FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — Fort Smith has some new royalty after the first Miss Rodeo Fort Smith pageant happened over the weekend.

River Valley rodeo trailblazer, Ja’Dayia Kursh, organized the pageant. She wants to make sure other young girls are able to follow in her footsteps.

Dozens of family members gathered at the Hero’s Arena in Natural Dam on Saturday. The contestants showcased their horsemanship skills and went through an interview. Kursh wants to start building the girls’ courage, confidence and ability to be interviewed at a young age.

The contestants also had some fun participating in a fashion show at Cavender’s.

“I’m doing the pageant and this is my first time ever doing one,” said Tiana Selby. “I’m super excited.”

“I really like horses,” said Fallon Hardy.

Tiana and Fallon are cousins and they competed together in the Sweetheart age group of the pageant, which is girls ages three to seven.

“Since I’m brown, I just wanted to blend in with other brown girls and see what other brown girls like to do,” said Tiana.

“This is the most diverse rodeo queen pageant ever,” said Kursh.

The Fort Smith native found her love for horses through a dark experience when she was just six years old.

“I was sexually assaulted and that’s actually how I was introduced to horses, it was through therapy,” she said. “I always say that she sat me in a saddle that day and she handed me the reins to my freedom and I’ve been riding horses ever since.”

She got into rodeo competitions and pageants and was crowned Miss Rodeo Coal Hill Arkansas in 2017, making her the first Black rodeo queen in the state.

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill honors Ja’Dayia Kursh as Arkansas’ first Black Rodeo Queen on Jan. 21st, 2023.

“I see it as an accomplishment,” she said. “It’s also like, I’m one of the first ones in my state and then when I did go look, you know, I was one of like two that I could find back then. So it’s bittersweet.”

But it gave her a job: to make sure we see more women and girls of color in rodeo and in all horseback riding styles.

“I had to make sure that this was something that was normal, especially for women of color, diverse women, all women, young women, for them to see women that look like them in different positions so that they know these are things that they can do as well,” she said.

That mission is already inspiring others.

“Ja’Dayia got into like Bronco riding and most people would not want to do that because like you’re on a bucking animal,” said Jaydah Releford, who was crowned Miss Teen Rodeo Fort Smith on Sunday. “Seeing her, it encourages me to keep going.”

Kursh hopes that no matter the pageant girls’ age, race or background, they feel empowered and accepted when they step into the arena with their trusty steed.

“I hope that they take away self-confidence because I know I found a lot of my confidence through horses,” she said. “I hope that they get to walk away and be like, oh, I got to compete against a girl that didn’t look like me and I loved her.”

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill crowned all the pageant winners on Sunday. He also gave Kursh a key to the city award.

Kursh said she is working to start the Fort Smith Riding Club this spring to have a dedicated organization for fostering horseback riding in the River Valley.

Photos from the pageant courtesy of Farm Bureau of Arkansas.

Photos in the on-air piece of Kursh riding the Bucking Broncos courtesy of Heath Herring.