There is a horse auction establishment on South MacArthur in Oklahoma City. It is a big white building with a dirt arena inside. Actually, there are two arenas, a large one where the horses are exercised and a smaller one that has a stage with seats around it. I mention this place because it was there that the fifty Miss Rodeo America contestants made their first public appearance. They ate the barbecue in the large arena, and then were introduced by state in the small arena with the seats. In the large arena, there was an open bar, but the contestants were not allowed to drink.

“They should let us,” said Miss Rodeo Pennsylvania, “to see who gets crocked and who doesn’t.” Then Miss Rodeo Utah introduced herself.

She had on a baby-blue western suit with white leather piping down both pant legs. Her jacket had four white arrows on the back, pointing at her bottom. She had on baby-blue boots, a white ruffled blouse, and a baby-blue cowboy hat. She wore Merle Norman’s Boston eyeshadow, and two hearts held her rodeo sash. She clasped her Miss Rodeo Utah purse in her baby-blue gloves.

“You look like you’ve won a lot of beauty contests,” I said. “Have you ever entered one?”

“No,” she said, “I’m a cowgirl all the way!”

In 1975 Miss Rodeo Colorado was bucked off in the grand entry of the Miss Rodeo America contest and was rushed from the arena to the hospital with fractured vertebrae. In 1976 a horse fell on Miss Rodeo Arizona and broke her back. In 1978 Miss Rodeo Kansas, who later became Miss Rodeo America, pivoted her horse to avoid hitting a contestant who had just run over a spectator in the arena. She caught her foot in the gate, was jerked off backward, and broke her arm. It’s a rugged kind of competition—no cakewalk.

Before leaving the horse auction building, a man came up to me and said he was from Springdale, Arkansas, “the chicken-pluckin’ capital of the world.” Said he was “with the chamber of commerce there” and was on the Miss Rodeo board. Then he said, “I’m not a cowboy, but I believe in this crap.”

I want to pass along these notes so you’ll know what he meant by that. A lot of people are dubious about these contests. The banner on the bosom, the high-heeled hobble, the ramble down the runway. But in a very particular way, this pageant can tell you something special about these women and the way they grew up, about what someone taught them once, about a certain way of life. I mean there are things here that can cloud the issue, and it can all make for a clash in styles. But you should remember that these rodeo queens have roared into the arenas of Ranger, Texas; Ringling, Oklahoma; Roundup, Montana; and Rifle, Colorado, on the foulest, greenest, dumbest, and rankest of horses, shot their salutes to the crowd, and raced out to standing ovations. I want you to remember that Miss Rodeo America 1980 laid a leg over 200 head of weirdo horses and ran the rail in 300 rodeo performances. “Ah, the arena is a little wet, ma’am,” they told her in Oregon. “The rain has made it a little slick. And that horse there don’t like to see his reflection in no mud puddle. Makes him hoppy.”

I want you to remember that the queens in this contest have won barrel-racing championships, pole-bending championships, team-roping championships, and all-round cowgirl championships.

“Hand me the reins,” said Miss Rodeo America, and half a minute later she exploded out of the gate in a gallop, her crown sparkling in the spotlights, her hips flaring over the saddle, her horse snorting and sliding, her salutes popping like cherry bombs.

I want you to remember that Miss Arkansas is a bull-riding champion and that Miss Wyoming was raised on a 5,000-acre ranch and rounds up cattle; she ropes, wrestles, brands, implants, and inoculates the calves, and runs the buck rigs, hay rigs, tractors, and stackers. I want you to remember that the queens in this contest have won barrel-racing championships, pole-bending championships, team-roping championships, and all-round cowgirl championships. I want you to recall that these queens raise, ride, race, rack, rope, rein, run, rub, reed, and sleep horses. I want you to remember that when Miss Utah was still in a baby-blue bib she took her afternoon nap in the barn on the back of a palomino. “Wasn’t your mother terrified you’d fall off and get trampled to death?” I asked her.

“Well, of course, she’d put a saddle on him first,” said Miss Utah, mortified that anyone would speak ill of her mother.

I want you to remember all these things because I am about to introduce you to Dorothy Alexander, the pageant coordinator.

Dorothy Alexander came out of her room in a leopard-skin polyester negligee and said, “You girls have so much pep, I want you to do this all week, OK?”

The queens applauded. Dorothy had confessed to me earlier that she was once a Miss University of Montana “a thousand years ago.”

The queens had changed from the three-piece suits they had worn all day to their nightgowns. They were seated on the floor in the hall in front of the elevators on the third floor of the Lincoln Plaza Hotel.

“You’re the best horsewomen in America,” Dorothy said, “and you’ve got a lot of pep!” More applause.

Dorothy had told me that the queens rode like “real ladies” but that she thought the personality competition was the most important. “We can’t have a dunce for Miss Rodeo America,” said Dorothy. “This is not a bawdy pageant!”

The elevator doors opened a few minutes later, and a television crew got off to take pictures of the “best horsewomen in America” wearing their nighties.

A cowboy was once fined $200 by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association for making a pass at a queen.

“Now listen,” said Tom Poteet, general chairman of the pageant, “tonight you girls are going to be with the cowboys a little while. I know I can count on you to be ladies. I know I don’t have to worry about any problems, OK?” The queens were then led into an empty room, where a buffet had been prepared for the cowboys, contestants in the National Finals Rodeo. The queens were asked to fill their plates and then were directed to four tables in the furthermost corner of the room. When the last queen was seated and had her lap covered with a paper napkin, the doors were thrown open and a hundred rodeo cowboys swaggered in.

There was a pause. A hush fell. The lone figure of Hawkeye Henson, former world champion bronc rider, emerged from the clutch of men. He started across the room, his black silk shirt pulled tight across his chest, his neckerchief arranged with the point hanging down the front, his black hat cocked, his famous eagle feather at an upward angle, his spurs softly jingling on the tiles. As he neared the queens, Miss Kentucky looked him up and down and said, “I wonder if this is the beginning of the end?”

Working Cowhorse Pattern

Ride the pattern as follows:

Begin work to the right,

First figure eight,

Second figure eight; proceed to rail,

Begin run,

Sliding stop,

Turn away from rail: begin second run,

Sliding stop,

Turn away from rail; make short run,

Sliding stop,

Back up,

Quarter turn to right or left,

Half turn to opposite direction,

Half turn opposite.

That is one of the horsemanship patterns printed in the Miss Rodeo America Official Rule Book. The book is a white paperback with twenty-four photocopied pages, and it begins with the question: “What are we looking for in a Miss Rodeo America? Answer: An attractive, intelligent girl… a girl who has never been, is not now, or who will not become pregnant during her reign… a well-dressed girl who can ride a horse with showmanship and skill, and promote the great sport of rodeo.” In other words, a beautiful, big-breasted, barrel-racing, flag-waving, fashionable virgo intacta with an IQ somewhere above the persons who composed the Official Rule Book.

The book provides a section on “dress wear for horsemanship,” supplies a list of equestrian skills the queens are scored on, and concludes with two pages of diagrams illustrating the Miss Rodeo America Horsemanship Patterns Numbers 1 and 2. There is one omission, however, one fact the Rule Book committee neglected to photocopy: The horses in the contest are green. The Miss Rodeo America Pageant is produced in the Cowgirl Capital of the World during National Finals Rodeo Week, when the finest stock in America is stabled in the city limits, and the queens get green horses. (They are supplied by local saddle and bridle clubs, riding schools, stock contractors, and “interested individuals.”) That is to say, the Official Rule Book tells a queen that she must wear a “form-fitting western blouse or shirt with long sleeves, any color with yoke, and shirttail tucked in” while she performs her figure eights, proceeds to the rail, begins her run, slides to a stop, turns from the rail, begins her second run, slides to a stop, turns from the rail, makes her short run, slides to a stop, and backs up; but it does not tell her that her horse might blow up.

The Official Rule Book was composed by persons who yearn to merge Miss America with Dale Evans, who burn to combine “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the barnyard: the breast and the breast collar. What do these people care about green horses when what they are looking for is Phyllis George Evans, her hair flashing in the floodlights and her ass fastened on anything that nickers? Next to nothing.

7:30 A.M. to 9:30 A.M. breakfast. Speeches by one-third of the contestants on their respective states.

Miss Rodeo Hawaii walked to the front of the room, smiled—she had a mouthful of spectacularly large, dazzlingly white, splendidly shaped teeth with beautiful crimson gums—delivered the first paragraph of her speech, and stopped dead. “I’m sorry.” she said, smiling. A half-minute passed. “I’m sorry,” she said, her smile disintegrating completely, and sat down.

“Our next contestant will be Miss Nebraska!” sang Dorothy Alexander.

10:00 P.M. Pajama party. One-third of the contestants give gifts. Illinois passed out popcorn balls; Colorado, Coors T-shirts; Iowa, crocheted booties; and Tennessee, fifty bottles of Jack Daniel’s.

“But you cannot drink them!” yelled Dorothy. She was now wearing a Mediterranean blue peignoir set. “Listen to Mother,” said the television producer, who was there with his crew again.

“I’m going to come in every room tonight and check,” giggled Dorothy.

“Hey, Texas.” yelled the television producer, “hold up that bottle. Hey! Hold up that bottle.”

“No pictures!” cried Dorothy.

A member of the press and a pageant official were at the gate when Miss Idaho entered the arena in the first go-round of the horsemanship competition. “This horse turns nice,” said the official. The horse ducked off the wrong way four times toward the alley in the figure eight. “He’s nice on the turns, though,” said the official. The horse lunged at the rail, made two bounds, and blew up into a ticking gallop on the run. On the slide, he reared, nearly fell over backward. “Miss Idaho should sit more on her crotch,” said the official. In the second run, Miss Idaho worked the reins, kept the horse’s head low, corrected the cross-firing of his back end. On the slide, he reared again. “It’s all in Miss Idaho’s crotch,” said the official. The third run was smooth—the slide was second-rate, but no rearing. “Boy, wait till you see this guy turn,” said the official. Miss Idaho backed the horse, reined him to the right for the pivot. The horse stood like a post. Miss Idaho calmly worked the reins. The horse sucked in his breath, became a statue. “Where did you find this piece of crap?” asked the member of the press. The nine judges looked on in silence. Miss Idaho removed her foot from the stirrup and heeled the horse in the right shoulder with her boot. The horse swung to the right. The crowd applauded. “He’s fantastic!” shouted the official. The horse spun left. The crowd cheered. Miss Idaho rolled him right, shot her salute, and cantered out of the arena to an enthusiastic ovation. The official shouted even more excitedly. “Oh, he’s just fantastic! Fantastic, fantastic!”

“You girls are out on horses all day. In the gunk. In the muck. In the manure. That’s what causes blackheads.”

The queens were listening to this in the hotel conference room. The room had rows of seats ascending in tiers, and on the ceiling there were the sort of circles of tiny fluorescent lights that make people who sit under them look funny. The lights in the room could be turned high or low, but either way the queens looked weird. They looked especially weird in the light because they were wearing little pink ruffs around their necks and had little pink plastic makeup trays with mirrors in front of them, and masks on their faces. It was the afternoon of the coronation, and the Mary Kay consultants were meeting with them in the conference room for a “cosmetic session.”

“There she is, ladies and gentlemen!” said Hadley. “The 1981 Miss Rodeo America!”

“Have any of you dried?” asked the head consultant, at a lectern in the front of the room. The assistant consultants walked up and down the rows checking to see if any queens were dry. If they were, they were handed hot washcloths.

“Since the masks are taking some time,” said the head consultant, “why don’t I just give you a little history about how Mary Kay got started. Well, there was this old tanner of hides….” At this point Miss South Dakota ripped off her ruff, put her head down on her tray, and went to sleep.

“I see you are dressed for the coronation,” I said.

“Yes, but I don’t look as good as some of the girls.”

“Do you mind if I write down what you have on?”

“No. Go ahead.”

“All right. You have on gold-and-silver collar tips with your initials.”


“You have on a blue silk scarf with your Initials set in diamonds pinned across the knot.”


“Your buckle is gold and silver with rubies and diamonds.”


“You have blue—what are those?”


“Blue eel boots. Black hat. Black pants. Blue jacket.”

“You forgot the buttons.”

“The, ah, buttons are silver circles with raised gold flowers with rubies in the middle.”


The person I was speaking to was Joe “Sandy” Boone, president of Miss Rodeo America.

There is a sound that barrel-racing horses make when they are in the alley and ready to run. It’s a rapid, thumping sound of hoofs hitting dirt. The air is thick with dust, and the noise of the hoofs sounds richer in the dust, and when the dirt clods hit the iron chutes as the horses rear back and dig out, there is also a ringing sound. These were the sounds in the State Fair Grounds arena alley the night of the coronation. The horses were rank, and they didn’t have fifty; and each queen had to race into the arena, fire her salute, and then gallop out the gate and dismount so that the next could ride in. But it was, as a matter of fact, the finest time of the pageant.

The ten finalists had been named. The four runners-up had been named. The reigning Miss Rodeo America had taken her last royal roar around the arena. Six rodeo clowns had competed in a bullfighting championship. And the winner of that had been named.

“Well, folks,” said Hadley Barrett, the rodeo announcer, to a crowd that could have been larger, “is there anything else we have to do tonight?”

“I can’t stand it any longer,” said Diana Putman, the reigning queen.

“May we have the envelope, please?” said Hadley. There was a drum roll. “Who will wear the crown next? If you’re too nervous to open that envelope I’ll—Oh! You got it. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to ask Diana to name her successor. Diana, we want you to name the 1981 Miss Rodeo America.”

Diana looked down at the card in her hand, then shouted, “Miss Rodeo Colorado!”

Screams from the contestants.

Kathy Martin, five-foot six, 120 pounds, dark eyes, flashing hair, a public relations major whose hobbies were “equine evaluation, training quarter horses, dancing, jogging, sewing, and trail riding,” made her way toward her precursor. The band struck up “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Diana removed the crown from her hat and placed it on Miss Colorado’s hat. The queens were screaming.

“There she is, ladies and gentlemen!” said Hadley. “The 1981 Miss Rodeo America!”

Miss Colorado walked down the steps: no train, no tears, no toppling tiaras, no scepters, no roses, no ermine. All that awaited her was the top reining horse in the country, dancing at the end of a rein held by a cowboy in white.

[Photo Credit: micadew via Wikimedia Commons and Makena Zayle Gadient via Flickr]

Print Article