Philomath Frolic and Rodeo queen Anya Hester rides into the arena in Friday night’s rodeo. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

While this year’s Philomath Frolic & Rodeo queen, 17-year-old Anya Hester, wears a big smile and enthusiastically waves to the crowd whether riding in the rodeo arena or on the parade route, there is pain lingering just below the surface with thoughts of her beloved horse, “Philo.”

Philo, which is short for “Philomath,” injured himself in a pasture mishap.

He went into surgery and is having a lot of complications,” Hester said Wednesday evening, the post-surgery issue related to a skin infection. “He is my soulmate — it’s definitely rough with what he’s going through but there’s not a whole lot I can do. This is the third hospitalization in two weeks. He’s gone to three different clinics so this is his last chance … but we’re trying.”

Hester and Philo first met in the spring of 2018 when the future Frolic queen was almost age 12 and in middle school. The Blodgett-area paint had suffered from a lack of attention and was in danger of being euthanized when Hester came along and worked hard to get him on the road to recovery.

Over time, the two became inseparable and Philo ended up as Hester’s horse. At this same time, friend MacKenzie McVay rescued an older horse named “Nash,” a bay that eventually found a home in Portland.

This past October, Hester rode Philo while going through Philomath Frolic & Rodeo queen tryouts.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity and I wanted to do this for a really long time actually,” Hester said. “I didn’t think I’d make it this year and was hoping to kinda just go for the experience of tryouts.

“My mom entered me at the last minute and I showed up,” she added. “To make it this young, it’s an incredible opportunity and I love it. I love Philomath, I’ve lived here my entire life, and it’s just awesome.”

Hester said she didn’t have much competition for queen with only a small group involved in tryouts but believes this next go-round will be larger with indications that more people are interested.

“It was super fun, a very laid-back process, very pleasant people to learn from and they were very helpful,” Hester said about tryouts. “You’re judged on your speaking portions, how you get along with the other queens, then you have a riding pattern that you just ride through. There’s a few stops as well as you have to be able to carry a flag and smile and wave and there’s some knowledge questions, too.”

It was those test-like questions that were the most challenging part of the process for her.

“I’m not as immersed in the rodeo aspect of things,” Hester said. “I come from an English-riding style background so it’s a lot different as this is Western. The transfer was a little bit difficult at first but I definitely feel more comfortable now.”

Frolic and Rodeo queen Anya Hester speaks to volunteers Wednesday evening at the Yew Wood Corral. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

During this week’s rodeo, Hester is riding a paint named “Riggins.” So far, they’ve been to rodeos in Sisters and Prineville, although she didn’t ride in the latter. Future dates include appearances at the Benton County All-Girls Rodeo, the Santiam Canyon Stampede at Sublimity and the Northwest Youth Rodeo Association finals in Philomath.

At the Frolic, Hester has various duties in and out of the rodeo arena.

“You go around and greet kids, sign autographs, go through the stands,” she said. “Just say hi to people and get them feeling like there’s more of a community base with this rodeo. I also run in with flags as well as the American flag during the anthem.”

An early graduate of Crescent Valley High School, Hester plans to take a gap year.

“I’m hoping to go to college, maybe overseas, I’m not sure,” she said. “But if I do stay in the United States, I’d be looking for another rodeo queen position.”

The opportunity to create more rodeo memories sounds appealing but at the same time, she’s able to sharpen certain skills.

“I would look forward to doing it again but also you learn public-speaking skills and organizational skills,” Hester said. “And then the memories you make while you’re out at different rodeos is just insane and absolutely will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

Despite being new to rodeo-style riding, Hester’s no stranger to the Frolic & Rodeo. She’s been involved as a volunteer for years, even before she owned a horse.

So, what’s the toughest part of being a rodeo queen?

“You smile for hours,” she said. “Your cheeks hurt and after a while, it is a little painful.”

But after a pause, she added, “I like smiling, I think it improves mood.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.