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Faces of the rodeo: Miss Rodeo is about history and riding, not just beauty

LAS VEGAS – Contrary to the common perception, there is more to beauty pageants than looks. That’s particularly true in the Miss Rodeo America competition, where the entrants not only have to be easy on the eyes, but they also have to represent and promote their sport with the savvy of a PR expert, ride a horse like a barrel racer and have a historian’s mind for their sport.

“Judges are looking for not only looks but ability to ride and knowledge of the sport,” said Kelli Jackson, a 23-year-old from Eupora, Miss., who just completed her reign as Miss Rodeo American 2010. “That means anything from history of rodeo to current stats to who is who within the sport. Additionally, since most people might only see Miss Rodeo on horseback, she has to be an excellent horseman, proficient and able to get on any horse at any rodeo and put on a great show for the crowd.”

On Saturday, Jackson passed the crown to her successor McKenzie Haley, also 23, a college student from South Dakota. Haley said what separates Miss Rodeo America from other pageants is that “they’re looking for someone who is real. A real person, someone who is down to earth, who is able to relate to many people she may meet throughout the country. I think it’s different because we have a knowledge about something we’re passionate about and are able to share that with people.”

Like many people involved in rodeo, interest in the sport is passed down from one generation to the next. The same is true for Haley, who said she comes from a line of rodeo queens. She entered her first contest at age 10 and immediately fell in love.

“I love the Western lifestyle, I love rodeo and I love being able to represent it across the country,” she said.

She’ll spend the next year traveling to rodeos around the country to promote the sport she admires, especially for the camaraderie among the contestants.

“In every other sport you see teams competing against each other,” Haley said. “And cowboys do compete against each other, but they’re also traveling with each other and they’re also helping each other out and trying to help their competitor do just as well as them. It’s amazing sportsmanship. I see it at every rodeo I attend.”

As for Jackson, she plans to get married in the spring, then use the scholarship she earned as part of winning the contest to return to college in pursuit of a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree. She plans to continue to be a role model in the sport she loves, saying she looks forward to raising a family in the rodeo lifestyle.

“It was the ride of a lifetime for me,” Jackson said. “I’ve always enjoyed sharing rodeo with others. It’s been my passion since a young age.

“Rodeo is a sport that grew out of an industry, and it’s one that kind of embodies Old Western values. It’s the only type of sport, in my opinion, where you’ll see a family atmosphere. It’s a professional sport where families can come enjoy not only as spectators, but as competitors as well. That’s my favorite thing about rodeo.”

See Faces of the Rodeo: The cowboys. Get to know some of the top competitors in rodeo, and find out what they love about their sport.