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Olivia Ary grew up idolizing Douglas County Fair and Rodeo royalty.
With their perfectly primped hair, makeup and western outfits, combined with the suave quality of their rodeo and horse riding skills, rodeo queens were her role models, Ary said.
Now, the 16-year-old Highlands Ranch teen is taking the helm as the 2018 Douglas County Rodeo Queen. The honor carries more weight than usual, as Ary will reign during the 100th anniversary of the county fair.
In taking on the role, she will begin a rotation of appearances, travel and weekend events representing the county — because although the 2017 fair and rodeo has closed its doors, being rodeo queen is a year-round commitment.
“It’s a huge year,” Ary said of the centennial anniversary. “It definitely adds pressure but it’s exciting pressure.”
Before Ary rose to the ranks of queen, she was one of 12 girls competing for princess, queen and their attendants. Girls from both the high school and collegiate age level vied for a title by spending weeks in preparation.
Ary said she spent two hours in the arena practicing her horsemanship skills, four or five days a week.
But aside from horsemanship, candidates are tested for knowledge of their horse and the industry — such as certain vaccinations, types of feed, horse health and anatomy. They’re given a written test, interviewed by judges and asked to perform a speech.
Ultimately, the competition is an hours-long process where candidates prove they are the best person to represent Douglas County.
Ahead of the pomp and circumstance of the county fair, the program hosted two practices for the rodeo queen competition. On July 10, candidates arrived to the county fairgrounds with black, brown, gray and painted ponies in tow, ready to sharpen their horsemanship skills under the watchful eye of rodeo coaches.
They donned cowboy hats and shining belt buckles. They paired jeans with Western style shirts. All looking the part, the girls first circled their horses around Debbie Mills, a co-coordinator of the rodeo royalty program.
“We’re really honored that you would do this,” Mills said, before explaining that receiving a title would be a big commitment. “This is a job.”
In the next couple hours, despite rain spitting down on them, the girls drove their horses through riding patterns mapped out by instructors who carefully critiqued their form and technique, pointing out errors a judge might see.
A rodeo queen must smile at all times while riding in the arena, coaches said. And so the girls flashed their best grins as they waved to an imaginary crowd, all the while riding their horses in large circles and more complex patterns.
Mills’ goal, she said, was to make the competition judges’ decision very difficult.
When the big day came on July 23, the girls had put in hours, days and weeks preparing.
One girl asked a nearby competitor: “You ready?”.
“I think so, but you can never be too sure,” she replied.
In front of a crowd of family and friends, candidates entered the arena one at a time for the horsemanship round. They showcased their ability to start and stop their horse, change directions and complete what’s known as a “hot lap,” or a fast lap around the arena along the fence.
Some horses — including Ary’s — gave their riders trouble, not wanting to smoothly complete their pattern. But that was OK.
Judges don’t worry about if a horse performs perfectly. They know each animal reacts to crowds differently. What they watched was how the rider responded. Regardless of how the ride when, each girl was cheered on by her fellow competitors.
“I think I learned a lot about support and companionship,” Ary said. “Seeing that sense of community, even though were all competing.”
Helping to lead girls through the competition was the 2017 Rodeo Queen, Emily Wormington. The 17-year-old senior at Highlands Ranch High School was preparing to relinquish her title after a transformative year, she said.
“I started out as a really shy child and when I started trying out for royalty it really boosted my confidence,” she said.
Wormington also served as rodeo princess in 2015. Through her participation in the program, Wormington said she is a better speaker and has already begun networking in fields she’s considering as a career thanks to connections she gained as queen.
Most importantly, being queen was about tradition and getting out of her comfort zone, she said.
“Rodeo is a sport for the past, present and future that many have worked hard to establish. One of my goals as queen was to make sure that the tradition can stay alive,” she said. “I’ve left with so many new friends and memories that will last a lifetime. And the contacts that I’ve made, I know that they will help me throughout my life.”
Wormington hopes to one day compete for Miss Rodeo Colorado, and she wouldn’t be alone if she did. Roxann Harris, co-coordinator for the program, said many girls in Douglas County go on to pursue bigger rodeo pageant titles.
And, they grow as individuals.
“By this time next year they’re a completely different person,” she said of the rodeo royalty court. “Their whole persona has changed and they just walk into these young women who are so confident.”
Ary has already improved her confidence. She’d been most nervous for the public speaking portion of the competition, she said, but was relieved when she made it through.
Now, she’s aiming to be the role model she looked up to, for the younger kids who are now watching her wear the crown.
“I want to do the best job that I can,” Ary said. “It’s going to be a really good year.”
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