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Nicole Rice, 24, is a Scappoose High School graduate and will be competing in NPRA's pageant in Salem

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Nicole Rice, 24, stands in Scappoose's Heritage Park a few weeks before the Miss NPRA pageant. Rice has lived throughout Columbia County but currently lives in Scappoose, where she is building a home. 'This is where I plan to stay,' Rice said.

At 24 years old, Nicole Rice is running out of time to be eligible for the title of Miss Northwest Professional Rodeo Association. Later this month, Rice will compete in the pageant for the third time.

"I figured it was time to go for it one more time, put everything I had into it and try to bring it home," said Rice, who was the second runner-up in the 2016 and 2017 Miss NPRA pageants.

Rather than a beauty pageant, Rice views the Miss NPRA pageant as a three-day job interview. "You're going for the job as the public relations person to represent the sport you're passionate about," Rice said.

Starting Sept. 19, in conjunction with the NPRA Finals in Salem, Rice will compete alongside six other contestants. The winner of the three-day pageant goes on to spend a year representing the association at rodeos and parades.

"I have a special place in my heart for the NPRA because the NPRA represents our small-town hometown rodeos," Miss NPRA Pageant Director Jean Hrabik said. Those are the rodeos where the community involvement is most palpable, explained Hrabik, who coordinated the Columbia County Fair and Rodeo pageant for 18 years.

To Rice, rodeo is a window into agriculture.

"That's really what it comes down to, is trying to help people see where your food comes from," Rice said.

"Obviously rodeo gets thrown under a pretty big light, good and bad," Rice said. Part of the work of Miss NPRA is "to remove some of the miscommunications of how people think things work" in rodeo and agriculture. "Most people don't realize all the animal welfare steps put in to avoid any injuries to animals. Cowboys get hurt a lot more. Not that injuries are possible to fully avoid, but within any athletic sport, athletes get injured."

Farmers "are the 2% of the county that feeds the other 98%," Rice said. "Columbia County has lost a lot of its agriculture. A lot of the farms have sold, they're turning into housing developments ... We can't keep growing to where we can't have these other things."

"There's definitely a need for support for our ranchers and our farmers. We saw a lot of that with the HB 2020 protest. Obviously our loggers fall in that same category. Rodeo supports all of those," Rice said.

Sustaining rodeo comes down to engaging children. Rice said many kids in Columbia County don't know about the opportunities — albeit limited — for rodeo in the county.

"There's plenty of them that could probably enjoy it, but it's getting them out there, getting them interested, and that's where the royalty is supposed to come in," Rice said of children involvement.

Rice fell in love with cowgirls and rodeo queens as a child attending the Columbia County Fair and Rodeo. Her parents weren't avid equestrians, but she grew interested in riding horses and eventually took a year of riding lessons in sixth grade. From then on, she was hooked.

Growing up, Rice lived in 11 different homes and attended 14 different schools before graduating from Scappoose High School in 2013. She bounced between Vernonia, St. Helens, Scappoose and Washington County. When her mother's health issues forced the family to move to Beaverton, Rice had to sell her horse. It wasn't until her junior year of high school back in Scappoose that she was able to start riding again.

"I got this little mustang who was broke but hadn't been touched in five years and was afraid of the world," she recalled.

Rice tried out for the Columbia County Rodeo Court in 2013 with that horse. Together, they competed in more rodeos, building their skills and adjusting to the arena.

Rice was a Columbia County Fair and Rodeo princess at the fair's 100th anniversary, the 2016 Santiam Canyon Stampede Queen, the 2013 and 2014 Miss Rodeo Aspirations, and the second-runner-up for Miss NPRA 2016 and 2017, on top of participating in drill team and horse competitions and serving in volunteer and leadership roles in other pageants and shows.

"Nicole really stepped up this past year," said Alice Monroe, who worked closely with Rice as the Columbia County Rodeo Court coordinator. "She's been around queening enough that she did a lot of behind the scenes work ... because she already knew what needed to be done," Monroe added. "Nicole has really taken a lot of the girls under her wing."

At the pageant in Salem next week, Rice will ride another horse, Boots.

"She's the kind of horse where you can focus on yourself. You don't have to pay attention to what she's doing, she's going to do her job," Rice said. "I know I'm not the best rider out there, I'll never claim to be. There's always something we can learn. But I feel confident in my partnership with my horse. Even if we're having an off day, it still looks pretty decent."

The pageant includes competitions in front of a crowd and behind the scenes in categories like horsemanship, personal interviews, horsemanship knowledge and modeling.

Rice thrives in the horsemanship knowledge portion of the competition, having been the only contestant in recent history to receive 100% on the written test.

"You can't represent something you don't know anything about," she said.

Columbia County has been home to four Miss NPRA pageant winners in recent years, including Monroe, who was Miss NPRA 2008, and Baylee Crawford, Miss NPRA 2018. According to Hrabik, it is highly unusual for so many winners to come from one county.

"It's awesome to see some of the people I grew up with, or people I have met throughout rodeoing, compete in the NPRA," said Crawford, who served as the Columbia County Rodeo Court Princess in 2014 and 2015.

Miss NPRA 2011 was Shalaina Joiner and Miss NPRA 2009 was Mackenzie Carr of Vernonia, who went on to become Miss Rodeo America 2012.

"It's rare to see a girl (and her mom) put so much of their own time into wardrobe and preparing," Crawford said of Rice. "The NPRA would be lucky to have her as their representative. She's poised, educated, and has a heart of gold."

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