Born to Ride, Destined to Reign

West Texas College Grad Completes Year as First Lady of Texas Rodeo

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You might say that Nikki Woodward was born to ride. After all, as a baby, her mother carried her in a sling on horseback while she worked on the family ranch.

"I don't remember ever not knowing how to ride horses," says Nikki, while on a water break between chores on her parents' ranch northwest of Iraan. "It's something you do to get around out here."

Horseback riding has not just gotten her where she needs to go on the family ranch, but has brought her fame and helped her to put herself through college. She accumulated enough scholarships and cash prizes from wins at rodeo pageants to fund much of her bachelor's degree. And, shortly after graduation, she won the prestigious title of Miss Rodeo Texas in July 2015.

Poised and whip smart, Nikki completed her year-long reign as the 56th Miss Rodeo Texas this past summer. Since 1959, the pageant has crowned Texas women aged 19 to 24 to serve as goodwill ambassadors of rodeo, the state's official sport. For five strenuous days in San Antonio, contestants are judged on horsemanship, appearance, personality, knowledge of current rodeo events, interview skills, etiquette and public-speaking ability.

"I was impressed with Nikki's diverse background and education," says Marjorie Murphy, the pageant's state director for more than 30 years. "She did a super job as Miss Rodeo Texas, and the kids loved her. She's very dedicated to our farming and ranching heritage."

Love for the land and livestock runs deep in Nikki, an Alpine native and the youngest of three children (and only daughter) of Lowell and Carol Woodward, who run Brangus cattle, market goats and fine-wool sheep operations in Brewster, Pecos and Crockett counties. Lowell, a fourth-generation West Texas rancher, has served on the Capital Farm Credit Board of Directors since 2005.

When she was old enough, Nikki helped her parents and brothers Cade and Colton round up and shear sheep every February. The family spent days on horseback, corralling animals spread across hundreds of arid acres sparsely vegetated with mesquite, juniper and prickly pear — just as they do today.

Off to the Rodeo!

At age 11, Nikki's interest in rodeo pageants was piqued when her mother, then a professor of agricultural education at Sul Ross State University, agreed to co-direct the Miss Rodeo Sul Ross contest in September 2003.

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"They needed horses for the girls to ride in the horsemanship portion, and Mom asked me if they could use mine," Nikki says. "One of the judges suggested that I try out for Miss Rodeo Texas Princess, which is open to girls aged 9 to 13. I thought, 'Ooh,that's something glittery and sparkly that I could do with my horse. Yes!'"

The following January,Nikki and Carol attended a Miss Rodeo Texas Clinic in San Antonio. The annual weekend series of workshops trains prospective contestants on modeling, makeup,speech, etiquette and more.

"I was very shy and barely spoke into the microphone," Nikkirecalls. "I had no clue what I was getting into."

Six months later, Nikki — outfitted in borrowed boots,jacket, belt and her father's gray felt hat — competed for the Miss Rodeo Texas Princess crown. "And I won! None of us expected that at all," Nikki says.

As she grew older, Nikki continued to enter rodeo pageants.Her past titles include Miss Rodeo Sandhills Princess, Miss Texas High School Rodeo Association, Miss Permian Basic Fair and Miss Rodeo Sul Ross. In the rodeo arena, she competed in and won barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying and breakaway roping.

In May 2015, she received her bachelor's degree from Texas Christian University in communication studies with an emphasis in business and minors in energy technology management and sociology. Six weeks later, Nikki,wearing a sequined lavender gown and a "West Texas Fair and Rodeo" banner, heard her name announced as the winner of Miss Rodeo Texas.

"I was so exhausted from everything that I was just glad I'd made it to the last night," she says.

Her winnings included an $18,000 scholarship along with a trophy saddle, trophy buckle, fur jacket, mohair jacket, jewelry and luggage.

"The scholarship will cover my postgraduate studies," says Nikki, who started on her master's in agricultural communications at Texas Tech University this fall.

An Exceptional Reign

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The Miss Rodeo Texas title also came with a yearlong, paid travel itinerary that began at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, where on horseback Nikki presented the American flag during opening ceremonies. From there,she traveled more than 25,000 miles, flipping pancakes at fairs, riding on floats in parades, and pushing steers at rodeos. No matter the event, the long-haired brunette tirelessly flashed her stunning smile as she crisscrossed Texas. Sometimes she flew to destinations out of state. More often than not,she packed up her wardrobe of color-coordinated jeans, tops, boots and hats,and road-tripped in her red Jetta to events.

At the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo, Nikki noticed some serious-looking men in dark suits. Secret Service agents, she wondered? Then she saw former President George Bush and First Lady Barbara, who'd come to attend the rodeo's final round.

"Barbara wanted their picture taken with me, Miss Rodeo America and Miss Rodeo Louisiana," Nikki says. "So we did!"

As part of her reign, Nikki competed in the Miss Rodeo America pageant held in December in Las Vegas, Nev. After 10 grueling but fun days of competition, Nikki made the top five finalists as fourth runner-up. She also won the speech category with her impromptu talk about "True Western Living" and the "best decorated" Wrangler jeans contest.

Through it all, Nikki's parents have cheered her on.

"She's always been exceptional," Lowell says. "She was raised with brothers and expected to do the work that they did. And she always has."

Her mother has especially been impressed with Nikki's perseverance toward success.

"She struggled in elementary school because of dyslexia," Carol explains. "But when she won her first pageant, it gave her confidence. By the time she was in high school, no one could tell she had a learning disability. I'm more proud of what she's accomplished academically."

Nikki says serving as Miss Rodeo Texas has taught her a lot and opened many doors.

"I'd tell other young women that if you have any interest in rodeo pageants, go for it," Nikki says. "If you don't, you'll never know. Even if you compete just once, you'll gain something. I sure did."