PAWNEE – Heather Morrison entered her first rodeo queen pageant as a bet with her younger sister, Holly.

The two girls had seen a flier for the local 4-H pageant in southeastern Iowa, deciding that whoever did better wouldn’t have to do chores on the cattle farm for a month.

In Letts, Iowa, those are high stakes, so it was pretty tense, Heather said.

The now-Miss Rodeo USA finished as the first runner-up in that first pageant – ahead of Holly – and a career was started.

“We get mixed up all the time, so my dad swears to this day they called the wrong name,” Heather joked Saturday.

In north central Oklahoma for the first time, Heather has been presiding over the annual Pawnee Bill Memorial Rodeo – just one of the many places she has seen since starting her tour in March.

“I actually got lost on the way into town, but once I found my way in, it was good. It has been a joy,” Heather said.

Despite some rainy weather the past few days, the rodeo has gone on without a hitch as she has performed her duties inside the arena and out. Being Miss Rodeo USA is more than riding in the rodeo and parade, with trips to sponsors, clubs, schools, nursing homes and a slew of other visits on her itinerary each and every week.

“It has been awesome,” Heather said. “I actually left home in March and it’s mid-August now and I have been at a rodeo every single weekend since I left home in March. I have been pretty much everywhere, it seems like. I have been to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Iowa and I will get to go to Canada coming up next month. I am very excited about it.”

It’s hard to believe that just in a few weeks, she will be at the prestigious Festival western de Saint-Tite in Quebec for a two-week rodeo that brings in hundreds of thousands of spectators.

She hadn’t really left Iowa much prior to this year. One of the few times she did was to compete in the Miss Rodeo USA contest in Oklahoma City.

Heather had actually competed last year, finishing in the top three. At 26, she was content with never going again and just returning to her normal life. She had two degrees from Kirkwood Community College in Beef and Swine Production and Agriculture Geospatial Technology.

The first member of her household to earn a college degree, Heather already was working a job as a warranty professional at Farmer’s Supply Inc. But, her roping coach told her to try the rodeo queen thing just one more time.

“I went back and I told myself that if I was going back, I was going to give it everything I have, but I am also going to have fun. I trained as hard as I could before I left,” Heather said.

The competition takes place over a week in January in conjunction with International Finals Rodeo. Contestants have interviews every day, take written exams, have to have two prepared speeches and answer impromptu questions.

Heather didn’t know if she was going to win, but on the final night, she had a couple of other finalists tell her they thought she was going to have the highest score and earn the crown.

“My roommate told me she thought I was about to win the whole thing,” Heather said. “But they hadn’t called any names yet. She said, ‘You’ve got it in the bag.’ I remember standing in the arena just twirling my fingers, about to lose feeling because I was thinking about what if I did win. And I did. I was in shock and my whole body went numb. It is a feeling you can’t explain, but it is so cool.”

It was a culmination of feelings for Heather that all started way back in Letts, even before the bet with Holly. As one of three children of Steve and Linda Morrison, she had never really worked with horses. Her parents had raised them, but with three kids in diapers at the same time, they had to make a choice.

“The running joke is you can’t sell the kids so you have to sell the horses so my parents sold the horses,” Heather said. “Us kids stuck around on the farm as free labor. When we got older, we just showed cattle and then my sister won a horse at the county fair.”

When Holly won that horse, it started a chain of events that led to Heather getting a horse and beginning a career of roping, riding and eventually being a rodeo queen.

So, when she was standing in Oklahoma City after being crowned, she realized it is truly an opportunity that not many get to have. With that, she was going to make the most of it. That passion really showed in her speeches.

“One is a state speech so I am from Iowa, the first to ever hold a title from Iowa and the first Iowa woman to win the title of Miss Rodeo USA,” Heather said. “My Iowa speech was about the wave. I talked about the farmer’s wave, the rodeo queen wave in Iowa and the Hawkeye wave at every home Hawkeye football game with the kids. I love that and I thought that was really cool. The second speech that you give is a platform speech so you pick a platform that you decide to stand on for your year.”

Heather’s platform is “The World Needs All Types of Minds” and is concerning autism. Her older brother, Tom, is autistic so the topic hits very close to home for her.

“He is my best friend in the whole wide world. I always used to think he was a burden to me and was just trouble in my life,” Heather said. “Then I grew up and realized he taught me more than anyone else has ever taught me. I talk to kids and people all across the country how to have a ‘Tom attitude.’ My brother’s name is Tom and he has never hated anything, never held a grudge or gotten upset and cried over little things. I wake up every day and try to have Tom attitude and I tell everyone else to, as well. He is a very positive influence in my life and the best thing to ever happen to me. I try to say to other people that even though he has disabilities and is different than you and I, he is way more than the two of us.”

With her role as Miss Rodeo USA, she has helped so many families and individuals who autism affects.

“My brother just turned 29. I promise you, growing up with him wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t easy on my folks,” Heather said. “You always go through struggles. Just last week, I ran into a family that had two autistic kids in their family. You could tell on her face, the mother was just run down and worn out and I asked how old they were and she told me. They were younger, so I said, ‘Listen, my brother is 29. It gets better. You may not believe me right now, but it gets better. You promise me to keep looking forward and keep moving.’”

Heather doesn’t get to see Tom or her parents very much because of the tour, but she is on the phone most nights. She hopes to schedule a rodeo close to home soon so she can see them. Despite being the sister who stayed pat most of her life compared to Holly – who is an Army Staff Sergeant at Fort Hood, Texas – the roles have flipped a little on who travels the most nowadays.

On her docket next after leaving Pawnee is heading to Blue Ridge, Georgia, next week and Tennessee the week after so the traveling never stops. Whenever her time is up as Miss Rodeo USA, Heather joked that she knows she has to get back to being an adult and paying bills, but she is going to enjoy this ride while it lasts.

“I hope that I inspire others. I made it all the way to the top of the rodeo queen industry,” Heather said. “It wasn’t easy getting there and I hope that I can inspire others to keep going no matter what your hurdle or struggle is in life. We all have our own successes, we all have different goals. It doesn’t make anybody less or more.”