Thursday, July 20, 2006
Ashley Hoffman seems like a bona fide city girl. She has roots in Boston. She’s chipping away at a philosophy-political science double major at Stanford. She counts herself as a liberal, a sorority girl, and a fanatic of the soapy MTV reality series The Hills.
A bit more digging, however, reveals a true Salinas cowgirl, complete with a stash of Wranglers and an equestrian obsession. The shift away from the city lifestyle was prompted by her first trip to the California Rodeo after her family’s move to the Salinas Valley eight years ago.
“It hooked me,” she says. “It was a totally different lifestyle than what I was used to, maybe that’s why. But ever since then, riding horses has been what I’ve wanted to do.”
In the eight years—and eight rodeos—since, Hoffman has done just that, tucking a long list of accomplishments under her rhinestone-studded cowboy belt. She’s won countless jump competitions for Santa Catalina School, acquired her own horse, Peaches, and secured the title of captain of Stanford’s prestigious equestrian team. Now she is ready to give back to the event that inspired her passion by winning the right to be the rodeo’s chief ambassador.
She is one of five girls who qualified to compete for the title—and the sole competitor from Salinas or the county at large. Some of her opponents have traveled from hundreds of miles away to compete because, given that the Salinas Rodeo is the largest in California, says rodeo spokesperson Sally Hamana, “this is the biggest and toughest queen competition in the state.” Competition is so fierce, in fact, that candidates sink remarkable amounts of time, effort, and expense into each aspect of competition, oftentimes going as far as hiring walking coaches. It’s an investment many are more than willing to make, given the possible reward. To be crowned is “so prestigious,” says current Miss California Rodeo Kadee Coffman, who visits one other rodeo a week, minimum. “It’s such an honor to have it and represent the Salinas Rodeo.”
Judges evaluates contenders in four distinct categories: horsemanship (40 percent), personality (30), appearance (20), and scholarship (10). The horsemanship portion rests on “how well [a contestant] rides in a figure-8 pattern…how she sits on the horse and balance, how she cues the horse,” says Holly Andrus, Miss California Rodeo 2002. Simple enough stuff, it would appear, only the competitor must maintain perfect posture while her horse’s back bounces up and down. The fact that each contestant performs the routine twice—once with her own horse, and again with the randomly-selected horse of another contestant—is unique to the California Rodeo and ensures that the best rider, and not the one with the most expensive horse, comes out on top.
The personality element, which is assessed by each candidate’s responses to a handful of randomly selected questions, touches on issues ranging from animal rights to current events, and, most importantly, rodeo. “To do well in this area,” says Hoffman, “the girls have to be true rodeo girls, true cowgirls, because the questions that are asked can’t always be read in books.”
Appearance, meanwhile, allows for more preparation—many girls spend upwards of several thousand dollars for a few outfits to dazzle the judges. Although, as Hamana says, the girls are expected to be “into fashion, show off their outfits, and represent the Western industry,” they are not required, or even expected, to drop such small fortunes on fringe and flashy hues. In theory, says Coffman, “the most genuine girl will succeed, even with jeans and a white shirt.”
Scholarship is based on a math and vocabulary test akin to the SAT. Coffman recalls studying with a tutor for eight weeks pre-rodeo, while Hoffman completes odd problems when she can.
All told, the struggle for the diamond-decorated trophy belt buckle demands more dedication than many seasoned rodeo vets might imagine. And for Hoffman, the competition is a bit more personal, given that Salinas is her hometown, and that the Salinas Rodeo is where her rodeo affections first took root.
“I’ve been involved with this same rodeo for the last few years,” explains Hoffman. “The people I’ve gotten to know through it are like family. To be here another year is just so great, but to participate in this competition is even better.”
THE NEW MISS CALIFORNIA RODEO SALINAS will be named Thursday, July 20 at 6pm during the Salinas Rodeo’s Opening Ceremonies. The rodeo continues through Sunday, July 23. For full rodeo schedule, visit carodeo.com.