Hanna Heckman’s whole life has been leading up to this moment – years of riding, roping, performing, preparing speeches, traveling the country – all for
this one shot at achieving her dream. For fourteen years she has been working to become Miss Rodeo America. And it isn’t about glamour or money or fame; to Hanna, it’s about representing, at the highest level, a sport and culture that has given her family so much.

As a young girl growing up in Choteau, Hanna was surrounded by rodeo. Her mother and father, Lorell and Rocky, were involved in rodeo behind the scenes. Her brother, Colter, (who is ten years her elder) was competing at the high school level. Her sister, Amanda, (who is fourteen years her elder) didn’t participate in rodeo but showed horses competitively. And Hanna – she was too young to do anything but watch.

I felt like I was going stir crazy,” says Hanna. “I was too young to compete but I wanted to do something rodeo-related.

When Hanna was going into the first grade, her mom saw an ad for Little Miss Northern Montana and asked her if she wanted to be a rodeo queen. “She was always outgoing,” says Lorell, “We thought it would be good for her to get up on a stage.”

As part of the competition, Hanna had to give a speech. Her parents made her write it herself and she decided to talk about her first experience goat tying. When it came time for Hanna to deliver the speech, Lorell asked her if she was nervous. Hanna replied, “What’s nervous? Should I be?”

Hanna ended up placing first in the pageant and afterward was approached by one of the judges. “The judge told me that one day I would be Miss Rodeo America,” says Hanna. It has been her goal ever since to prove that judge right.

For five consecutive years, Hanna competed in various pageants across the state, winning each title. Then in 6th grade, she decided to take time off from pageants to train in rodeo events. “I wanted to be a real cowgirl as much as I wanted to be a rodeo queen,” says Hanna. “It helped me that my parents put me in Junior Rodeo.” Because her parents were on the committee, Hanna had to prepare for all of her events by herself. This was hard work and forced her to push herself to succeed.

By the time she reached high school, Hanna was confident enough in her abilities as a cowgirl that she was ready to compete in pageants again. As a freshman, she entered the state competition for High School Rodeo Queen and won, moving on to Nationals in New Mexico. Hanna didn’t fully understand how Nationals worked and seeing as there were around 50 other girls competing against her, she felt her chances of winning were slim. Still, she was staying positive; she decided to do her best and use this as a learning experience for future competitions. “I thought, ‘There’s no way in heck I’ll win this.’ I just wanted to get prepared for the next year,” says Hanna. “I ended up placing third.”

Off to a great start in high school, Hanna worked really hard and qualified in pole bending her sophomore year. Again, she won the
State High School Queen title and went on to compete at Nationals in Wyoming. This time at Nationals, she placed second, losing to the winner by a single point. “I was bitter about that,” Hanna laughs.

Because she had placed so high in her first two national competitions, Hanna didn’t want to risk placing lower and losing her momentum. Instead she took a different route to improve her chances of one day becoming Miss Rodeo America. The board for Nationals consists of three officers and the pageant queen. Hanna decided that if she couldn’t be queen then she could at least be on the board, so she qualified for pole bending, went to Nationals, ran for the board, and earned the position of secretary. With the board, she traveled the country, becoming more immersed in the world of rodeo. “It was the best time of my life,” says Hanna.

Feeling positive and pushing toward her goal, Hanna hit an unfortunate snag her senior year. A combination of injuries and errors in qualifying events resulted in her missing Nationals for the first time in her high school career. Hanna laments, “It was not a good note to end on.”

Still, Hanna didn’t let this crush her spirit. Instead, she was determined to excel in college rodeo, using her scholarship money that she’d earned at Nationals to attend MSU Northern in Havre. Hanna rodeoed for MSU Northern for two years before deciding to finally take the next step toward her goal – competing for Miss Rodeo Montana. “I took a semester off from school and decided if I lost, that was it,” says Hanna. “It was scary. I still had that lingering memory of losing Nationals by a point. I had poured my heart and soul into that and lost.”

Fortunately, Hanna didn’t have to endure that heartbreak again; she won the title of Miss Rodeo Montana. One step closer to her dream, Hanna travels the country as a bridge between rodeo contestants and fans, educating the public about the sport and Western culture. “I don’t just promote rodeo,” says Hanna, “I promote agriculture and other aspects of our Western heritage.” Hanna takes pride in being an ambassador for the state and appreciates this opportunity to promote the Montana lifestyle. “It’s still amazing to me that I wake up and the crown is on my dresser,” says Hanna. “I’ve been dreaming of this for fourteen years.”

“Her father and I are very proud of her,” says Lorell. “It’s not about winning; it’s all about how you present yourself. We’ve tried to teach our kids the values of rodeo.” Lorell owns and operates Wild Out West, a western boutique in Great Falls’ Holiday Village Mall, and Rocky is an outfitter. Both are involved in rodeo (outside of their daughter’s pageantry) and Hanna’s brother is a pro saddle bronc rider. It’s clear that rodeo and its culture have had a profound impact on the Heckman family.

Hanna hopes to share this with as many people as she can. “I want Miss Rodeo Montana’s presence known,” she says. Besides appearing at rodeo events, Hanna expresses her values by working with charities around the state, including Princess for a Day, Special Olympics, Relay for Life, March of Dimes, and Bears that Care for Cancer. She sees herself as a spokesperson for the state and wants to make a lasting impact. In competing for Miss Rodeo America (a title that has never been won by a Montanan contestant), Hanna will be fighting for a chance to impart her values on a national level.

One way or another, Hanna’s pageantry will come to a close with this competition. Rules dictate that once a contestant runs for Miss Rodeo America – win or lose – she can never compete in pageantry again. “You only get one shot and then it’s over,” says Hanna.

It is uncertain what the future holds, but whether Hanna takes the crown or not, she has become a symbol of rodeo values and a role model for cowgirls everywhere. She is proof that with enough grit, a girl from small town Montana can do the incredible. Nothing can take that away; Hanna Heckman will forever be a representative of the Western way of life.

If you’d like to wish Hanna Heckman luck or thank her for her service to Montana, you can see her at any of these rodeos throughout the summer: Belt, Chinook, Augusta, Red Lodge, Drummond, Wolf Point, Havre, Stanford, Lewistown, Helena, Great Falls, Glasgow, Missoula, Dillon, Billings Nile, Cody, Wyoming, Calgary (tentative), Cheyanne, Wyoming, Moses Lake, Washington, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Pendleton, Oregon.