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Gonzaga law student is queen of the rodeo

Katherine Merck, Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo, poses for a photo with her horse Jax on March 28 at the Spokane Equestrian Center. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Katherine Merck, Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo, poses for a photo with her horse Jax on March 28 at the Spokane Equestrian Center. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Katherine Merck crowned Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo

When Katherine Merck became the 2014 Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo, she had some explaining to do. The 24-year-old Spokanite is a first-year law student at Gonzaga University and some of her professors were a little puzzled.

“They looked at me like they didn’t understand what I just told them,” said Merck, sitting in the tack room at Spokane Equestrian Center just south of town. “I guess they didn’t expect that from one of their students.”

Merck’s coronation is at Southside Community Center on Saturday. The pageant included questions about Spokane history, fair and rodeo knowledge as well as equine science, interviews and public speaking.

“When you travel as the rodeo queen you are representing your hometown,” Merck said. “You have to know a lot about the place you are from.”

She also had to get on a horse she’d never ridden before, carry a flag and ride super fast around the arena.

“When you travel the circuit you can’t always bring your own horse, so you may have to borrow one,” Merck said. She plans to visit 13 different rodeos this summer, including the Calgary Stampede.

Merck said she didn’t get really horse crazy until after a summer stay at Camp Reed.

“I was 11 and that was the first time I really went riding,” Merck said. “Before that I did ballet. After that summer I was all about riding.”

She still has her first horse, the now 25-year-old Snoopy.

“He’s a year older than me. He has taught me everything about reining,” Merck said, petting the black gelding’s head.

Initially, she was attracted to the speed and accuracy of barrel racing but after lessons at the hands of family friend and famous reiner Eddie Biegler, she fell in love with the intricacy, precision and detail of reining.

“It’s sometimes called western dressage. You do something like a skating pattern with your horse,” Merck explained. “There are certain things you have to do, and you get scored on how well you do them.”

Her absolute favorite rodeo event is freestyle reining, a curious combination of reining and dress-up often presented to pop music. The horse may also be dressed up.

“Good old Snoopy has been painted like a zebra and all kinds of other things,” Merck said, laughing. “I just love it. I spend months doing the choreography and the music. It’s fun.”

Her main travel companion this summer will be 10-year-old Jax, a pretty sorrel with a white blaze.

Merck said Snoopy is a bit old for traveling all summer and he’s got some health problems.

“He is really upset when he doesn’t get to go to shows with me,” Merck said. “But he does get to be in the Lilac Parade – we hope that keeps him happy.”

When she’s not at the barn practicing sliding stops and spins on her horses, Merck is hard at work at Gonzaga. Her road to law school was not straight and narrow.

“I majored in finance and medieval studies,” Merck said, laughing at the unconventional combination. “But I really like law school. So far so good.”

Traveling the rodeo circuit while hauling a horse or two is pretty expensive, Merck said, so she’s asking for donations of gas money.

Still, she’s looking forward to a summer of traveling and taking the rodeo to a wider audience.

“Many people don’t know what we do as rodeo queens,” Merck said. “It’s a big job and also a chance to get to know yourself better.”

Merck will continue to pursue her law degree and hopes to work with estate planning for farmers and ranchers. And she’ll continue riding in the rodeo as long as she can.

“I’ve never been someone to pick something up and put it back down,” she said, laughing. “And I love the people of the rodeo.”