History of Women’s Rodeo

Prairie Rose Henderson

The 1920s were the heyday in rodeo for women who competed with men on the same rough stock in the same arenas. WWI nearly brought rodeo in general to extinction, and then the nationwide drought and Great Depression of the 1930s, along with mechanization for farming added to rodeo’s decline, especially in the West.

Ironically, the East still had the Boston Gardens Rodeo and the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in New York, begun by the  London Rodeo producer Tex Austin. In the mid-1920s, Col. William T. Johnson took over the Garden in New York and also began producing indoor rodeos throughout the east. The expansion of this eastern circuit made rodeo a lucrative career for many contestants, including women.

In 1929, a tragic accident shook the rodeo world when Bonnie McCarroll was killed riding a bronc at the Pendleton (Oregon) Roundup. Women have not been allowed to compete on rough stock in that arena since that day, and as a result many other western rodeos also discontinued their women’s contests. Also in 1929, the Rodeo Association of America was formed to organize the haphazard rules of the sport. They did not sanction any women’s events. Then in 1934, a Montana cowgirl, Marie Gibson, was killed in a freak accident when her bronc and the pickup man’s horse collided, furthering the idea that rodeo was too dangerous for women.

Col. Johnson ignored the RAA and continued to include cowgirl contests in his eastern rodeos until 1936. But that year the cowboys went on strike at the Boston Garden Rodeo, demanding a bigger share of the gate as prize money, and formed the Cowboys Turtle Association, the forerunner of today’s PRCA. The CTA also did not allow women’s events.

Queens of the RodeoWhile these changes were going on, in 1931, the Stamford, (CT) Cowboy Reunion invited area ranches to send young women to the rodeo to compete in a Sponsor Contest to “add femininity” to the all-male event. They were judged on who had the best horse, on their riding ability, and who wore the prettiest outfit. It proved very popular, and many other rodeos began to hold similar competitions.

In 1939, the new Madison Square Garden promoter, Everett Colburn, invited a group of Texas women to appear as Sponsor Girls to promote publicity for the rodeo. The following year, another group of comely young women rode while Hollywood singing cowboy Gene Autry sang “Home on the Range.” Autry soon formed his own rodeo company and took over the Madison Square Garden and most of the major rodeo venues. He banned the cowgirl bronc riding contest, leaving nothing for cowgirls except the invitation-only Sponsor Girl event. Barrel racing grew out of these contests and is still today’s primary women’s rodeo event.

Women did form their own professional rodeo group in 1948, the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA), which later became the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), where women are once again participating in bronc and bull riding, as well as team roping and break-away roping, but only at their own rodeos. Barrel racing is still the only sanctioned women’s event at the men’s PRCA rodeos.

Since the formation of the RAA in 1929, only one woman has qualified, within the PRCA’s point system, to compete in saddle bronc riding with men. That woman is Kaila Mussell from BC, Canada. She has been nominated to the Cowgirls Hall of Fame.

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a fascinating bit of history, Heidi. The attitude about women that prevailed in those days have been difficult to overcome. And those pointed hats! I’m glad we overcame those!

  2. A very interesting bit about women in rodeo. I would like to just point out that barrel racing is sanctioned by the WPRA at all rodeos where the PRCA is sanctioning the men’s events–the WPRA fought a lawsuit in 2007 that nearly destroyed the association to preserve their rights to sanction the barrel racing there. Some of those “old attitudes about women in rodeo” still prevail to this day.

    The WPRA celebrates 62 years this year, the oldest women’s sports organization in the country, two years older than the LPGA!

  3. Jolee, thank you for weighing in on the article.

    And may I point out to other readers that Jolee is a three-time Wrangler National Finals Barrel Racer!

  4. We have just finished the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo here and despite having seen many a rodeo through the years, it was always the men who were the top stars. Thank you so much for bringing the balance back to the story.

  5. I agree with Mary. Good thing we said adios to those ten gallon hats. Great blog Heidi!

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