"People expect you to perform a certain way, but it doesn't always work out the way you want," flag girl Shelley Martini said. "You have to make the ride smooth and stay in control of the horse. It's a lot of work, but well worth it."
For years, "flag girls" have performed at the annual Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo. They help kick off the rodeo by leading the parade prior to rodeo week, carrying the American, Missouri and the Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo flags.
Then the six female-member team participates in the grand entry of each rodeo Wednesday through Saturday, running patterns and carrying sponsor flags while riding horseback.
All of the flag girls have a background in horseback riding or some other aspect of the rodeo, said flag girl Rebecca Throop. They began practicing in July for their role in the four-day event.
"We're very proud of who we are, and we work very hard," Throop said. "And we're not just representing the Jaycees, we're representing all of our sponsors and the community."
The flag girls tend to change their performance pattern every two to three years, Throop said. "We want to make it look the best it can look," Throop said.
But no matter what kind of pattern, the riders want their performances to look smooth, Martini said. "I think it looks better to have more consistency and to ride more uniform together," Martini said.
Typically the flag girls ride their own horses during their performances and the current flag girls range in age from 20s to 40s.
"I love doing it. I love being involved with it," said Martini, who also barrel races on the side. "When you enjoy something it doesn't seem like so much work."
The horses are also just as important as the people riding them, Martini pointed out.
"There are a lot of girls that can do that and ride, but you have to make sure you have the horse that can take the pressure," Martini said. "Every night's a different night for your horses, and you have to know your horses in a different setting."
It's usually a little more tense those first couple of nights, but by the third or fourth night, the horses are more used to performing and start adjusting, Martini said.
"When you practice, you don't have the thousands of people, the lights and music or the bulls in the shoots -- and that's something the horse hasn't experienced before and makes it more difficult," Martini explained.
Flag girls in the Sikeston rodeo began years ago with Debbie Stotts of Sikeston heading the group, Throop recalled.
"It was kind of like something that she would just ask people to do if she thought they would be good showmen or good riders, and it was kind of like a merit system thing," Throop said.
When someone decides to quit, the remaining flag girls get together and decide who they think would be a good candidate, which is typically someone who has showmanship and personality, Throop said.
"We don't do tryouts due to the fact we don't want to pick anyone over another and we don't like to make flag girls a contest," Throop said.
Once someone accepts the offer of being a flag girl, the first year is somewhat of a preliminary year, Throop said.
"If everything goes well, then you're in until you quit. There's no kicking somebody out and no unfairness about it," Throop said.
And contrary to what some may believe, being a flag girl has nothing to do with name, place or society, Throop said.
"It's how you rodeo and how you ride a horse. We work very hard at what we do, and every single one of us can ride a horse like no other," Throop said. The flag girls are also very appreciative of the Sikeston Jaycees, Throop said.
"They do everything for us. This year they got us two new flags. We had been having to borrow flags. It was kind of tough on us, and we're very thankful for that," Throop said.
In addition to Throop and Martini, flag girls are Mary-Helen Johnson, Erika Johnson, Amanda Brooks and Misty Webb.
Over the years the flag girls have come to be expected as a component of the Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo.
"And we are very proud of that," Throop said. "It's nice for us to be known as part of the rodeo."