Shawnah Royston eases her arm around the neck of Amazing Grace. The 16-year-old quarter horse cropout paint lowers her head and opens her muzzle, allowing the bit to glide into place. The headpiece slips over Grace's ears, and Royston buckles the throat lash, her motions delicate and caressing, confident yet unhurried.
“I have always been a horse girl, even sometimes without a horse,” Royston wrote in her successful application for the Elbert County Fair Queen title.
Royston fell in love with horses from watching her father work and care for a team of draft horses in his job at Four Mile Historic Park in Denver. Occasionally, her father allowed her to drive the team.
“The first time I was on a horse's back, I was 2, a draft horse. There is a photo of it,” she said. “It's pretty cute.”
Though too young to ride on her own and not owning a horse, she completed a horse safety project for 4-H, and later was taught to ride by her older sister, Kate.
“She taught me how to ride,” Royston said. “The person she was learning from had an amazing red roan. She was the sweetest horse, but I was of course very, very young. My sister was riding one day and realized I had an interest in it. She helped me get my balance and my techniques down before she would let me go by myself.”
Royston was 7 when she got a horse of her own and owned one other horse before acquiring Grace four months ago. She will ride Grace for her duties at the fair and during performances with the Blazing Saddles Drill Team, a troop that has performed at events such as the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo, the Elizabeth Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“When we got her, she had been out in a pasture for about a year without any human contact. She did have some manners, but I really like to train my horses to respond to cues. When I pick up her feet, I say, `foot,' and she will lift up her foot. She did have quite a bit of training as a roper before I bought her, so some of it is just her personality, and some of it's training.”
Tacking up is just the beginning for Royston and Grace. By the end of the morning, three judges will have scored her and the young women competing for queen and princess for their ability to perform a basic pattern in the fairgrounds arena, perform a queen's wave, and ride with a flag.
The horsemanship component makes up less than a third of the maximum possible score of 180 points in the competition for both fair queen and princess. In addition to riding skills, judges appraise candidates through personal interviews, rate their poise and confidence while modeling Western-style clothing and answering impromptu questions, and evaluate their public speaking ability.
All candidates for fair royalty must be members of 4-H in good standing. Queen candidates range from 14 to 18 and princess hopefuls, 11-13.
Though Royston was the only candidate for queen this year, the judges did not automatically hand her the crown. Each candidate is required to earn a minimum score to qualify, and Royston secured her title with over twice the minimum score. Macazlyn Brinkworth was selected as princess.
Royston and Brinkworth will wear royalty-in-waiting sashes during this year's fair, and begin their one-year reigns as 2016 Elbert County Fair Queen and Princess at a ceremony scheduled for the fair's last day. At the ceremony, the 2015 queen, Kaila Denton, will impart her title to Royston, along with chaps, sash and the crown.
Along with the title come responsibilities. Royston will perform various duties during this year's county fair, and her first appearance as the 2016 Elbert County Fair Queen will be at the Douglas County Fair, followed by an appearance at the Deer Trail Rodeo.
“I'm super excited for the next year, being the Elbert County queen, and I can't wait to have my partner Macazlyn with me for this crazy time.”