The Firsts is Yahoo Life's series in which we profile trailblazers and share their stories of breaking barriers and making history.
To Ja'Daiya Kursh, a native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, there is more to being a cowgirl than meets the eye.
"I always say I have this hoof print on my heart," she tells Yahoo Life. "I feel like being a cowgirl, I am a powerful woman, I have grit, I am willing to try anything. It's hard to hold us back. I definitely feel like we're a force to be reckoned with."
Kursh found horses as a child after being introduced to riding by a mental health advisor. "When I was 6, I was sexually assaulted and I went to counseling for two months," she admits. "My father had been incarcerated since I was 5 and has been out only three years of my life ever. And I think I dealt with that and being sexually assaulted not very well because I think I had depression and anxiety." The counselor invited Kursh over to her home where she got on a horse for the first time, which she says granted her "the reigns of my freedom."
By 16, Kursh was an accomplished equestrian and joined the Old Fort Days Dandies, a rodeo group founded in 1977. As a pony express rider, Kursh was expected to memorize a three to four-minute speech, intimately know horsemanship patterns (which they sometimes do not know until the day of the event) and obtain a diverse wardrobe, among other things. "So much work goes into preparing for a rodeo and rodeo queen pageants. If you're not preparing two to three months to the day of the pageant, you probably won't be prepared," she explains.
Kursh's two-year run with the Dandies was taxing. And being the only Black member took more of a toll than she expected. She experienced racism for the first time, with her peers repeatedly hurling nasty taunts her way. One time, a teammate's brother took a photo of her wearing a neon green helmet and called her a "negro Bob the Builder" on social media. She remembers even being called a "monkey" and parents trying to get her kicked off the team because of the color of her skin. The last straw came when she found out there was a group message among her teammates dedicated to bashing her.
"That day I actually quit the team, the coach begged me to stay, but I told her that the only way I would stay on the team was if I got to talk to all of my teammates and their parents. And that next Sunday at practice, we had a mandatory meeting and the rodeo board came down. I wrote my own letter and I said in front of 40 people about the way that they made me feel...at 16 I let them know, 'You guys didn't like me because I was Black.' I never really experienced this until I was on a team with girls who didn't look like me."
Kursh persevered on the team and in 2017, she was crowned Miss Rodeo Coal Hill, becoming the first Black woman to gain the title. "I haven't been to a pageant and had that same feeling. It was so awesome. I was just doing what I loved," she recalls.
While the recognition is great, Kursh still endures bias within the rodeo industry and would love to see diversity in judging. She'd also like more participants who look like her to join and hopes to serve as an inspiration.
"If I could give any little girl any advice that I would have wanted someone to give me is to never allow someone to mute you. That's something I've always kind of done in my life, so that has lived with me. You know, speak up for yourself and be unapologetically you," she suggests.
Outside of the rodeo, Kursh, now 21, has also found herself doing a bit of modeling for western-inspired clothing brands like Wrangler. She also plans to try her hand at saddle bronc riding and after finishing up undergrad, she wants to pursue a law degree in hopes of fighting against injustice.
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