugarite Canyon Ranch, they’re just two Western schoolgirls having fun, laughing, riding horses.
Tim Keller is a writer and photographer based in Raton, NM. His wife Christina Boyce is director of the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art in Trinidad, CO.