FORD CITY, Pa. — Jocsalyn Collini doesn't pause when asked how old she was the first time she rode a horse.
"Oh, that's easy. I was in my mom's belly," the precocious 11-year-old answers with a broad smile as she handles the lasso she is readying for use at the Crooked Creek Horse Park. She was spending her Friday evening at the 23rd annual Fort Armstrong Professional Rodeo.
She was standing behind the family horse trailer with her mom, Jessica Collini, and her mom's friend Robin Weaver, two accomplished barrel horse racers. Standing around are her 10-year-old best friend, Jillian Artman, and Weaver's 14-year-old niece, Augusta, who is busy grooming an impatient and excited horse named Rocco.
They are among hundreds of other tight-knit groups of multigenerational women and girls here to compete against one another, support one another and bond. This is a community based on mutual respect and a sport based on discipline, requiring each aspiring athlete to be coachable, on time, focused, prepared and hardworking.
As young women and teenage girls all throughout the fairgrounds prepare for the big weekend that serves as a qualifier for the national rodeo this fall, one thing is missing: cellphones.
That means no Snapchat; no artfully directed Instagram photos of them on horses, or photos of plates filled with corn on the cob, barbecue ribs, funnel cake or cotton candy; no Twitter hashtags boasting of their girl power; and no selfies.
With remarkable clarity, the younger Collini, who explains her cellphone is in her parents' truck far from the action of the night, says: "Oh, ha. That is for the prissy girls — you know, people who don't know how to communicate unless it's through staged social media postings. I prefer to live in the moment."
Artman, doesn't have hers either, and neither do her mom, Weaver or Augusta.
Closer to the rodeo arena, cowboys sit above the paddocks and the so-called pivot girls sit on their horses, ready to begin their grand entry and traditional pageantry of the opening ceremony.
Morgan Reese, Toni Marie DeCarlo, Brooke Vance, Arley Wilson, Stephanie Cribbs and Erin Kaufman, all members of the Western Pennsylvania Rodeo Association pivot team, wait for the honor ride into the arena. All six are dressed in crisp white shirts, blue denim jeans and white cowboy hats.
All of them have been training since they were young girls, and all are members of civic groups like the FFA and the 4-H Club. It was definitely a sort of girl-power environment, one that cued all of the empowerment criteria for which feminists have fought for generations but without some of the hang-ups. They didn't need to pressure one another to think and believe the same thing; they didn't need a slogan; they didn't need a hashtag; they didn't need to brag about it on a social media platform; they were just going to go out and do.
Of her fellow pivot girls, who range in age between 15 and 18, Vance says: "We compete against each other, and we comfort each other when we lose. We are all here to grow. This community and competition helps us sharpen our character for our future."
None of them have a cellphone handy either.
In fact, after making several rounds around the stands and scanning the thousands of attendees, it was difficult to find anyone using their phones while waiting to watch the three-hour-long rodeo. Instead, they were talking to their friends or family who they came with or the new people they'd met.
It was as though there were two different universes I had traversed in one day, a local coffee shop in downtown Pittsburgh, where everyone's heads were buried in their smartphone, and this place, where everyone put their smartphone in its place — in their pocket, pocketbook or car — while they enjoyed their lives.
It is a place where national politics is put in its place and localism reigns. They are not obsessed with the latest Twitter scandal, gaffe or hysteria that ebbs and flows on social media. They think about water quality, the conservation of their land and their community, and how the price of gas is impacting their jobs.
As if on cue, the rodeo begins and the girls gallop into the arena carrying a variety of colorful flags, an older woman joining them carrying an oversized flowing American flag.
They stop for the invocation and singing of the national anthem. Everyone bows their head for the prayer and stands for the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. The girls set the pivots for the grand entry, when the rodeo officials and contestants ride in. When the pivot girls exit, that is the signal the rodeo has begun.
The sense of family and community isn't just a feeling here. In this highly competitive and highly supportive network of equestrians all gathered less than 30 miles outside Pittsburgh for a weekend of competition, bull riding, barrel racing, bronco saddle riding, team roping, primitive camping, friendships, thrilling victories and wrenching defeats, it is a reality.