After each girl performs her horseback routine, she stands before her mentors. Some remember to stand with their right foot pointed out, queen style. They are asked a series of questions from their study guides, mostly on the rodeo’s history — what weekend the rodeo falls on, who is the stock contractor for the event, what is the name of the rodeo clown, and questions about horse anatomy.
Douglas, the current queen, asks one of the contestants, “Where is a horse’s gall bladder?”
When the girl guesses incorrectly, Douglas laughs.
“That was a trick question. Horses don’t have gall bladders.”
Another mentor drills the girls on current events: What natural disasters are happening in the world? Who is the president of the United States? Who is the governor of California? They all know the definition of “snorty” — a bull that blows air at a clown or downed cowboy.
Eighteen-year-old contestant Brittany Miller is petite and blond and has shockingly white teeth. She is poised and well mannered. She addresses folks as sir and ma’am. She possesses the ability to roll her wrist in a wave suitable for royalty. Everything she wears sparkles — her shirt, her belt, her jeans. Even her silver nails glitter. Her black felt cowboy hat rests gingerly on top of her perfectly styled hair. She looks like an extra from a Western movie.
Miller was given her first horse at the age of five and began riding lessons at seven. She attended the Lakeside Rodeo as she grew up, watching the queens make their regal ride around the arena waving to the crowd. One of her fondest childhood memories was the day she watched her riding instructor, Kelli McMurren, crowned Miss Rodeo Lakeside in 2001. “It was the most inspiring thing,” Miller remembers. Since then, she has had one dream — to be the Lakeside Rodeo queen.
Miller doesn’t want to consider the possibility of not winning the crown, although she admits that if she doesn’t get it this year, she’ll keep trying until the cutoff age of 26.
“You can’t be married, so if it takes me that long, I guess I’ll stay single,” she says with a laugh.
If she wins, she plans on going to regionals — Miss Rodeo California — and if she wins that, she wants to be crowned Miss Rodeo USA.
Last semester, Miller earned a 4.0 grade point average at Grossmont College, worked as a hostess at the community-favorite Lakeside Cafe, and conditioned her horse every day.
“I talk to my horse like she’s a person,” Miller says. “It sounds crazy.”
Miller is confident that the performance of her paint horse Brandy will help her secure the title of Miss Rodeo Lakeside. That and her speech on living her life the cowboy way — with hard work and dedication.
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Despite her husband’s affection for the Lakeside Rodeo, Maria Gracey refuses to step foot onto its grounds. She has gone to a rodeo only one time and says, “I will never go again!” She feels bad for the animals.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says.
Bill, her husband, shrugs. “If it weren’t for the rodeo, those animals would be leather or glue.”
They politely agree to disagree.
Bill has been attending the Lakeside Rodeo for over 25 years. Mostly, he goes for the experience and the account of American life that the event offers up. He likes to watch the crowd, to walk around and see the kitschy cowboy memorabilia and hats on sale at the booths set up in the parking lot. He likes to stroll behind the animal pens and get an up-close look at the livestock.
“You can get pretty close to a 2000-pound bull, something you can’t do at large-venue rodeos.”
Bill’s greatest passion, when it comes to rodeo, is photography. It’s not every day he can get a photo of a cowboy in a rodeo setting or a barrel racer on top of her horse. He attends all three days of the rodeo, camera in hand, and shares his work on Flickr. His photo stream features action shots of rodeo clowns, barrel racers, steer wranglers, and bronc riders.
Bill likes the connection to the past that Lakeside’s rodeo provides.
“It’s a real slice of Americana,” he says.
Bill admits, “I’m surprised how much they feature patriotism. Parents with a conservative bent would think it’s great stuff. There’s not a lot of urban sophisticates.”
He notes that people get dressed up to fit the occasion. Even Bill, a retired tech guy and commercial diver, gets into the spirit with a cowboy hat and Western boots.
“What I like is that people bring their kids. You can afford to take a whole family there.”
Even the rodeo’s pricing is reminiscent of times past. You can take a family of five for just over 50 bucks. Everything about the Lakeside Rodeo appears to be a throwback to early days. The sign leading you out of the rodeo grounds politely reads, in faded letters, “Thank you, rodeo fans, y’all come back!” The words above the men’s and ladies’ rooms read “Cowgirls” and “Cowboys.” It’s like stepping inside an old sepia photograph.
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Dottie Pierce, cofounder of the Lakeside Rodeo’s featured act, the Rainbow Riders Drill Team, moved to Ramona in the 1980s, just before she and her mother, Deanna Miller, organized their successful professional team. According to Pierce, they moved from Poway because “Poway was starting to push the horses out and we needed more room.”
At 33 degrees north and 116 degrees west, Ramona sits in the middle of San Diego County. But for many San Diegans, Ramona is merely the town they drive through on the way back from picking up a Julian apple pie. The town’s dirt roads, clusters of colorful mailboxes, and cowboy citizens seem foreign. At Nuevo Grill, one of Ramona’s most popular restaurants, a sign in the ladies’ room reads “Don’t squat with your spurs on.” The Albertsons on Main Street sells 25-pound bags of carrots for horses.