When most people think of pageants, they picture glittering gowns and glowing tans, bikini struts, “world peace” and pageant moms. But as the rodeo played out in Las Vegas this week, 32 cowgirls from Hawaii to Florida were competing in a slightly different pageant, Miss Rodeo America, where horsemanship skills matter as much as looking good in chaps, and the gowns are accessorized with big belt buckles and lots of fringe.
We caught up with 2015 winner Lauren Heaton of Oklahoma to talk rodeo crowns, riding strange horses and maybe hyperventilating just a little onstage.
First of all, congratulations on winning Miss Rodeo America. How are you feeling? It’s so humbling, and it’s still surreal. I get introduced at the WNFR [Wrangler National Finals Rodeo] tonight, so that’s something I’m really looking forward to.
How did you get into rodeo pageants? I have two older brothers, and I grew up in rodeo. I went to my first play day when I was 3 years old. Being the younger baby sister, it was kind of the girl hobby for me to do at rodeos, cause we were already going to be there. So, my mom put me in them when I was about 9 years old.
Do you have any funny memories from your early days in pageants? My mom loves telling this story [about] the first time I competed at the state level for the princess title. I was 11, and there were 13 girls competing, and we were just really overwhelmed. My mom leaned over to me at orientation and said, “Okay, we’re just here to learn.” I had no belt. I didn’t wear a belt the entire week, which is everyone’s favorite joke. And I actually ended up getting first runner-up against 13 different girls, having no belt and no clue what it was all about.
Tell me about where you grew up. I’m from a really small community in northwest Oklahoma called Alva, and I’m actually a fifth-generation farming-and-ranching cowgirl. So, my dad farms cattle, and the land we farm we got in the Land Run. I’m from just a really wonderful rodeo and Western community and everyone knows everyone. You do the farmer wave to each other.
Do you have a favorite rodeo event? I’ve taken up team roping in the past couple of years, and I really enjoy it: 1. Because I can use my own horse, and 2. I’ve been watching my brothers rope my entire life, and they never wanted me to learn how to rope because they thought I’d be around the cowboys too much. So when I got older, I was like, oh I can make this decision for myself. It’s one of the bigger events in rodeo, and getting a firsthand experience with it, I realize why these cowboys love it so much, and so do I.
Until this past weekend, I had no idea that they make rodeo crowns to go over the cowboy hats. Oh yeah! (laughs) The Miss Rodeo America crown is from Landstrom’s Black Hills Gold, and it has pearls and alexandrite, and it’s just beautiful and stunning.
The pageant competition included speeches, scrapbooking and a written test, but I was really impressed by the horsemanship competition, where you had to ride horses you’d never seen before. We call them draw horses, and we each drew two draw horses that we had never seen or ridden before, and we don’t warm them up. So the first time we know what’s under us is when we walk into the arena to perform a professional reigning pattern. All year we travel around and are given random horses … and this category just shows what kind of horsewoman each girl is and how well they can perform under pressure.
How did it go for you? I actually felt really good about it. I drew two really great horses. One was really amazing, and the other was really challenging, which allowed me to show my skills.
What kind of horses do you have at home? They’re all AQHA American Quarter Horses, and I have one, he takes me everywhere. We ride around arenas together; I rope off him; I reign off him; my 4-year-old niece rides him. So he’s a very cherished horse in my family.
At the pageant, what were you thinking when they called Miss Rodeo Arizona’s name as the first runner-up and you realized you had won? Taci Shaffer, Miss Rodeo Arizona, had done so amazing and she had won three of the categories, so I was there congratulating her. I was like, “This is going to be so great. You’re going to be so awesome.” And then they announced first runner-up and they said her name. It took me a second to register that that meant I had won. So everybody’s been kind of laughing at me today about my reaction, because they’re like, “It looked like you were hyperventilating.” And I’m like, “That’s kind of how I felt.”