Wholesome, beautiful and tough as nails: Meet Miss Rodeo America...

Story highlights

  • Introducing Miss Rodeo America -- the "ultimate cowgirl"
  • Each year, cowgirls from across the U.S. compete in the ultimate rodeo crown
  • Contestants must ride unfamiliar horses in front of hundreds of spectators
  • 2013 winner, Chenae Shiner from Utah, talks about life in the saddle

It's the Miss America beauty pageant, but not as you know it. The swimsuit competition is out, volatile farm animals are in, and there are enough leather dresses to furnish a small sofa store.

Hold onto your hats and saddle-up because this is Miss Rodeo America. The roughest, toughest beauty pageant in the country, where leather-clad ladies must not only display poise, beauty and knowledge -- but gutsy horsemanship.

As 1973 queen Pam Minick said: "Miss Rodeo America is the ultimate cowgirl -- wholesome, beautiful and tough as nails."

So what does it take to wear the coveted cowgirl crown?

Child's play

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For reigning Miss Rodeo America, 23-year-old Chenae Shiner, the journey to rodeo royalty began as a youngster growing up on her parents' ranch in Roosevelt, Utah.

"Both my parents participated in rodeo and I started competing in youth associations when I was six," she told CNN, adding: "I started 'queening' when I was eight years old, going through the ranks of different county titles."

The bubbly blonde took the title of Miss Rodeo Utah last year. Then it was on to Las Vegas' glittering MGM Grand Hotel for the Miss Rodeo America pageant, held as part of the annual National Finals Rodeo -- or as Shiner described it: "The Superbowl of Rodeo."

Las Vegas lock down

Here, 31 glamorous girls aged between 18 and 25, spend a week strutting their Wild West wardrobe, answering questions on everything from world politics to equine science, and riding horses in a packed arena.

The first major test for many of the girls however, is coping with the intense scrutiny without the comforts of home.

"Once you arrive you're not allowed to speak to family or friends. You have to turn in your cell phone," explained Shiner. "As Miss Rodeo America you travel a lot on your own, and the judges want to see you can handle that pressure."

No horsing around

Miss Rodeo America must be many things -- pretty, personable and educated. But above all she must be a master horse rider able to perform at hundreds of rodeo events across the country.

Rodeo has a grand tradition in the southern agricultural states of America, where cowboys and girls compete in various livestock challenges such as calf roping and bronco riding.

Indeed, many talented cowboys have turned their hand to professional horse racing, such as multimillion dollar jockey Steve Hamilton from Oklahoma who started out in the rodeo ring before moving to the race track.

Read: Jockey who refused to stay in the kitchen

While other traditional beauty pageant contestants might show off their special talent by singing or playing the piano, Miss Rodeo America must demonstrate her superior riding skills by jumping on the back of a horse she's never seen before, and performing a set routine in front of hundreds of spectators.

"To prepare before the contest, I asked people in my home town if I could ride their horse," said Shiner. "As Miss Rodeo America you're traveling 100,000 miles across the country performing at rodeos -- and many of those are full of horses you're not familiar with."

Ladies in leather

But it's not enough to just prove yourself in the saddle. The ultimate cowgirl also has to look the part -- and that means rhinestones, tassels and a lot of leather.

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Gazing at the ladies lined up on MGM's grand stage is a bit like coming face-to-face with a human rainbow of bejeweled leather, each carefully crafted costume topped-off with an obligatory cream cowboy hat.

As Shiner says: "A rodeo queen always has a leather dress in her wardrobe. It's a good western heritage dress."

The fashion segment of the pageant also gives the girls a chance to design an outfit and "put their own personality in to it." Shiner opted for a bronze, floor-length leather dress with rhinestones and tassel trim.

Fit for a queen

Of course the ladies aren't just judged on their fashion choices -- but how they look in them. This, after all, is a beauty pageant, with each contestant an immaculate vision of glossy make-up, blow-dried hair and mega-watt smile.

"We are the face of rodeo, so you always want to be representing yourself in the best way possible," said Shiner.

"I don't believe it exploits women. There's more behind it than a pretty face -- we have to be well-spoken, knowledgeable, and it's a great way to further our education and career."

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Rodeo riches

For radiology student Shiner, winning the crown was a childhood dream come true, but also the beginning of a year-long commitment involving up to 200 appearances across the country.

She'll return to university next year with $22,500 in scholarship prize money, and plans to pursue a degree in business and marketing.

It can be hard spending so much time on the road away from family and friends. But Shiner also takes her job as role model to younger girls very seriously.

"Miss Rodeo America was formed as a way to bring a little bit of beauty and grace to a sport known for its roughness and rowdiness," she says, adding: "But you still have to be prepared to get dirt in your nails."