“Someone that never allowed someone to mute her”: Meet Arkansas’ first Black Rodeo Queen

By Ruth Samuel

Beneath the red, white, and blue diamond-encrusted crown lies the trailblazer who paved the way for Black kids in cowboy hats, long before Lil’ Nas X.  21-year-old Ja’Dayia Kursh became Arkansas’ first Black rodeo queen in 2017.

“I didn’t grow up on a ranch or with horses. I just had a dream,” Kursh said. “I did everything in my power to make it come true without help from family.”

With a father who is incarcerated, a cosmetologist mother, and five other siblings, Kursh had to work and raise her own funds to rent her first horse. Now, the “Classy Black Cowgirl” with over 12k Instagram followers is signing partnerships with Wrangler.

“My family always said, ‘She’s different. She’s always the one that’s doing something crazy.’ But they were supportive more than anything,” Kursh said.

Her Journey Started Early

At six years old, Kursh was sexually assaulted. After grappling with depression and anxiety for months, Kursh’s therapist handed her the reins to her freedom.

She brought Kursh and her mother, Nishawn Horton, to her ranch. The six-year-old had her first bumpy ride on a glossy chestnut mare named Sunshine.

“[Her therapist] said, ‘this is a 1500-pound animal. If you can control this horse, you can control anything that comes your way,’” Kursh said.

She then started riding in the Pony Express with youth amateur group the Arkansas Seven, making appearances at parades and festivals.

At age 13, she wanted to try out for the Old Fort Days Dandies, a premier traveling drill team. Her mother is her biggest fan. But, when her baby Ja’Dayia — “my chocolate” — wanted to compete, she was concerned.

Horton said, “No, we’re not going to do this. A Black girl has never done this. You’re going to get hurt. When I saw her in the arena and there were about over 1000 people, I was nervous and just in shock. One minute I’m excited, the next I’m praying, ‘God, don’t let her fall.’”

Wearing a hot pink top, a glittery silver vest, and Old Fort Days Dandies chaps, Kursh charged out of the white gates atop her steed, Queen. She won over the hearts of spectators at the Barton Coliseum, igniting so much pride in her own family members.

Her great-aunt Anita Faye remembers being overcome with joy the first time she attended one of Kursh’s shows.

“It was an emotional roller coaster for me, to see [my nephew’s] baby doing good when he should be out, happy to see her ride and everything,” the 57-year-old said. “I feel like my prayers have been answered as far as that child is concerned.”

Racism and Haters 

However, not everyone loved Kursh. She was the target of countless racist “jokes” from her own teammates. The prestigious veneer of the 41-year-old rodeo dynasty she was once obsessed with was completely shattered.

Kursh remembers one time she left her helmet at home, so the owner of the arena lent her a yellow construction helmet.

“One of my teammates’ brothers took a picture of me and he posted it on his story, saying that I looked like a Negro Bob the Builder,” she said.

Incident after incident, Kursh was told to “let it go” and to be the bigger person. From being taunted with the n-word, referred to as a monkey, and ridiculed in private group chats, Kursh’s Dandy “Sisters” isolated and abandoned her like an orphan. Despite coaches’ dismissal of her complaints, it never dimmed her light.

Financial professional Mike Tuttle said, there was a maturity about her that was beyond the kids she was with. He first met Kursh during the summer of 2015, when the Dandies headed to his five-acre ranch in Lindale, Texas for a competition.

“It was just one of those matches made in heaven,” Tuttle said. “Sometimes you just out of nowhere meet someone and know you’ll be connected to hip forever.”

He was drawn to her talent as a drill rider and was shocked to learn what she endured in the troupe.

“My first reaction was anger, number one. What would possess anybody to be so cruel to somebody for no reason?” Tuttle said. “By nature, I always root for the underdog. Immediately I told Ja’Dayia, I’m all in.”

The 70-year-old ended up paying for a semester of college at the University of Arkansas, where Kursh is majoring in criminology with a minor in journalism.

She Persisted, and Won.  

Horton remembers hearing the words: ‘‘2017 Rodeo Queen of Coal Hill, Ja’Dayia Kursh.”

“I promise you, I heard myself scream,” she said. “Before people were looking at the field, they were looking at me because of how loud I was screaming.”

Though it was hard for Horton to raise Kursh as a single teen mother, she has always been one of her daughter’s loudest supporters — and the only woman she can drive 45 minutes to for home-cooked lasagna each Sunday night.

Kursh didn’t even know that she was the first Black rodeo queen in Arkansas until 2 years later in 2019. She was a senior in high school, just doing something that she loved. Apart from her rodeo queen title, Kursh was the first girl in Fort Smith, Arkansas to play varsity football at Northside High School.

“There were so many times that I wanted to give up Rodeo Queen and just want to quit, but I know that I can go to Miss Rodeo America,” Kursh said. “For me, I just want to be remembered as someone that never allowed someone to mute her.”

Edited by Jackie Sizing