At age 3, cowgirl Summer Weldon started riding a perky pony named Dandy. Now, 17 years later, the 6-foot-tall beauty still rides, but with a crown.
Weldon is the 2018 Miss Rodeo USA, and she is in Statesboro this week promoting the eighth annual Statesboro Kiwanis Rodeo, to be held Friday and Saturday at the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fairgrounds on Highway 67.
The 20-year-old brunette from Martin, Tennessee, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee/Martin, is studying cell and molecular biology and dreams of becoming a physical and occupational therapist. She competes for the UT Martin rodeo team in barrel racing.
But for now, she is touring the country, traveling over 100,000 miles from state to state to promote rodeo for the International Professional Rodeo Association.
She will visit sponsoring businesses, schools and other locations this week, dressed to the nines in western attire — boots, jeans, a big belt buckle, sparkly shirts and the ever-present crown on top of her hat. The slender young lady, who has participated in beauty pageants all her life, holds
14 other rodeo queen titles from five states in addition to Miss Rodeo USA.
She grew up competing, having fallen in love with rodeo after riding her aunt's barrel horse when she was in fifth grade. She competed in junior and high school rodeo in barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, ribbon roping, goat tying and girls' cutting.
Weldon is a six-time qualifier for the National Junior High Finals and National High School Finals rodeos.
Becoming rodeo queen was a combination of dreams. With her love for horses and rodeo, paired with her enjoyment of beauty pageants, it seemed natural to compete in rodeo pageants. For the 2018 Miss Rodeo USA title, she won the three major classes: personality, speech and horsemanship.
Her favorite competition is barrel racing, in which she and her horse maneuver at top speed around three barrels placed in a cloverleaf pattern, running against the clock for best time. Striking and knocking over a barrel ads seconds.
"I appreciate how much hard work and time it takes to have a good run," she said.
But when she is in the stands, or standing outside the arena waiting for her turn around the barrels or to carry the American flag as Miss Rodeo USA, she enjoys watching saddle bronc riding the most.
Weldon also enjoys her duties as the face of rodeo.
"It is a lot of public relations, interviews, meeting and greeting the locals, and lots of promotion," she said. "I really do enjoy meeting people."
Heads turn when she enters a room; the tall, stately cowgirl has a commanding presence. She said the crown draws a lot of attention and "makes me more approachable. People want to meet and talk to you. I'll admit I like being in the spotlight a little bit."
During her year-long tour as Miss Rodeo USA 2018, Weldon will be talking about her platform, "Living Beyond Boundaries." As a future physical and occupational therapist, she said she "hopes to help individuals coping with disability by encouraging them to set goals and work hard to achieve them."
Inspired by a rodeo mentor who still enjoys life and lives it to the fullest in spite of being a paraplegic, Weldon said she "hopes to actively work with individuals with special needs" in the future.
Today, she rides two special horses in addition to others she encounters in her travels: a dun American Quarter Horse mare (adult female horse) named Baby Girl who is her Miss Rodeo USA horse, and her barrel horse, an American Quarter Horse mare named Rage.
What does she do besides riding and promoting rodeo?
"Well, rodeo pretty much consumes my life, but I also like to hunt whitetail deer," she said. Her biggest trophy buck was a huge nine-point.
Weldon will be on hand to meet people before the rodeo begins both Friday and Saturday, and will be seen in the arena as well.
Rodeo contractor Danny Hedrick of Hedrick Rodeo Company, a family-operated business based in Madisonville, Tennessee, will return with his stock for the annual rodeo, which draws a packed crowd each night.
The rodeo brings competitors from all over the world, including champions, as well as local competitors. The IPRA event is family oriented and includes children's activities and fun events as well as traditional bull riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, roping and more.
Gates open at 5 p.m., and people are welcome to meet Weldon and other competitors, as well as visit vendors' booths for shirts, hats, buckles and leather items, as well as a variety of foods.
The rodeo begins at 7 p.m., and advance tickets are available at Anderson's General Store for $11 adults and $7 children. Tickets at the gate will be $16 for adults and $11 for children.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.