Her stocks? Stained yellow. Her Jeans? Covered in dirt. But her belt? In flawless condition, bedazzled in about two hundred rhinestones and visible from every angle of the arena.
Carter Willard, 12, a farm girl from Perry, Georgia, puts on this outfit nearly once a month as she travels from town to town showing her family’s heifers in livestock judging competitions as a member of the Perry National FFA Organization.
Showing cattle is not just an after school activity that Willard signed up for. It is a way of life. “Showing cows takes immense dedication. It is not like a sport that you can commit a couple of hours to and call it quits. It’s an all day, every day kind of thing. These cows are practically your kids,” said Holly Hutchins, an alumni of the National FFA Organization and current teacher to her two young children.
“We name all of our cows after Disney characters,” says Willard. “We’ve got Nemo, Gus, Rapunzel, and of course my favorite, Athena.” However, Willard does not only accredit Athena’s name to the queen from The Little Mermaid. She chose the name also because of Athena, the Greek goddess. “Athena the actual goddess, her name means the goddess of battle strategies, and so she’s really smart, so I just felt like Athena would be really smart too, and she is,” says Willard.
Every morning for four years now, before she even takes care of herself, Willard slips on her boots and heads outside to take care of her cows. Each day she is responsible for walking her cows at least a mile to ensure they are getting proper exercise. “It’s shown me responsibility in how I’m supposed to take care of a live, living thing. So I’v had to work with it and I’v had to make it tame,” says Willard.
Willard consistently faces the challenge of improving her showmanship while simultaneously balancing school and friends. “When Carter was in 5th grade, she was diagnosed with ADHD. This is a big part of why we starter her showing cows. It has helped her learn how to focus on one thing, and she does it very well,” says Willard’s mother, Maria.
The culmination of Willard’s skills and hard work all come down to one event every year. The biggest junior livestock competition in the state of Georgia: The Georgia National Fair.
Preparation for the show begins at 7:00 a.m. Willard, dressed in boot-cut jeans, a fitted long sleeve shirt, and boots, walks Athena like a dog through the corridors of the livestock stables and ties her up to her designated slot. After taking a thirty-minute break to get water and muffins, the preparation begins. Willard gives Athena a bath, deeply scrubbing her dirty fur, dries her with what looks like a car vacuum, clips her fur, and then begins the tedious process of “fitting” her hair.
“You want their fur to be puffy so they look fuller, but not too much, you have to have the perfect balance,” says Willard. Willard very carefully sprays product over every inch of Athena’s fur as she slowly begins to brush the hair in the opposite direction to get it to stand up, giving it a voluminous appearance. Willard does not mind the extensive process as it gives her alone time and solitude with her favorite companion.
Before she realizes, it’s 11:00 a.m. and it’s show time. The mad scramble begins. Willard speed walks to the bathroom, throws on her plaid, blue button down, wipes her dirtied jeans off with a damp paper towel, pulls on her cowboy boots, and slips her favorite, bedazzled leather belt through her belt loops. It’s go time.
Before entering the arena, and ultimately winning fourth overall, Willard takes a moment to stand with Athena in the practice ring outside. They stand-alone, Athena’s head only reaching Willard’s hips, and before the judges call them in, Willard gently leans over and kisses her best friends forehead.
Willard considers Athena a part of her family and treats her as if she is human. “If Athena could talk, I’d like to think she’d have a deep southern accent,” says Willard.
Willard, not even a teenager, already plans to continue her love for showing cows by becoming a livestock judger when she graduates college. She plans to be around animals, specifically cows, for the rest of her life.
“Carter has a huge heart and loves animals almost more than humans,” says Willard’s mother.