SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO
By ANDREW MCGINN
By this time next year, Max is going to be one pooped-out paint horse.
Brittany Gunn expects to travel at least 30,000 miles in 2020 during her reign as Miss Rodeo Iowa, which will take her from one legendary rodeo to another before she finally represents the state at the annual Miss Rodeo America Pageant in Las Vegas next December.
With just weeks to go before her first official appearance in January at the storied National Western Stock Show in Denver, which last year drew a crowd of more than 705,500, the Jefferson farm girl has never been more ready to jump out of the chute — figuratively, of course. Rodeo queens serve merely as the sport’s ambassadors, embodying a Western tradition going back more than a century.
But the pageant world — with its double-sided tape, hair extensions, bobby pins and flawless makeup — isn’t for the weak.
Really, the worst that a bucking, 1,750-pound bull can do when you fall off is stomp in your chest.
A bad night at a pageant can leave a permanently gaping hole in your self-worth.
“I’ve worked really hard for this title,” Gunn, 25, said recently. “A lot of girls start at an early age.”
A social worker by day in Long Term Care at the Greene County Medical Center, Gunn didn’t enter the realm of rodeo pageants until she was 24, giving her just a year or two of eligibility.
Had Gunn not won the title of Miss Rodeo Iowa this past September at the Tri-State Rodeo in Fort Madison, she would have aged out. A contestant in the Miss Rodeo America Pageant can’t turn 27 before they arrive at the competition (the rules also explicitly state they can’t marry or become pregnant).
And not only do rodeo queens have to project both inner and outer beauty, they also have to look good while expertly handling a horse — in her case, a black and white paint horse named Max.
For Gunn, a 2013 graduate of East Greene High School and a 2016 graduate of Graceland University in Lamoni, riding a horse is practically an innate skill.
“I feel like I was born with it in my blood,” she explained. “I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve always loved horses.”
It started when she and her twin sister, Elizabeth, were in fourth grade and their grandpa rewarded their good grades with a pony named Brownie.
The girls became active in 4-H, showing horses alongside rabbits and cattle.
Gunn remembers being mesmerized each summer by the highlights on IPTV of the Iowa State Fair Cowgirl Queen Contest, a spectacle of glamour and grit known for its trademark salute (a kind of enthusiastic impersonation of Annie Oakley riding around an arena firing a pistol).
Gunn finally got to compete in the contest herself in 2013, the same year she represented the county at the Iowa State Fair as Greene County Fair queen.
“Horses,” Gunn said, “are my comfortable place. I was a shy girl.”
But, as temperamental as horses are, they’re at least never cruel.
Gunn said she fell victim in high school to severe bullying, making her success in the world of rodeo queens even sweeter.
Robin Gunn has watched her daughter triumph over the lingering emotional toll of bullying.
“It didn’t define her,” mom Robin Gunn said. “A lot of kids let that define them and suppress them.
“It fueled a fire.”
Brittany Gunn still describes herself as shy and soft-spoken. She joined a Toastmasters club in Ames to build more confidence in public speaking.
“I feel like I have a lot of growing to do as a person,” she said.
Getting involved in pageants, however, may very well epitomize that John Wayne quote, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
Gunn recently ended her reign as the 2018 Pony Express Double D Rodeo Queen. She also won the honor of carrying the American flag into this year’s Dayton Rodeo astride Max.
However, Gunn’s upcoming reign as Miss Rodeo Iowa — until Jan. 1, her official title is Lady in Waiting — puts her in the big league of rodeo queens and in line to become Miss Rodeo America, the official ambassador of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the sport’s sanctioning body.
“You have to believe in yourself, for one,” she said.
A coronation is being planned for Gunn on Feb. 29 at Clover Hall of the Greene County Fairgrounds. She hopes to have her custom-designed chaps ready to sport. They’ll be emblazoned with a wild rose (the state flower) and a green ribbon signifying mental health awareness.
“She’s going to be an excellent representative of the rodeo industry,” mom Robin Gunn said.
The title of Miss Rodeo Iowa also comes with a custom-designed saddle and belt buckle.
From Denver in January, Gunn’s schedule will take her to the Silver Spurs Rodeo in Kissimmee, Fla. — the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi River — in February to Wyoming in July for the Rose Bowl of rodeos, the 122nd Cheyenne Frontier Days. There, she’ll make a queen’s run on a horse.
Other state rodeo queens have ventured into Canada as well.
She’s been told to prepare as many as 2,000 photographs to autograph for girls and boys, and she’s happy to oblige, signing each with an extra inspirational message: “Follow your dreams.”
“Being a rodeo queen,” Gunn said, “has shaped me into who I am.”