It would be any other day at any given rodeo across the west, but this just happens to be a small town in Eastern Oregon where a group of small girls have lost track of the event for the moment. A cowgirl walks past them, leading a paint horse on a pink halter that matches her outfit, complete with pressed shirt, dangling earrings, and a pristinely shaped Resistol hat adorned with a sparkling silver tiara that makes her highlighted cheeks shine all the more. Hearing their murmurs, she turns a smile toward them and waves as she turns the corner toward the chutes at the far end. Not a girl in the group is four feet tall yet, but with that wave, they are all giants in their tiny boots. They return the wave with giggles and grins and run off with a tale to tell.

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A few minutes later, the queen’s name is called from the announcer’s booth, and she bolts from the entry gate at full speed. She straddles that paint, who is showing nerves about the arena’s tight corners and a pen of obnoxious bulls behind him, but she still opens up a smile that would charm the grouchiest chute boss, raising her right hand to wave again, not just to the little crew of ponytailed admirers now seated, but at everyone else who has joined them in the stands. She sits alone in the saddle but carries her committee, her sponsors, her way of life, and the sport she loves dearly with her, all accompanied by the sound of cheers, hooves pounding rhythmically, leather chaps slapping, and the loudspeakers bringing another ’90s country tune to life again. Suddenly, with a firmer grip on the reins, her quick trip is over, and she slows to a walk as the announcer uses his bawl and drawl to bring in the next queen who follows suit. Pushing a stray bobby pin back into place, our queen takes a breath, nods her thanks to the gate attendant, and heads to her trailer.

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It may not seem like much. It might seem like a lot of sparkle and flash for a few moments, but that’s only the most noticeable part of that queen’s responsibilities. Today she’s already helped with an educational rodeo program at the local daycare, had a professional’s lunch with the mayor, and helped organize a photoshoot with the breast care van parked at the arena for the festivities. She never knows when she’ll be called on to move cattle, pose with a dignitary, or run a sponsor flag between events. Royalty is about representing not only one’s rodeo and sponsors, but being the face of that way of life we call the western way. It’s about the heritage of the Old West with young, fresh faces.

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These are more than just beautiful faces on display, though. They are intelligent, strong, and talented. They know to wing their eyeliner, but they also know what makes a good bronc ride, the history of each rodeo event, and the finer points of all things horse-related. They are passionate about their sport and its culture –  fervent in their love of the West, its people, and the little places that speckle its maps. They are ranch hands and competitors; they are students pursuing careers in engineering, media, nursing, biological sciences, and everything in between. They represent our history in the present and help shoulder the promise of the future.

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For a moment, while that blinged-out saddle horse buzzes the arena, you’ll just see the clothes, the makeup, and the tiara, but there’s so much more behind that, and most won’t see it. It’s the time spent with terminal patients at local hospitals, the energy spent planning an event to support a local charity, the blood and sweat of equipment upkeep, and the tears when the fatigue finally kicks in late at night before sleep can overwhelm her weary body. You can see the lipstick, the sequins, and the glitter, but what drives a rodeo queen is so much deeper inside her, and it’s her heart.

Maybe that is what you see after all, though. Maybe that’s the only reason she puts in the attention and hard work she does. Maybe that’s the reason she grasps those reins in her left hand, and when the gate opens, her lips burst wide into a smile. Maybe that’s the reason she does what she does day after day, mile after mile, and rodeo after rodeo. That’s not just chaps and a tiara on that pretty girl. That’s the heart of a rodeo queen.

All photos are the property of Thomas Duncan and may not be used without his permission.

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