The one thing that sets rodeo queens apart from other pageant queens is they have to ride a horse. At breakneck speed. Around an arena full of people. A bunch of times per night. All summer long.
They start with a Queen's Run at the beginning of each rodeo where they are joined by visiting royalty, princesses and junior queens. They do flag runs and they lead winning cowboys and cowgirls in a victory lap after each event. They ride wearing oversized cowboy hats with big sparkling crowns and fancy chaps. Little girls and little boys fall in love with them and want to be them.
That's what happened to 2013 Sisters Rodeo Queen Whitney Richey.
Before she was Sisters Rodeo Queen and Yoncalla Rodeo Queen and Yoncalla Rodeo Senior Princess and on the high school equestrian team and competing in Pee Wee and Junior Rodeos, she was a 5-year-old going to the Umpqua Rodeo.
"I mean, I was one of those little kids back in the day," says Richey, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student with a tireless smile. "I would stare at the rodeo queens. I was like, 'Oh my gosh. I want to be her one day.' "
In the 1940s, the first Sisters Rodeo Queen was Mary Saxon of Terrebonne. She beat out her competitors by selling the most raffle tickets for a steer. Those rodeo queens wore ten gallons hats and jaunty handkerchiefs.
While a steer raffle contest for the crown may seem like a reasonable process, Richey's bid was a little more complicated.
In the world of Oregon rodeos, the Sisters Rodeo Queen crown is a big deal. The Sisters Rodeo is the biggest rodeo in the nation that weekend in June, and the town of Sisters, where every business is cleverly disguised as Disneyland Frontierland, is built around the rodeo. The last three Sisters Rodeo Queens have gone on to become Miss Northwest Professional Rodeo Queens and Miss Rodeo Oregon.
During tryouts last fall, Richey knew she'd have to bring her A-game. She's from Walterville, Ore.—a small town close to Springfield—and the other five contestants were homegrown, from Sisters. During the one-day competition, contestants are interviewed, give a speech to rodeo members, and demonstrate their horsemanship skills by riding a detailed and precise pattern.
Horsemanship's where Richey took down the other competitors. She nailed it. Remi, her sorrel quarter horse mare, also came to play.
"I rode every day for hours leading up to tryouts," says Richey. "I had my mom videotape my horsemanship patterns until they were perfect. We had over 100 takes."
So now she travels around Oregon representing the biggest little show in the world. Rodeo is a tradition, a lifestyle, a big family. She meets up with other rodeo queens from Oregon; her boyfriend is a bull rider; her mom helps with the big hair and dad with the horse stuff.
Sprung from the days of months-long cattle drives ("rodeo" is Spanish for "roundup"), the community built around the sport of rodeo is tightly knit. No matter where cowboys and cowgirls travel, local rodeos will take care of them. If they need a horse to ride, a place to stay, a truck to borrow—the rodeo family is more than happy to help out.
And, year after year, extended families come from all over Oregon to take in the Sisters Rodeo–a Central Oregon tradition marking the beginning of summer even though many years include some sitting in the rain. People camp, fires are built, beer gardens and whiskey shacks do a brisk business. Dozens of rodeo queens riding beautiful horses covered in flowers join the local marching band, old cars and fire trucks in the Saturday morning parade. The Kiwanis Buckaroo breakfast serves pancakes that all generations seem to remember.
This is Richey's night, proud ambassador wearing the Sisters Rodeo colors of blue, black and white. Her big silver crown, which takes over the entire front of her black cowboy hat, was made especially for her—she didn't want to have to give it back at the end of her reign in September.
"When I'm older and look back and have kids, I want to show them this crown," says Richey. "I want them to look at it and know that their mom did this cool thing." SW