Methow Valley Rodeo Queen Athena Milani likes to ride fast, run fast and spend time with her horse
By Ashley Ahearn
There is a moment Athena Milani lives for: just before a barrel race, when she and her horse are in the chute, every muscle tensed, waiting for the signal.
“It’s amazing. There’s so much adrenaline running through your veins and you can feel the horse, his energy, because he knows his job and he gets so excited,” said the 2018 Methow Valley Rodeo queen.
“Once he starts going, even if there’s tons of people yelling, I don’t hear a thing. You feel him moving and you don’t think about people or anything around you, you just focus on him, his breathing, his movement,” Milani said.
Standing in her driveway on Gunn Ranch Road, Milani ran her hands over Copper’s shining neck. The quarter horse gelding closed his eyes and gently put his head against Milani’s stomach, offering his ears for her to scratch.
“He would sit in your lap if he could,” Milani laughed.
But Copper is a different horse when it’s time to perform.
“Once he gets in the arena he knows what’s up and he gets kinda prancy. He loves it,” she said.
So does Milani, a junior at Liberty Bell High School. She tucked her long blond hair behind her ear and adjusted the large belt buckle at her waist. Being a rodeo queen, she said, sometimes feels like a beauty pageant on horseback.
As the Methow Valley Rodeo queen, Milani will travel to rodeos around the region, wearing a sash and riding Copper with flowers and a banner to open the festivities. She will be queen for both the Memorial Day and Labor Day rodeos.
“I can ride fine. It’s the beauty part I have a hard time with. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we always have to look queenly, especially when we ride as good as the guys,” Milani smiled impishly. “But it’s always fun to put on makeup and curl your hair and ride around the arena.”
Milani’s also in it for the speed. She’s a barrel racer and pole bender. And when she’s not racing horses, she’s running cross-country and track for Liberty Bell High School. In cross-country, she has been a top finisher at the state 2B meet for three consecutive years and was part of two state championship teams. In track, she has the fifth-fastest time in Liberty Bell history in the 400-meter hurdles, is in the top 20 all-time performances in the 100M hurdles and the 200M, 800M, and 1,600M runs, and typically anchors the 4x400M relay for the Liberty Bell girls’ team.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Milani said. “I like to ride fast and run fast, but horses have always been my first love.”
Milani and her parents, Dana and Chris, moved to Winthrop from Texas when she was a freshman. She said it was hard to adjust at first, but now she feels like her friend group is stronger than it was back in Texas. That said, most of her friends aren’t horse people and don’t know she’s rodeo queen she said.
At school, Milani focuses on trying to keep her grades up. She says she wants to go to a good college, ideally in-state so she can take Copper with her, and study biology or zoology. “I’d love to have a career in something equine,” she said. When it’s not track or rodeo season, she works at East 20 Pizza in Winthrop.
In school, Milani is also active on gun issues. She participated in the walk-out in solidarity with the victims of the Parkland shooting, and she and her friends won an event in this year’s Trashion Show with an outfit emblazoned with a call for “gun control now.”
“The rodeo scene is very different from my normal scene,” Milani said, adding that she may not agree with gun rights activists but that she does see common ground and is always respectful and eager to listen to different perspectives.
Milani has been involved in 4-H and barrel racing for years and she’s always loved the rodeo and horse community. Now that she’s rodeo queen she said the support she’s received has been incredible.
“I am so grateful to the rodeo council for this amazing opportunity, to all my friends and family for their help and support, and everyone else who has supported me,” she said.
Milani also leans on her horse for support when the pressures of high school — juggling friends, sports, horses, and grades — get to her. “I come out and hang with him, talk with him and he always makes me feel better.” She’s not dating, she said, smiling, because “Copper’s a better boyfriend than any guy, in my opinion.”
Perhaps that’s a relief for her parents.
“When I see her come in from the horses, or go to a rodeo or 4-H, she’s her best self,” said Milani’s mother, Dana. “It’s really nice to see her finding her passion.”