“Obviously, most women lack the physical attributes for riding bulls, bareback, or steer wrestling, however many of these ladies can get more out of a trained horse than can their menfolk.” – J Bar W Ranch
If you’re finding yourself nodding in agreement right now, I would advise you not to continue reading, because it’s hard to argue with one simple statement about the above quote: it’s complete BS. That isn’t just my admittedly feminist streak speaking, though; it’s been proven by years of sensational cowgirls strewn throughout rodeo history.
When I first heard that, at the conception of the sport of rodeo, women competed in every event alongside men, I was shocked. Not because I didn’t believe they could (anybody who knows me is laughing out loud at that idea), but because I only assumed that is was purely sexist preconceptions that relegated modern women to barrel racing and rodeo queen. The thing I have learned while finding out why, exactly, this cosmic shift occurred is that I was essentially right. That said, the whole story (which I cannot possibly fully dive into in one small post) is considerably more complex.
The first woman to compete in a major professional rodeo was Bertha Kaepernik in 1904. The daughter of German immigrants working on a ranch in Colorado, she was riding from an early age, when her father put her up on the back of a horse and warned her to “stay aboard.” She was five years old, and tasked with riding a path to keep the cattle from wandering. She grew up active, athletic, and a talented and compassionate horsewoman, competing regularly in the local rodeos, where cowboys went to gather and blow off steam. When she entered the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, she travelled over a hundred miles as alone as you can be on horseback, ponying the unbroke horse she would compete on with her – at that time, contestants provided their own broncs. She arrived to find an arena that had been ravaged by rain, and cowboys refusing to compete in the bog. Tenacious, Bertha said she would ride.
The horse’s name was Tombstone – perhaps not a great omen, but one that this dauntless woman ignored as she climbed on board and got the ride of her life. At one point, the horse even flipped over backwards, a potentially deadly stunt, but Bertha slipped to the side as he fell and stuck tight as he righted himself and continued bucking. The crowd went wild. She didn’t carry on riding broncs forever, but took on many other challenges, even venturing into Roman race riding – in which participants race while standing on the backs of two galloping horses.
It was this incredible woman who set the precedent, who first proved beyond a doubt that she was worthy to compete in this arena. And for the most part, it was all uphill from there for women in rodeo.
Female competitors were admired for their athleticism and strength up through the end of the 1920’s. Women like Mabel Stickland, Marie Gibson, and Fannie Sperry Steele competed on an even playing field with men, although it should be noted that they did have one caveat. Female saddle bronc riders were allowed – or, in some competitions, required – to ride with “hobbled” stirrups. Essentially, this means that the stirrups were tied tightly together underneath the horse’s belly, which had the effect of more or less locking the rider into her saddle. The rowels of her spurs would also be tucked into the saddle’s cinch. Whether that was an advantage or an unnecessary danger imposed on women who didn’t need it is probably up for debate. Anybody who’s ridden can tell you that being essentially tied onto your horse is not necessarily a good thing.
Regardless, in the early days of rodeo, women thrived. Fannie Sperry Steele quickly became a rodeo legend, earning two world bucking horse championships and never turning down a horse, even when everyone was betting against her. She, too, grew up on a ranch, owning her own pinto horse by the age of six, and earned her first dollar by riding a wild stallion in front of a crowd that loved it so much they tossed money into a hat for her. Only a year later she had earned her first championship. Thinking the practice too dangerous, she refused to ride with hobbled stirrups or with two hands, and she asserted that so far as she knew, she was the only female rider to complete her entire career unhobbled. Not only was she an avid competitor, she and her husband Bill put on their own Wild West shows, with Sperry Steele riding as many as fourteen wild horses every weekend. The couple also performed with “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and she used her incredible sharpshooting skills to her advantage, shooting eggs out of her husband’s hand and cigars from his mouth.
Upon retiring from show business and rodeos, the Steeles moved to the mountains and started a packing string, carrying dudes and hunters through the Montana wilderness for forty years, Fannie continuing long after her husband’s passing. She rode to the age of eighty-seven before moving into a rest home, accepting the loss of the ranch but still lamenting the loss of her horses. She died at ninety-five, a member of both the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and still the Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World. She was proud of the life she’d lived and the love she’d had, and her legacy inspired many young women hoping to make a name for themselves in rodeo.
Not long after Fannie Sperry Steele won her championships, though, life for women in the arena began to become considerably more difficult. Many sources attribute the end of women’s rodeo riding to the tragic and dramatic death of Bonnie McCarroll, but the fact of the matter is that there was a general societal trend of backlash against women’s athletic accomplishments. A 1926 newspaper editorial says, “Women can now swim the English channel, and they can ride about as swiftly as any man who ever walked, hence they do not require nor do they desire the same degree of attentiveness [as] when the Round-Up was young.” Steve Wursta, maker of a documentary entitled Cheyenne to Pendleton – which follows the rise and fall of the authentic American cowgirl – is quoted on the American Cowboy website. “People were saying, ‘we’re in a depression, and we don’t need it rubbed in our faces that women are better than men.’”
Then, of course, there was the tragic accident suffered by Bonnie McCarroll, which certainly put another nail in the coffin of professional rodeo women. She was a very successful longtime rider, now, sadly, best known for her death. In 1929, McCarroll entered her last rodeo, intending to retire with her husband at the end of the Pendleton Round-Up. At this particular event, women were required to ride with hobbled stirrups, and perhaps it’s immaterial, but upon reading the account I couldn’t help wondering what might have become of her hand she not been stuck to the horse.
Monk Carden, a rodeo clown immensely familiar with the sport, is quoted in the True West Magazine website. He was standing near McCarroll and the horse, Black Cat, at the gate. He says that the horse was “agitated” that day, and that the instant McCarroll nodded for him to be released, he flipped over backwards and crushed her underneath himself before leaping up, rider still aboard and tied in with her hobbled stirrups. The horse stumbled and somersaulted, crushing her again, before taking off and bucking wildly across the arena. By this time, McCarroll was unconscious, still locked into the saddle but no longer holding the rein. The pickup rider, unable to grab ahold of the horse, did his best to pull her off but didn’t quite make it – her foot rotated as he pulled her free, jamming her toe against the horse and catching her in one still-hobbled stirrup. The horse kept bucking as she was dragged behind him by one foot, her head hitting the dirt with every jump, until her boot finally came loose and she was rushed to the hospital. The rodeo was ended, and Carden said that it was clear that the young rider would not survive her injuries. He was right – eleven days later, she died in the hospital from her injuries.
This tragic, dramatic incident would be cited as the reason that women’s events were banned from rodeo, although it seems to me – and perhaps I’m just jaded – that it was just an incident that was very easy for the newly formed rodeo associations to blame. After all, women had died in rodeo accidents before, recorded as early as 1915 – more than ten years prior. Men, of course, had too. In fact, just the day before Fannie Sperry Steele won her world championship on a horse called Red Wing, the very same bronc had bucked off a cowboy named Joe LaMar and stomped him to death in the mud. Rodeo was the original extreme sport, and every participant understood the dangers, male and female alike.
Many sources agree, though, that the final nail in the coffin for female rodeo riders was Gene Autry and his Rodeo Association of America. The association was formed in 1929 and had taken control of virtually all major rodeos by the 1940’s; almost immediately after its formation, it announced that it would no longer be allowing women’s events starting in 1930. A few continued on for a few years, but women’s events in major rodeos petered out as Autry exerted his influence. He took the rodeos and shaped them into events that exemplified his “conservative, strongly gendered values,” and he began to hire and highlight singers and entertainers at the expense of all the competitors, male and female alike. Women were offered the opportunity to become Sponsor Girls – later, Rodeo Queens – to add femininity to what was now an all-male event, and, gradually, were recast as beautiful figureheads rather than athletes.
Of course, though weakened, women’s rodeo continued. Barrel racing came onto the scene, and with the virtual disappearance of female professional rodeo riders, amateur women had more of an opening. They began to hold all-female rodeos – they were small, local affairs, sometimes held for the entertainment of World War II troops in Texas. Eventually, the Girl’s Rodeo Association (later to become the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, or WPRA) was formed, allowing women a chance to compete professionally in all events, including roughstock riding. Women in the second half of the 20th century fought valiantly for opportunities for female rodeo hopefuls. Jan Youren, an iconic rodeo rider, was one of these.
Riding in her first rodeo at the age of eleven in 1955, Youren competed in amateur rodeos for twenty years before taking her first WPRA ride at the age of thirty-two. At the time she was riding, the idea of a woman riding one-handed was unheard of, and she suffered many injuries as a result. She rode saddle broncs two-handed for thirty-eight years, saying of it, “I had my nose broken 14 times and eight breaks in my cheekbones.” Youren rode her last rodeo in 2005 at the age of sixty-two, having said all her life that she would quit only when her granddaughters beat her. She was true to her word – in her final rodeo, her granddaughter received a second-place finish; Youren finished in third.
Jonnie Jonckowski was another valiant advocate for women’s rodeo. In her first all-women’s rodeo, she was a bareback rider, and later decided to test her mettle on bulls. She went on to fight for female inclusion in many major rodeo venues, and spent three and a half years trying to get the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo to allow women to compete again, succeeding in 1987. She says that it was one hell of a fight. “It was really tough to convince those Cheyenne boys to let us ride … They hadn’t let women ride roughstock for 52 years. Their fear was that we were going to get bucked off and scream and cry. Being a woman in roughstock, you don’t even have the luxury of getting hurt. If a guy gets hurt, no one will say he has no business being out there. But if a woman gets hurt, she better hop out of there under her own power and wave to the crowd. I was so proud of how tough some of those girls were. Most of them would clear the chute gates before they’d drop over [when they had been injured].” Following her illustrious rodeo career, Jonckowski retired to run a therapeutic riding program.
Both of these women, and many more, lament the fact that the resurgence they were seeing in women’s professional rodeo sporting has largely receded. The WPRA has not produced roughstock riding events since they last awarded a championship in 2008, due largely to lack of popularity. Because of being a smaller organization, the WPRA can offer only smaller purses anyway, and the cost of transporting animals and travelling means that for many competitors, it just doesn’t make sense. This means that women’s rodeo, in general, is shrinking. Riders like Youren and Jonckowski often feel that this decline renders all their years of fighting worthless. “I know there are girls out there like me,” says Jonckowski, “who crave that adrenaline.” And so she is sure that women’s sport will rise again.
Today, women wanting to compete in roughstock events must join the PRCA – the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. There are only two – saddle bronc rider Kaila Mussell and nineteen-year-old bull rider Maggie Parker – who are currently fighting this battle. Still, at the amateur levels, women’s roughstock events are going strong, and there are those who hope that the sport will experience a resurgence starting from the bottom.
Regardless of how it comes about, it will certainly be an uphill climb. That aside, the American Cowboy website has to say: “Despite the obstacles, it’s clear that women will continue to get on roughstock – no matter what.” And I have to agree. If there’s one thing to be learned from the generations of women who have carved out names for themselves in one of the most dangerous arenas available, it’s that there is a lot to be said for tenacity.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”