Written by Barbara Newtown
In December 2014, at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, Paige Nicholson of Lawrence, Mississippi, passed the Miss Rodeo America crown to Lauren Heaton of Alva, Oklahoma. It was a bittersweet moment for Paige. She had made many friends and gotten to know America better, but now it was time for her to unwind and reflect on the past year and what her future would bring.
Miss Rodeo America is the official spokesperson for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Different rodeos across the country invite her to speak to groups and schools, and, most important, to kick off the rodeo competition by galloping into the arena on horseback, carrying the American flag. During her 2014 reign, Paige traveled more than 100,000 miles, officiated at many rodeos, and rode more than a hundred unfamiliar horses.
“You’re going all the time,” Paige says. “You learn to live on the road. You try to keep yourself together and healthy.” She actually enjoyed staying in hotels and going to rodeos, but, she says, “Flying got old in a hurry. I’m boycotting commercial flights for a while!” Through it all, Paige remembered that no matter how weary she was of back-to-back rodeo commitments, the people she was meeting were seeing Miss Rodeo America for the first time. “They don’t know that you haven’t slept more than six hours at a time in three weeks or that you just got off an airplane. You have to be your best self and have on a fresh face all the time.”
Paige’s road to the 2014 national title began with local pageant wins that led to her reign as Miss Rodeo Mississippi in 2013. The state title qualified her to enter the national pageant, which is held each year in conjunction with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the culmination of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.
“It’s like a normal pageant, except you wear Western clothes. And horsemanship is the talent competition. And no swimsuits!” In other words, not like a normal pageant at all. The garb is jeans, Western shirts and accessories, and perhaps a leather jacket. Contestants also need to have two or three long Western dresses—often made of leather. “Getting the wardrobe together was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done! A lot of the clothes you have to have custom-made. There aren’t that many designers doing Western wear, and they get booked up fast with all the girls that are competing. Also, it’s really expensive! I had two all-leather dresses. One was for my speech, and one was for my interview. I had another long Western gown, but it wasn’t leather, it was sort of a satin and lace mix.” Paige had to prepare at least 12 custom-made outfits.
The pageant lasts a week and the contestants are judged not only on appearance but also on their ability to think on their feet, give a speech, and, of course, communicate with a horse. Horsemanship happens on one day, but a contestant rides twice on two different horses that are chosen randomly. “You have no idea what sort of horse you’re going to get,” Paige says. “The first test is like half of a reining pattern, and it involves flying lead changes, stops, backing up… The second ride is a presentation ride, such as you would do as a queen in a rodeo. It’s a freestyle pattern: you do the required movements in your own sequence.” However, no flags are used. That would be too much to ask of a horse and rider who have never met before. “You just wave to the crowd. You don’t charge into the arena at full speed, since it’s an unfamiliar horse. You have to have horse sense about what you and your new horse can manage.”
The first rodeo that a newly-crowned Miss Rodeo America goes to is the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. “Notoriously bad things happen to Miss Rodeo America there, because it’s the first show, it’s a lot of performances in a few days, and the horses start getting excited. You carry an American flag that is on a 12 foot pole, which means it sticks up 12 feet from the flag boot that’s on your right stirrup. The flag is huge!” Paige explains that to get through the arena doors you have to lean way back in the saddle and stretch your arm out behind you. Guys on foot behind you keep the flag off the ground as you wait for your cue. When the cue comes, you race into the arena, the spotlight hits, and, since the flag is streaming almost horizontal to the ground, you have to use your arm strength to pull it up. Pulling the flag up to vertical is tough on the forearm; Paige’s arm was sore after the first two performances. She says, “One time, I jumped the gun in pulling the flag up, because my horse was going slower than I thought he was. I hung the eagle at the top of the pole on the top edge of the entry door. The impact pulled the pole out of my flag boot. Luckily, the guys who hold the flag up as I take off saw what happened and they were able to get the pole back into my boot. We had a 10 second delay. It’s a heavy flag to hold up in your hand without anything supporting it on the bottom! I was really fortunate. That was the worst accident I had all year.”
“The coolest thing I got to do when I was Miss Rodeo America was to be on the Fox and Friends morning show.” Paige and her best friend and her parents drove up to New York City from Mississippi. Paige brought along her rope and her roping dummy, and taught the TV anchors how to rope. She showed off her own skill by roping one of the cameramen.
“Fox did a great job putting the segment together. We did it outside on their little patio, where they do the cooking segments.” Paige was thrilled to visit New York. As she and her friend explored the city, they counted their steps with a Fitbit and logged over 20 miles. They did the normal tourist things, like seeing the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, shopping at Macy’s, and eating at a hot dog stand. “I feel like I’m more American since visiting New York City,” Paige says. They went to the 9/11 memorial. “The two giant holes where the Twin Towers stood are like holes in your soul.”
On the way back to Mississippi they stopped briefly in Washington, D. C. “We saw the changing of the guard in Arlington Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We went to the Lincoln Memorial. We got to see the US Department of Agriculture building. I would love to live in Washington and work for the USDA someday!” Paige says that the connections she has made during her Miss Rodeo America reign are wonderful. She and the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture are good friends, and she has gotten to know the governor and several elected officials. Most important, she has seen America at its best and she has made friends everywhere.
Paige says that ever since she was a child in 4H she has known that presenting the case for agriculture is her passion in life. She quotes Theodore Roosevelt: “A nation that cannot feed itself cannot stand.” Paige graduated from Mississippi State University in Starkville in 2013 with a degree in Agricultural Information Science. She trained to be a spokesperson for the agricultural industry. “I’d love to go back to school and become a college professor,” she says.
The family farm in Lawrence, about an hour east of Jackson, Mississippi, is 2800 acres and produces corn and soybeans. The place had a dairy, too, for 50 years, but her parents sold it when Paige was 16 and now they have commercial beef cattle.
Everybody in the family rides. Paige was showing in leadline classes as soon as she could hold herself up in the saddle. She has competed in barrel racing, pole bending, team roping, and breakaway roping. “I’ve had the most success in pole bending, but team roping is my favorite event. I’m a header.”
Her first pony was Molly, a black and white paint. “She was terrible,” says Paige. “She unloaded me a couple of times, and once she bucked me and my saddle off!” After putting up with Molly, Paige and her parents knew that Paige was serious about learning to ride, and her parents found her a better pony. She had several ponies before she was big enough for a horse. The pony Paige remembers most fondly is Friskie. Paige’s little sister Katelyn inherited Friskie when Paige moved up, and today Friskie still rules the pasture, even though she’s retired.
Paige’s most memorable horse was Mr Knight Jet, or just Jet to family and friends. He was trained by Paige’s aunt and Paige rode him for a couple of years before her aunt agreed to sell. Paige competed on Jet during junior high and both she and her horse excelled at pole bending. Her second favorite horse was Lika Wildman, known as Wildman. He was a chestnut tobiano, about 16 hands, and Paige showed him during high school. She rode three horses at college: a couple of barrel racers that she was training and Tank, a blue roan team roper. “He was a good man. A real ranch horse.”
These days Paige is seasoning a young barrel horse, registered as Chasin Irish Whisky. “Whisky is a light Palomino with a big white blaze. I spend a lot of time with him, and I think he’s going to be nice.”
Paige reflects on where she is and where she has been. “I’m in a good spot in my life right now, where I don’t have to be in a big rush. I’m doing some career searching. I have odd jobs to keep me busy, like working with my horse Whisky, helping out on the farm, and helping a rodeo company put on their opening.” She knows that she doesn’t want to be stuck doing the same thing. But she also knows that whatever the details of her career, she will be a voice for farmers and ranchers.