By Marlee Smith
QUEEN CREEK – Rodeo queening is a long-standing tradition in the American West, dating to the first rodeo queen who was crowned 111 years ago. And the founding of the Miss Rodeo America organization in 1955 took rodeo queening to a national scale, setting up state organizations across the country.
Still, it is an often unappreciated aspect of rodeo culture.
“Rodeo queening is kind of in the low light of rodeo,” said McKenna McKinnon, president of Miss Rodeo Arizona. “A lot of people don’t necessarily know the work that they put in. The hours of studying and the things they need to know about horsemanship and equine. These girls really work hard. It’s enlightening.”
The 39th annual Miss Rodeo Arizona Scholarship Pageant recently crowned its 2022 Miss Rodeo Arizona, Kennadee Riggs, and Miss Teen Rodeo Arizona, Tova Conner, at Heart Cry Church in Queen Creek. Nine contestants competed in the 2022 pageant that featured the theme “Kickin’ Up Kindness” to honor the legacy of the late Julee Brady.
Brady, who played many key roles in the advancement of rodeo queening and the traditions of the western way of life, including founding the Cowgirls Historical Foundation, passed away from a rare form of cancer in August of 2020.
“We’re very blessed,” McKinnon said. “The contestants we had, their families, the support of the community and our sponsors was unreal. Without those pieces, there isn’t a pageant.”
The first day included one of the most important events of the pageant: horsemanship. Contestants rode their own horses in designated patterns in the arena, just as they would at a rodeo in front of a crowd. In the queen category, contestants rode another contestant’s horse to demonstrate control and understanding of an unfamiliar horse.
“Horsemanship is the most important award,” said Flagstaff’s Katie Ramos, a contestant and the current Miss Turquoise Circuit. “We are rodeo queens. We need to know how to ride and care for the animals we are working with.”
Contestants also take a written horsemanship test that includes questions about the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules, veterinary medicine, equine anatomy, animal care and rodeo history. These two parts of horsemanship make up a large part of the judges’ scoring for the weekend.
“It covers anything and everything,” said Tova Conner, 2022 Miss Teen Rodeo Arizona. “I spent lots of time with my local farrier, following and learning from him. It was extremely helpful.”
On the second day, contestants participated in one-on-one interviews with the judges. The second half of the day included informal modeling, speeches and a question-and-answer session on current events in front of an audience.
On the final day, contestants showed off their full-glam looks in the formal modeling event and speeches. In the queen category, a media interview was also part of the scoring. All contestants and 2019-2021 Miss Teen Rodeo Arizona, Shai Forman, danced in the sponsored Kimes Ranch Fashion Show. Contestants also brought items to auction live, while sponsors and donors provided items for a silent auction.
The crowning ceremony began with a tribute to Brady, founder of the CHF, a group that educates and continues the tradition of cowgirls across the U.S. She also created the Kick’n Up Kindness program and believed deeply in giving back to her community.
“It is so amazing and special just to see how our mom did touch people’s lives,” said Taryn Hale, Brady’s daughter, and Miss Rodeo Arizona 2009. “She was intentionally teaching about life and how to be a good person.”
The 2020 Miss Rodeo Arizona Board created the Julee Brady Award to honor her legacy. Each board member knew Brady personally and they were all devastated when she lost her battle with carcinosarcoma.
Applying for the award was optional, and the board wanted it to continue Brady’s legacy and represent those who believe in the power of kindness and giving back.
“When the board first asked if they could do this and if this could be part of the pageant going forward; we had invited people to come for a horse ride in my mom’s honor,” Hale said. “It was a special time to have that request come in. We are very grateful that it is going to be perpetuated. It’s an honor to see this in our mom’s name.”
Contestants submitted an essay about kindness and what it means to them, a list of good deeds done in their last year, and reference letters from others. Members of the community – from nurses and firefighters to local politicians – chose a winner who portrayed Brady’s same light and values.
“She never ever wanted to be in the spotlight,” McKinnon said. “She wanted to spread kindness. She never had to say anything, you just felt it. She touched so many people’s lives.”
Emily Hinkle of Queen Creek received the first Julee Brady Kick’n Up Kindness Award for her love of giving back and always putting others before herself. Hinkle said her goal in life is to be known for her kindness.
“It is such an honor, I don’t even have words,” Hinkle said. “Julee Brady was an amazing person and incredible role model. To be the first one to receive this award is so overwhelming. I am so honored.”
Brady’s death was devastating to the community and the many organizations she served. The award was presented to Emily by Brady’s daughters Shanda, Marjon, Kelsee and Taryn.
“She was the perfect recipient of the award,” Hale said. “What she does in her life, in her career, in her interests, she is honoring the past, protecting our resources and preserving our western heritage. My mom was very much all about those goals.
Hale said that, although there was a panel of judges, she believes her mom had a hand in choosing the winner.
“It felt like my mom was happy to be able to hand that buckle to Emily,” Hale said. “It was really neat for me. I was the one holding the buckle. I felt like I was my mom’s hands in handing the buckle to Emily. It was really special to give her a big, tight hug and feel how happy she was to be the recipient of the award.
“We couldn’t ask for anything more. We were very grateful to be a part of the process and we were very grateful to have such a wonderful recipient for the award to go to. All the way around we are feeling so honored and grateful that my mom’s legacy can continue this way.”
Along with being crowned 2022 Miss Teen Rodeo Arizona, Conner also won several individual categories including High Sales overall, High Score Written Test overall, Appearance, Horsemanship, Personality and Speech.
“I am beyond excited for the year ahead,” Conner said. “I’m not most excited for one specific thing, but more so for the different journeys and people that I’m going to meet.”
Conner currently holds the title of Navajo County Fair and Rodeo Teen Queen. She will stay in that position through October when a new queen is crowned.
Kennadee Riggs of Queen Creek won the title of Miss Rodeo Arizona. Riggs also won the categories of Appearance, Personality, Photogenic and Speech. Riggs had held three titles with the Gilbert Days Rodeo. She was named Gilbert Days Rodeo Missy, Teen Queen and Queen.
“I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was probably 4 years old,” Riggs said. “ I can’t believe it’s here.”
Over the next year Kennadee, Tova, and the Miss Rodeo Arizona Board will travel throughout Arizona and the U.S. representing the Grand Canyon State at rodeos of every level.
“These girls are hard-working,” McKinnon said. “I’m excited. I’m looking forward to the rodeos. I’m looking forward to watching them grow. They go from girls to women and leaders in the community.”