Rodeo Queen McKenna Ott has a lifetime of riding experience
Methow Valley Rodeo Queen McKenna Ott’s first sighting of her thoroughbred horse was almost otherworldly. Her mother bought the horse and trailered him home one evening, arriving after McKenna was already asleep.
When 6-year-old McKenna awoke the next morning, a thick fog blanketed her yard. She slipped out of bed and started walking toward the pasture to meet her new horse, when through the fog she glimpsed him — a white figure appearing in the mist, then seeming to dissolve into the shadows. She named him Ghost.
Ghost and McKenna have been together for 10 years now, and although due to a twisted back-leg tendon Ghost may not be McKenna’s mount for the Methow Valley Rodeo on Memorial Day Weekend (Saturday and Sunday, May 25–26), he will be with her in spirit, this lively horse who first emerged to her as a bit of a spirit himself.
Born in Everett and now a junior at Liberty Bell High School, McKenna moved to the Methow Valley with her mother at the age of 1. Not long after, she rode a horse for the first time (although, she points out, “I really started riding in the womb, since my mom rides”). So while McKenna hasn’t technically lived in the valley her whole life, her bio reads like that of the quintessential Methow Valley girl: volleyball, basketball, horsemanship, babysitting, swimming in local lakes.
Riding for years
McKenna started riding in junior rodeos almost a decade ago and loves being on the circuit. “I’ve met so many people from all over the state,” she says. She competes in pole bending and junior barrels, generally, but as this year’s Methow Valley Rodeo Queen she’ll have some additional duties, beginning with her queen run, which involves riding into the arena at a fast clip while waving to the audience.
She’ll also help support the rodeo’s hosts, the Methow Valley Horsemen, by assisting with the kid’s events like the stick horse race and the ever-popular mutton bustin’ (if you’ve never watched young kids cling with bare hands to the back of a bounding sheep, you’re in for a treat with this event), and she’ll help herd horses and bulls back into pens. It may not be glamorous work, but it’s work with good horses and good people and that’s what makes McKenna happy.
McKenna’s audition to be Methow Valley Rodeo Queen allowed her and Ghost to show their comfort with each other, as she ran him through a series of patterns and completed a queen run around the perimeter of the rodeo fence. Although McKenna had been invited to try out for queen before, this was the first time she felt like Ghost was ready. And she too, was ready, for both the mounted audition as well as the speaking portion of the competition.
As Methow Valley Rodeo Queen, McKenna rode in Winthrop’s ’49er Days parade (on her Palomino quarter horse, Annabelle, due to Ghost’s leg injury). She’ll ride in both Methow Valley Rodeos (Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends), as well as in Twisp’s annual Fourth of July parade. She’ll also ride in queen runs all over the state, including at the Omak Stampede, which she has participated in before as a flag carrier.
McKenna says that although Omak’s queen run is a psychological far cry from the nerve-wracking suicide race down the sandy bluff from the Stampede arena, last year’s queen run included 75 rodeo queens on horseback, so it’s still an event that will get her heart pumping.
Making the circuit
McKenna has been traveling to various rodeos and other events this spring and has noticed something interesting. “When we go back to an arena for a second time, the horse remembers it and is excited to go in,” she says, citing a repeat trip to Nespelem for a junior rodeo in April. “Ghost remembered and seemed to love being there.”
Ghost’s enthusiasm supports his character (he’s “hot,” McKenna says, “which means spirited and bold”) as well as his sense of humor. Sometimes, McKenna says, “he sucks his bit into his mouth and unfastens the reins with his teeth and tongue.”
To other young girls interested in becoming rodeo queens or princesses, McKenna offers this advice: “Know what it takes, be ready for what you have to do.” Many girls, McKenna says, get attracted by the sparkle and gleam associated with rodeo royalty. But there is a degree of horsemanship required of rodeo queens and princesses that simply cannot be faked by rhinestone buttons and a generous application of hairspray. You have to know how to handle a horse.
And you also have to know how to train a horse for a rodeo, which is different than training a horse for trail riding or quiet arena riding. The horse needs to learn to behave in large arenas, with lots of other animals (sheep, chickens, bulls, other horses), with screaming crowds, with sudden and unexpected noises, with waving flags and, sometimes, even with grown men dressed as clowns.
All this training takes time, and McKenna has approached it methodically, with her mother’s help. But finally, this year, it’s McKenna and Ghost’s time to put themselves on center stage, background figures in the mist no longer.