"Intelligent, well-spoken young women who can ride a horse like nobody's business."
That's the package Melissa Forester says judges will be looking for come December when she represents Oregon at the Miss Rodeo America 2005 competition in Las Vegas. And if that is what it takes, Melissa's got it in spades.
This "intelligent and well-spoken" 21-year-old communications major at Eastern Oregon University has been riding horses like nobody's business all her life. Simple and complex, Melissa is also spirited, controlled, adorable, modest, confident, and refreshingly honest.
"I speak my mind," she admits with a grin.
Melissa's goal as Miss Rodeo Oregon is "to promote the Western way of life" everywhere she goes. She defines that lifestyle as "a state of mind" that encompasses the respectful, down-home, simple values that represent "everything in life that's permanent" Â— everything that matters Â— God, country, family, a respect for life and death, the independent spirit and an ethical moral code.
Melissa says the Grande Ronde Valley represents the best of the West. She should know, she grew up here Â— cutting her teeth in the saddle.
"I've never known a world without horses," she says, convinced that faster really is better when it comes to riding a horse.
"My dad likes to tell the story of my first horseback ride. He held me in his arms," she smiles, "and I was still in diapers."
Bill Forester, now a professional photographer, grew up on a ranch himself. Melissa credits him with the legacy of a love of the outdoors and this Western way of life. Dad took her riding, camping, fishing and hunting. He admits she's probably a better shot than he is.
Melissa's mom, Lois, is a speech therapist who grew up a city girl. From her, Melissa says she has gained appreciation for the broader world and a love of traveling.
Melissa seems to represent a blend of two perspectives Â— down-home country girl with just the right blend of sophistication.
"My parents are awesome," she says, "they've given me unending moral support and helped me develop a strong belief in myself."
Melissa, who admits she sometimes needs "a little push" credits her mom for committing her to the Miss Rodeo Oregon competition after she told her she was "thinking about entering."
A former Catherine Creek Rodeo queen and Eastern Oregon Livestock Show queen, Melissa says friends kept asking when she was going to "go for it."
"I love to compete," she confesses.
She enjoyed the state competition, but says she was prepared "in her heart" to accept a loss. No one was more surprised than she when she realized she had won.
"I was so humbled," she says, "I really did not think I had it. Then they kept calling my name for all the different categories of competition."
Melissa won the horsemanship competition at Miss Rodeo Oregon, as well as knowledge, speech, appearance and personality.
The competition was exhausting, she admits, but also a whole lot of fun. She made new friends and reinforced her deep appreciation for what rodeo competition is all about.
"The rodeo philosophy of living is all about community," she says seriously, "regardless of good fortune or bad, everybody is there for everybody else."
Melissa remembers the girl who showed up for competition at the state pageant without her luggage. The rest of the girls never missed a beat, she says. Everybody chipped in clothes and whatever else that girl need to compete until her luggage arrived.
Melissa has been especially humbled by the show of support she has received from the community.
"The whole valley has come to the table with support," she says. "The Manuels, Action Plumbing, Legacy Ford, Artistic Photography, Palmer Printing, Country Companies, Artesian Blue Â— those are the big sponsors, but there are so many more. All the rodeo clubs, the Cattlemen's Association, all the friends Â— it just goes on and on," she shakes her head as if she still can't believe her good fortune. "I really can't say enough about the community support. It's been overwhelming. I'm a very lucky girl."
Melissa's coronation was a tangible representation of that overwhelming support. More than 200 people turned out to see her receive her crown last month, the first time a girl from this side of the state had won the title since 1997.
Her family and friends had spent so much time and effort decorating and planning for the event, Bill Forester joked it was like planning a wedding.
"My dad says we ought to find a groom and hold the ceremony right now," Melissa told the crowd that night, "'cuz I only get one party like this."
Ironically, the most poignant moment of the evening for Melissa was when she was escorted to the stage for the coronation ceremony on her father's arm.
"It was the coolest," she smiles. "Everybody stood up and the guys all removed their hats. I'm usually not much of a crier, but I almost lost it right there."
Melissa already has a full calendar of appearances and plans to enjoy every moment of being Miss Rodeo Oregon 2004. She thinks a lot of girls miss the state experience by fretting over the upcoming national competition.
"You're either ready," she says simply, "or you're not."
Not to worry. Melissa has been ready for this all her life. She's intelligent and well-spoken. But best of all, Melissa can ride a horse like nobody's business.