by Heidi M. Thomas
As I researched my novel, Cowgirl Dreams, based on my grandmother in the 1920s, I found a theme of courage as well as competitiveness. I’m in awe that someone as petite as Grandma (5-feet, 2 inches and 102 pounds) would even consider pitting her strength and skill against such a large animal whose goal is not only to get that foreign weight off its back, but also (in the case of a steer or especially a bull) try to stomp on the rider once she’s down.
But she wasn’t the only one. Most cowgirls of that era were not of average height. Annie Oakley and Lucille Mulhall (first to be dubbed “Cowgirl” by Teddy Roosevelt) were just five feet. Other top riders, Mable Strickland,Tad Lucas, Fox Hastings and Ruth Roach were about 5-feet, 3 inches, and Florence Hughes Randolph was only 4-feet, 6 inches.
And those intrepid Cowgirls rode with injuries–taped ribs, casts, bruises–just like their male counterparts.
Fox Hastings who began rodeoing about 1916, was once thrown from her horse and then it fell on her–twice. Her neck appeared to witnesses so twisted they feared it was broken. She was carried from the arena. But about 15 minutes later, she rode back to the judges stand in an open car and asked for a re-ride. She got it, rode to the end, and dismounted on her own. Only when out of sight of the crowd did she collapse.
Tad Lucas was one of the most famous trick riders. At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, when going under her horse’s belly, Tad slipped. She hung there, her horse kicking her with every step as he kept galloping around the arena. Finally she was able to roll free, ending up with a badly broken arm. At first the doctors wanted to amputate. She said, “Absolutely not.” They told her she’d never ride again. Within a year, she proved them wrong, riding with her arm in a cast.
Marie Gibson, a Montana cowgirl with whom my grandmother competed, went to London with Tex Austin’s troupe in 1924. The first week out, she dislocated her knee, had it wrapped and came back later for trick riding. But when she stepped off the horse, she felt it go again. The doctor reset it, and told Marie to lay off. She did-for two days,then rode again. Marie had to have help saddling and mounting and had to be carried from the stadium, but she kept coming back.
Marie was killed in a freak accident in 1934 when a pickup man’s horse collided with hers. Several other cowgirls met their end at rodeos, including Bonnie McCarroll at the 1929 Pendleton Rodeo. But nothing would stop the cowgirls’ dreams. They had to compete, to feel the exhilaration of the ride, and the thrill of winning.
That’s why cowgirls don’t cry. At least until they’re alone.
©Heidi M. Thomas 2008