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Robin Meeks Miss Rodeo America 2001 Contestant Robin Meeks of Canton - a 23-year-old ICU nurse hooked on horses - is Mississippi's promise for the title of Miss Rodeo America 2001. Competition in the scholarship pageant is December 2-9 in Las Vegas, Nev., and if Meeks could just ride her favorite horse into the Flamingo Hilton showroom, she might be a shoo-in. His name is Lucky. "He's a wonderful old cutting horse, 18 or 19 years old," said Meeks, this year's Miss Rodeo Mississippi. "He's such a sweetheart. And he's good with children. Everyone loves him out here. But in Las Vegas, we're going to be handling a horse we've never ridden before. That really makes it exciting." Meeks cannot depend on luck, or Lucky, but rather on her wits, poise and devotion to horsemanship. On that score alone she's bound to win points. "Horses are such wonderful animals," said Meeks, a graduate of Delta State University. "Having the ability to control that massive animal with the slightest movement of the hand is a thrill. And you never stop learning about them." What Meeks knows about them already helped her in January when she rustled up the title of Miss Rodeo Mississippi in Jackson. She'll put that title up against those of 30 other young women representing their states in Las Vegas, all competing in the areas of public speaking, personal interviews, modeling, photogenics, horsemanship and rodeo and equine science knowledge. All for the chance to be the national spokesperson for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the sport of professional rodeo. "We're about to select our 47th Miss Rodeo America," said Raeana Wadhams, business manager for MRA. "These young women are very intelligent and very involved in their community, and I believe they enrich the lives of everyone they come in contact with - the young, the young at heart, the people affiliated with the rodeo industry and those we hope to bring into the fold of the sort of rodeo and our Western traditions." It's like Miss America in western wear and her talent is horsemanship, said Ellen Morgan, state delegate to the national pageant and chairman of the non-profit Miss Rodeo Foundation, Inc., which directs the Miss Rodeo Mississippi and Miss Dixie National Rodeo pageants. (The local pageant will be held January 25-26, 2002 in Jackson). "Used to, you could look pretty, be great at riding a horse and win," Morgan said. "But now, with all these huge corporations putting thousands and thousands of dollars into the national pageant and professional rodeo, as seen on ESPN and other sport channels, they're looking for someone who's an effective, articulate spokesperson. Someone who will help educate the public about the importance of the equine industry." That importance is taken for granted out West, home to the current Miss Rodeo America. Tara Graham, 23, a speech communications graduate, hails from Loveland, Colo. In Mississippi, though, the impact of roping-and-riding dollars is sometimes overlooked. It shouldn't be, said Lester Spell, the state's commissioner of agriculture and commerce. Quoting figures from a study completed in 2000 by Mississippi State University, Spell said, "I was impressed by the nearly $1 billion investment and impact of this (equine) industry. This includes nearly $76 million in arenas, $183 million in barns, $585 million in vehicles and trailers, $27 million in fencing, and $112 million in land. This doesn't even include nearly $100 million in the horses themselves. "A recent economic impact study written a few years ago reported that over $19 million came into the Jackson economy during February from the Dixie National Rodeo. That's huge . . . For many, the uptick in business is second only to Christmas." There's much at stake here, said Morgan, who herself reigned as Miss Rodeo Mississippi in 1987, Miss Dixie National in 1984 and Miss High School Rodeo Queen also in 1984. "This is only our fifth year to direct the pageant and the program is growing," Morgan said. "Mississippi has the potential to have its first of many Miss Rodeo America's. Our girls value their western heritage, they are talented riders and it is proven that we definitely have beautiful young ladies. "The one thing our state needed was more structure and sponsorships behind our title holder," she said. "Our program offers volunteers the chance to serve on the board of directors, the pageant committee, the scholarship fund and scheduler for Miss Rodeo Mississippi's many engagements." Though the foundation took over direction in 1997, the Miss Rodeo Mississippi pageant is more than 20 years old. The Miss Dixie National showdown, for contestants ages 10-18 (10-14 for Junior Miss Dixie National), is considered a training ground of sorts for those who plan to compete later for the Miss Rodeo title for women ages 18-23. "We want our Mississippi girls not only to be horse smart, but to also handle themselves well in front of people," Morgan said. "It's about having a good head on your shoulders and being able to speak knowledgeably about the sport of rodeo and our horse industry. "The foundation is young; we have so much to learn, and that's why we encourage volunteers to come in with their ideas and sleeves rolled up. We want to build a stronger system to get behind these young women and support them." That means securing more sponsors to build and boost, among other things, the foundation scholarships. Currently, none are awarded to pageant contestants, though that is a goal, Morgan said. Two high school seniors, one boy and one girl, each receive a $250 scholarship from the foundation based on participation in the horse industry and community service. Miss Rodeo Mississippi herself receives an estimated $4,000 to $5,000 in prizes; a scholarship fund specifically for her is being established, but the amount is undecided for now, Morgan said. As for the winner of the national title, she'll being her reign at the close of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Newly crowned, she'll then appear at the Denver Western Wear Market and the World's Champions Reception at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., both in January. Among her awards will be a $10,000 educational scholarship to the college or university of her choice, a wardrobe of Justin Boots, hat by Resistol, a silver trimmed saddle from Court's Saddlery, the official MRA trophy buckle, and a wardrobe of jeans and shirts from Wrangler. Throughout 2002, she'll travel an estimated 100,000 miles, appearing in the neighborhood of 100 rodeos and other events. The odds of a winning it all in Las Vegas are at least 30 to 1. But in Mississippi, every contestant for the state title can count on one sure thing: "If you want to come here to be proud of your state and run for a title of a lifetime, Morgan said, "we're there for you." The Miss Rodeo Foundation is sponsoring a fund-raising November 1 at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, $15 a ticket. For details on the event, or for more information about the national and state pageant, call Ellen Morgan at 824-6102 or sign on to

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