Not just anyone can win the title of Miss Arizona High School Rodeo First Attendant Queen.
It takes a dose of good looks, big hair, and of course, impeccable riding skills. A white leather dress amplified with fuchsia and fringe can only help.
The leadership role that follows such a crowning moment is, for incoming Payson High School senior Ashley James, simultaneously pressing and exhilarating.
"I've learned a great deal of responsibility through the great ordeal," she said by telephone Wednesday. "I've definitely learned to do my hair and makeup, which was actually quite a big feat for a cowgirl's cowgirl."
Leadership equates to poise, for instance when the animal rights people infiltrate the rodeo scene.
They "come up to you and start talking about how rodeo is not a good sport because it injures the livestock," James, 17, said. "It kind of sets people in an uproar, but you have to handle it professionally."
Though she'd really like to tell them just where they can go, she instead patiently explains that all equipment is approved by a rodeo association and although accidents do occur, they are not nearly the norm.
"You have to educate them."
James bought her first horse four years ago. "It was just one of those things where I said, ‘Mom, I'd really like to have a horse.'"
Mom was initially less than thrilled. Horses, after all, are expensive creatures.
But James worked odd jobs and saved the money to purchase her own. Since then, equines have cast a spell over her entire family and everybody rides.
James rides two in competitions -- a black horse named Sprocket and a chestnut sorrel named Cheyenne.
"Horses are like potato chips. You can never have just one."
To help with upkeep, James is apprenticing with her farrier. "It's something I'd like to learn how to do so I can do all my own horses," she said.
To win first attendant rodeo queen, one must answer a serious question, a silly question, present a pleasing personality in a personal interview, pass a test on the rules of high school rodeo, and give a speech, in addition to modeling an outfit and completing two workmanship riding patterns.
"My speech was about Payson's claim to fame," James said.
"I talked about the very beginnings of Payson's rodeo because we do have the world's oldest continuous rodeo."
James described the cowboy tradition of saddling up a bucking bull so they could watch each other slide all over and eventually fall off. The bulls have loose skin so the saddles hardly stay put.
Cowgirls sure do like a good laugh. For her silly question, the judges asked James to make a silly face. "I kind of squinted and frowned and crossed my eyes." The tongue, too, made an appearance.
For her serious question, James was asked to define success. "I said that my definition of success is when you set a goal and you strive to make it. And when you make that goal, you set an even higher goal." Thriving in such an ever-escalating cycle of self-requirement is one's greatest success.
That, for James, epitomizes the importance of winning attendant queen. "This queen competition was one of the biggest goals that I had."
Another girl was crowned "the actual queen," but James explained that the two queens work together, representing Arizona at other high school rodeo competitions and parades.
"You're actually competing for a job," James said. "You always have to be poised and ready to go and smiling. You can never have a bad day, or if you do, you just have to keep smiling. You don't have an option really."
The other queen traveled to Farmington, N.M. for a rodeo there. James competed at Silver State International Rodeo in Fallon, Nev. two weeks ago, where she placed fourth.
"Not bad for only my second queen contest ever," she said.
"The part that really had my nerves going the most is horsemanship. I'm really critical of the way I ride. I'm actually over-critical. So that was by far the only part I was nervous and shaking like a leaf about," James said about the queen contest.
James barrel races and competes in pole bending. "This fall, I'm hoping to pick up some break-away roping."
And the fall after that, James plans to study equine science and earn a horse handler's degree. And after that, she'll become a large animal veterinarian.
And as for James' once-horse-wary mom?
"My mom is ecstatic," James said. "She was just thrilled out of her mind that I was able to set a goal and reach that goal."
And that, defines success.