It takes less than a minute of talking with Katherine Merck ’12 to realize that she shatters nearly every stereotype of a beauty pageant queen — except the stunning good looks one.

Crowned Miss Rodeo America 2016, the Gonzaga University law student is probably the only rodeo queen — or pageant queen of any kind — to have practiced her state pageant speech before Supreme Court justices. “It was an oral argument on the superior attributes of the state of Washington,” she says with a dimpled grin.

The Spokane native’s love affair with horses began unceremoniously when she was 12 and her mom was late signing her up for summer camp activities.

“The only class left was horse grooming,” says Merck, who had trained as a classical ballerina since the age of 2. That YMCA summer camp experience with horses compelled her to abandon arabesques for the world of riding and roping. She’s never looked back.

“I love rodeo — the community, the history, the values. I love representing the Western way of life.”

Introduced to professional rodeo by retired saddle bronc rider Eddie Biegler, who also was her first riding instructor, Merck won her first trophy buckle at age 13, then earned buckles for 10 consecutive years.

Among her favorite of those competitions was a freestyle performance when she was in college. “We performed to the song ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ from Toy Story. I wore a Woody costume and rode a 6-year-old horse who dressed as Buzz Lightyear.”

Merck decided to become part of the rodeo queen circuit only a few years ago, starting out representing her hometown, then her state and now her country as Miss Rodeo America. In her role as Miss Rodeo Washington, Merck traveled the country extensively, secure in the knowledge that in every state a “rodeo family” would welcome her into their home and into their lives. She describes this generous family and community spirit as the “main thread tying rodeo lives together.”

“My rodeo families welcome me no matter where I am,” she says. “Notre Dame is the only other culture in which that would happen.”

In her bid for Miss Rodeo America last December, Merck competed against 33 other cowgirls. “The competition required a written test of equine science, rodeo history knowledge, current events, horsemanship, as well as a public speaking,” she says.

There was also the fashion component, where contestants modeled clothing from a major Western clothing line, which Merck describes as “Coco Chanel meets Dale Evans.”

Three months prior to being crowned in early December, Merck was able to take a leave of absence from law school to prepare for the national competition. These days, while her Gonzaga classmates are lining up legal internships, Merck is busy with her official duties as Miss Rodeo America. She’s visiting schools and local and state governments, and appearing at major rodeos and other community events as an ambassador of professional rodeo.

“So few people understand and appreciate rodeo’s culture of hard work,” she says. “Every athlete who competes pays his own way, and everyone pays the same amount. There’s completely equal treatment.”

Rodeo participants are judged on more than their riding skills. “They’re judged on mentorship. There’s an expectation that you will lend your equipment — your saddle, even your horse — to any other contestant who may need it,” Merck says. “Can you imagine any other sporting competition where athletes would be expected to lend their equipment to their competitors?”

Merck also explains — with a straight face — the importance and function of her newly conferred MBA: Master of Beef Advocacy. “If I’m representing the Western way of life, I need to promote not only rodeo but also speak in support of beef producers.”

When her reign as Miss Rodeo America 2016 ends, Merck plans to finish her last year of law school and earn a master’s of law degree in taxation.

“I plan to specialize in agricultural land estate planning, water rights litigation, working with farmers and ranchers to help to keep agriculture alive,” she says. “I want to help farmers and ranchers protect their land and way of life by assisting in the succession of land to the next generation and ensuring a viable future for our agricultural industry.”

Eventually, Merck would like to run for a judicial position on the Washington State Supreme Court, where she hopes to maximize her effectiveness as an advocate for Western culture.

Meantime, her passion for the sport and culture she represents will continue to flourish. “Following my year as Miss Rodeo America, I plan to continue promoting professional rodeo and the Western way of life as a competitor and a rodeo secretary as well as continue competing in both the National Reining Horse Association and American Quarter Horse Association.”

Nice to know she won’t ride into the sunset anytime soon.

Susan Guibert is the executive director of media relations and communications at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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