FORT WORTH -- Minutes before showtime, 9-year-old Ashlynn Johnson sat nervously while her teacher braided her long hair.
On Saturday, Ashlynn -- who spent the past year raising a Beefmaster heifer named Candy, for her sweet disposition -- prepared to compete in the Junior Breeding Beef Heifer Show.
"I'm really, really nervous," Ashlynn said, glancing around Cattle Barn 3. "There are so many people here."
Ashlynn is one of four students from Balmorhea, a tiny West Texas town, competing at the Stock Show.
This is the first time the group has shown animals here.
Every year, the Stock Show draws thousands of junior competitors from small towns across Texas who are seeking a shot at prize money, a new experience or just a reward for a year of hard work.
"You have to be committed," Ashlynn said. "You work every single day. This doesn't happen overnight."
Ask Marcus Martinez, 18, a senior at Balmorhea High School, who won money at last year's calf scramble to buy a heifer. When he started raising his heifer, Pixie Dust, he knew relatively little about cows.
Now he knows more than he would have ever imagined.
"I learned no two animals are alike. They all have their own personalities and quirks," Martinez said. "I wouldn't trade this experience for the world."
James Conner, Balmorhea's agriculture teacher, and his wife, Amy Conner, the school's kindergarten teacher, helped the four students, ranging from 9 to 18, care for the animals.
Raising animals offers numerous opportunities, James Conner said.
"This gives them a chance to get out of a small town and see something different," he said. "It teaches them responsibility as they watch their animal grow and change over a year."
Avery Weatherman, 15, a sophomore at Balmorhea High School, said that she has shown goats and lambs but that the Conners persuaded her to show a heifer this year.
How do they compare?
"Heifers are way easier," said Weatherman, who named her heifer April for her birth month. "They are much more relaxed than lambs and goats."
Diego Estrada, 17, a senior, said he fell into showing animals by accident. On a whim, he entered a calf scramble in Houston and won money to buy a heifer. He named her Molly Cow.
"Honestly, I never expected to do any of this," Estrada said. "It's fun. It's hectic. It's a totally different environment."
Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056