By Christina Shepherd McGuire // Photography by Meg Potter
As dusk approaches on a hot Friday night in July, pickup trucks pour onto the grounds of the Teton County Idaho Fairgrounds north of Driggs. I pull my Toyota FJ Cruiser into a dusty parking space, sandwiched between a few of the trucks, grab my camp chair, and proceed to find my friends on the north end of the arena. I swing my sandaled foot over the tailgate of my friend Katie’s rusty green 1978 Ford F-150 Supercab and settle in among friends dressed in cowboy boots and faded jeans for a front-row seat to the action.
“You look like you’re dressed for a wine tasting,” says Katie about my white linen shirt and flip flops (not exactly rodeo attire, as, after 25 years living in the valley, I still can’t ditch my East Coast roots).
Then, Rex Hansen’s voice comes over the loudspeaker as the local rodeo girls make their grand entrance into the arena on breathtakingly beautiful, cantering horses. Dressed in felt hats, sashes, and sparkling belt buckles, the royalty circles the arena and forms a line with their horses in front of the audience. Little girls swoon, and I, recognizing my dear friend and neighbor Sydney Mitchell, Teton County, Idaho’s Junior Rodeo Queen, am overcome with a sense of pride for the heritage of our valley. We bow our heads for the Cowboy Prayer as I stare in awe at the cowgirl ambassadors before me and realize the knowledge, skill, grit, and determination it takes to uphold this cultural stamp steeped deep in tradition.
Beyond the Dress
Some liken the experience of rodeo queening to that of a beauty pageant, as the auditioning process involves modeling a gown. Yet, “putting on formal wear is just one small part of the process,” says Donnie Wackerman, Teton County, Wyoming’s Fair Board Royalty Director. “Rodeo queening involves a lot of knowledge and horsemanship skills. It’s based off of many different things.”
Wackerman outlines the royalty auditioning process, which includes a segment on formal wear, horsemanship, an interview, and a speech. The modeling portion of the audition involves dressing up in your best (and fanciest) outfit that is judged both on style and western flair. Next, the older girls, ages 14 to 24, are asked interview questions on current happenings in the rodeo world, as well as basic rodeo facts.
“Questions can include things like ‘What’s the name of one rough stock event?’or ‘How does the barrier system work in team roping?’” explains Wackerman. “[The girls] are Teton County Fair and Rodeo’s ambassadors—our face to the public. So, they need to be able to educate people about all things rodeo.”
After that, the girls each present their speech on a predetermined topic (last year in Teton Valley, Idaho, the topic reflected the theme of the fair: “Good ‘Ole Summertime). Then, the girls change into their riding attire and perform a basic reining pattern with their horse. The younger girls, ages 8 to 13, are asked simple questions and compete in the horsemanship category, as well, conducting rail work around the arena fence and demonstrating the basics of the walk, trot, lope, and stop.
Next, the judges compile their results and award the participants with the role of Rodeo Queen (ages 18 to 24), Lady-in-Waiting (in Wyoming only), Junior Queen (ages 14 to 17), Princess (ages 11 to 13), Pee Wee Princess (ages 8 to 10), and Mini Princess (ages 4 to 7, Idaho only).
Queens and Junior Queens are expected to attend most rodeo events, participate in the Grand Entrance, carry the state and American flags, and wrangle the small livestock during the events. They are also present at the Teton County, Wyoming, and Idaho Fairs, handing out prizes and educating attendees.
“They have to be able to get down and dirty on their horse to help things run smoothly,” says Kelsey Smaellie, Teton Valley, Idaho, Fair and Royalty Committee board member. “It’s a responsibility to be trusted to gather animals, as needed, and to help with all the events at the fair, including pig wrestling and horse pulls.”
Smaellie’s daughter Maddie Rae, age 5, carried out the duties of Mini Princess last summer by attending the Fourth of July parade in Victor, walking the grandstands while her bio was rehearsed, and giving treat bags to the kids in the rodeo stands.
Queen for Much More than a Day
Jordan Lutz, 2021 Miss Teton County, Wyoming, Fair and Rodeo Queen, is a first-generation cowgirl and started queening when she was 8.
“I heard about [rodeo royalty] through the grapevine when I was in 4-H, I we signed up,” she says. “My first title was Pee Wee Princess Attendant. I went to almost every rodeo and thought I was the coolest thing ever to call myself a ‘Rodeo Princess.’”
Lutz dreamed of being a rodeo queen ever since she worked as a summer trail guide at the A-OK Corral in Jackson. Growing up, her parents never owned horses or participated in rodeo, but her mom, originally from Cheyenne, would take Lutz to the Cody rodeo where she’d see the queens in action; she even met the Australia’s Rodeo Queen at the Cheyenne Frontier Day event. These experiences instilled in her a drive to go for the title.
“I was always an attendant. Then, I tried out for Pee Wee Princess, Junior and Senior Princesses, and Lady-in-Waiting. I didn’t [actually] get my first title until my second year running for Junior Princess,” she explains.
Lutz says her role of Rodeo Queen has furthered her knowledge of western heritage, helped her become a better horseback rider, and taught her how to speak in public.
“It has opened my eyes to my future career,” she says. “I’m going to school for animal science, agriculture, and equine studies. I’ve been thinking about going into an equine nutrition role. I also want to explore equine massage and chiropractic work, or just be an ag vet on farms.”
Samantha Thoenig’s (2022 Miss Teton County, Wyoming, Fair and Rodeo Queen) path is a little different. In the 70s, her grandpa, a local jeweler, crafted the queen crown for the county, complete with Wyoming jade and diamonds. She’s participated in the rodeo—as a barrel racer and team roper—since age eleven and used to ogle over the queens. This season, she decided to try it out for a chance to wear her grandpa’s crown.
“Before I [decided to audition], I thought all rodeo queens had to do was sit there and look pretty carrying the flag,” she says. “But, it’s not just about looking pretty. Horsemanship is the biggest part of the [competition]; it’s where you get your points to win. I probably wouldn’t have won if I didn’t have solid horsemanship skills.”
Thoenig chased her dreams to Arizona this winter to “get her name out there” on the pro circuit as a barrel racer. She’s hoping to land sponsors and fulfill her goal of riding professionally. Still, she looks forward to returning to Jackson and her queen duties this summer.
Lily Wilcox’s mother Michaele, former Teton Valley Idaho Rodeo Committee Chair, says Lily always wanted to be like her dad, Brock, who is a “big cowboy and roper.” So, this Driggs native tagged along on all of her father’s western outings. But it was Fred Crane, Rex Hansen’s rodeo announcer counterpart (who passed on in 2017), that upped her stoke for queening.
“Fred Crane used to ride his pinto mare and announce from down below while he was riding,” says Lily. “He really got the crowd involved. … I’d climb up on the fence and talk to Fred. I wanted to be out there on my horse, like Fred, making a difference.”
As she got older, Lily enrolled in 4-H, raising and showing pigs and goats, and participated in leather crafting and sewing. Then, in 2015, she ran for Pee Wee Princess and won. Since then, she’s been Princess twice, Junior Queen, and then, last summer, took over the Rodeo Queen position for Teton Valley, Idaho.
Lily’s favorite duty as queen is chasing out the livestock for breakaways and tie-downs.
“There are always little kids that come to the fence and want to pet our horses,” she says. “It makes me happy that I’m able to provide this role model for kids—they look up to me! … That was me with Fred.”
Like Lutz and Thoenig, the experience of rodeo royalty has heightened Lily’s love for agricultural pursuits. During her freshman year of high school, she competed in the Future Farmers of America’s (FFA) Creed Speaking Leadership Development Event (LDE), where she competed in the public speaking category. She won first place in this event for Teton High School and came in second in districts. This past school year, Lily also participated in the Distinguished Young Women scholarship program, auditioning in categories like fitness, talent, interviewing, and self-expression. Lily says that her experience with rodeo royalty gave her the confidence she needed for these events.
It’s a Cowgirl Thing
Thoenig takes pride in promoting the cowboy heritage of Jackson. She aims to set up a booth in Jackson’s Town Square this summer to market rodeo culture and raise awareness.
“A lot of the people who have recently moved to Jackson—they don’t even know [rodeoing] is a thing,” she says. “I want to show the newcomers that Jackson is still a western town and that rodeoing is a huge part of it.”
Sydney Mitchell feels like she’s contributing to the valley’s culture by holding the Idaho flag and representing “Teton Valley, Idaho” during the rodeo’s Grand Entry.
“We are happy to live here, and we are grateful for that,” she says. “Our rodeo and fair duties—holding the flags, handing out awards, and having little kids look up to us—are important. We are honoring the sport of rodeo and encouraging the 4-H participants who put their time and energy into raising livestock.”
Smaellie loves the values that rodeo royalty is instilling in her children.
“They will grow up learning to honor their western heritage,” she says. “It’s few and far between that we have opportunities like this to 1. experience, and 2. participate in. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a lifestyle.”
A Tribute to Rex …
April 3, 1953 – November 21, 2021
Rex Hansen (aka “Cowboy”) used his “gift of gab” to entertain audiences as an announcer for the Teton Valley, Idaho, Rodeo. On his ranch in Tetonia, you could often find him feeding cattle in the wintertime via a horse-drawn sleigh, with Sydney Mitchell and her family by his side.
“I loved Rex as the announcer, not only because he always told the same funny jokes, but because I grew up knowing him—I saw him almost every day,” says Mitchell. “He loved sharing his knowledge about rodeo and how it impacted his life. … I remember one time when I was pole bending in slack, he said, ‘I don’t know if her mom and dad know, but [Sydney] is my unofficial grandchild.’”