By Candace Dantes
Chin up. Shoulders level. Control the reins.
Most importantly: Smile and have a darn good time out there.
Pageant contestants of the first-ever Miss Rodeo Fort Smith rehearsed for weeks leading up to the Feb. 11 and 12 competition held at Hero’s Arena in Natural Dam, Arkansas.
“This pageant has opened up a world I never knew about,” said Jaidyn Burrell, a 17-year-old senior, “or knew was possible to participate in.”
Burrell rounded out 30 contestants for the extravaganza of country Western fashion, horsemanship, and the basics to owning stage presence.
Each represented the historic Wild West town of Fort Smith – 14 miles, give or take, from the arena.
Burrell and 22-year-old quarter horse Tomcat (nicknamed T.C.) practiced designated patterns while building trust for the “Miss” division of the competition.
And although the pair didn’t take home the crown, that sureness in one another strengthened.
This year’s winners: Queen Carissa Webster; Teen Jaydah Releford; Princess Skyla Burton; Sweetheart Stella Smith; and Little Miss Cataleya Reyes.
Produced by Fort Smith native Ja’Dayia Kursh – the first Black rodeo queen of Arkansas – the community pageant originated for local toddlers up to teens.
Miss Rodeo Fort Smith set the foundation for contestants to experience rodeo arena life, and for the majority of them, contact with horses.
Crowns, chaps, buckles and sashes lavished the grounds for the two-day competition.
Kursh flashbacks to it all.
The contemporary cowgirl and now social sensation started riding horses at age 6 and competing in rodeo pageants by age 13.
She earned the crown of Miss Rodeo Coal Hill of Arkansas in 2017. Becoming international news by 2019.
“I created Miss Rodeo Fort Smith to get rid of the stigmas associated with this type of pageant,” said Kursh, 23. “Who can compete, and the expenses that come along with the experience. The weaves. The dresses. The horses.”
Instead, Kursh aimed to recast the competitive scene into a sisterhood for newer generations of contestants. One founded on friendships. That actually alleviated parents and cowgirls from having to go too deep into family pockets just to participate.
Major brands like Wrangler provided fashion and styling support while the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation captured the pageant’s five divisions: Little Miss (up to age 3); Sweetheart (ages 4 through 6); Princess (ages 7 through 10); Teen (ages 11 through 14); and Miss (ages 15 through 18).
The girls primped and prepped together at Hero’s Arena for two hours, three consecutive Sundays prior to the show.
“A friend told me about Miss Rodeo Fort Smith from Facebook,” said Melinda Reed, a 30-year-old pageant mom who celebrated her birthday the day her 4-year-old sashayed for the fashion show Feb. 12. “I’m glad we entered. My daughter, Amorah, is an animal lover and has plenty of sass.”
For the mother-daughter pair, both tried something new.
Precisely what Kursh wanted for everyone involved.
As soon as Kursh posted the first-time community event on Facebook, the response became a ripple effect of “sign us up.”
“To get 50 families registered online and have 30 actually go through with entering this brand-new space in my hometown was incredible,” said Kursh.
The city also pitched in.
Billboards plastered with Kursh and her Miss Rodeo Fort Smith aspirants.
Fort Smith’s first Black mayor and fellow native George McGill crowned each of the winners.
McGill pressed the pageant helped reinforce the town’s long-standing agriculture and cowhand heritage:
“Our city is a beautiful fabric of America and the American West,” McGill said. “It’s multicultural and touches on so many historical moments of our national experiences. What Ja’Dayia has done adds to our story.”
The former military fort defends more than 200 years of history. It’s home to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. This tourism destination features remains from frontier forts and the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas.
A 25-foot monument honoring Bass Reeves – believed to hold rank as the first Black U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi – rides high at Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park.
Fort Smith is where justice was served. And soldiers drilled. In modern times, citizens and tourists can visit the Trail of Tears overlook to reflect on U.S. highs and lows.
“Ja’Dayia and this pageant expand Fort Smith’s cowhand and Black history-making footprint,” said McGill.
The full-time cowgirl reserves personal time to raise funds for local initiatives connected to increasing youth engagement in agriculture.
She also has participated in global ag-related campaigns with Justin Boots, Wrangler, Beyoncé’s athleisure line Ivy Park, and Sephora to bring more recognition to the lifestyle. With modern, American West style. Atop the most stately steeds.
Kursh made TV appearances on NBC’s TODAY Show, The Kelly Clarkson Show, and PBS.
“Before the limelight, I spent a lot of time getting to know myself as a person and a rider,” Kursh said. “Competing in ‘Miss Rodeo’ pageants is a huge confidence-builder. It’s what I saw develop in each of these talented contestants this first year.”
Candace Dantes is a fourth-generation farm girl and award-winning journalist based in the Georgia Black Belt Region. Currently, the print-to-digital content creator serves as communications director for national not-for-profit Outdoor Afro. She also served as project manager and education journalist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture research grant Black Farmers’ Network.