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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A Sweet Addiction to Hairspray & Horses

“You have to love travel, wear more makeup than a clown, and have a sweet addiction to hairspray,” Carolyn Hunter quips about the requirements for becoming a Rodeo Queen. But it’s much more than that.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Carolyn, the Sedro-Woolley WA Rodeo Queen and her sister, Amanda Hunter, Miss Pro West Rodeo. These young ladies are not just pretty faces. They are both expert horsewomen, have a great deal of poise, and stand as an example for young girls.

The competition for Rodeo Queen is not a beauty contest. Carolyn and Amanda explain that every contestant has to perform a specific horsemanship pattern on their own horse plus ride a newly-assigned pattern on a horse they’ve never ridden. They also answer a slate of oral questions and take a written test on horse and rodeo knowledge, submit to a personal interview, and deliver a prepared speech. Some pageants last just one day and others are a week long, Carolyn says.

Girls can compete in other towns or states for the title, depending on each rodeo association’s guidelines. Amanda says she was an Oregon queen at one time. The title and job is for one year.

The Hunter sisters, who were raised with horses,started out in 4-H, competed in barrel racing and gymkhana. They got into the Queen arena after an older sister qualified as a Rodeo Princess in 2000. “We tried out too, won a couple,” Carolyn says, and they were hooked. Twenty-two-year-old Amanda has been competing since she was 18, and Carolyn, 20, has been involved since she was 15.

The job does require a great deal of travel. “We are the PR agents, the face of the Association,” Amanda says of her position with the Pro West Rodeo Association. “But I get to hang out with the competitors (at rodeos) and have a good time.” She travels mostly in Washington, but also some in Oregon and Idaho.

Carolyn is the “promoter and sponsor for our own rodeo (the July 4th Loggerodeo in Sedro-Woolley), so we speak at various organizations and attend other rodeos (throughout the state).”

When she retires her crown, Amanda plans to return to her studies in anthropology and environmental/geography at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Carolyn is a Skagit Valley College graduate and a teacher education student at Western Washington University in Bellingham. When her reign is over, she wants to compete for Miss Rodeo Washington and Miss Rodeo America.

“I’ve always related to horses,” she says. “I don’t know what life would be like without them.”

See Amanda’s bio and photo at the Pro West site.

Women’s History Month

Because March is officially Women’s History Month, I want to take the opportunity to honor my grandmother, Olive May “Tootsie” Bailey Gasser. She was the inspiration for my novel, Cowgirl Dreams, and most likely contributed genes to my strong, independent spirit.

She was the consummate horsewoman and much preferred to be out riding than in the house pushing a dust mop. The thing about her that inspired the book was the fact that she rode steers in rodeos during the 1920s. I love knowing that about her!

What a legacy our foremothers left us.

Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 6:02 pm  Comments (5)  
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An Interview With Mama

Today, I’m running a post I did during my blog book tour last spring. We’ve caught up with Ada Brady, Nettie’s mother and have convinced her to take a little break from her many household chores, sit down with a cup of tea and answer a few questions.

In the book Cowgirl Dreams, Nettie has defied her mother bySteer rider sneaking out to ride in a rodeo, wearing pants, no less. Mama grounds her to her room, without supper, to do the darning she’d forgotten. Here’s an excerpt:

Nettie groaned. Why couldn’t Mama understand that she’d rather be outside, working with the horses and cattle? With that look on her mother’s face, she’d be lucky to get outside again by this time next summer.

Maybe if she did a really bad job of darning, she wouldn’t have to do any more. She wove the needle over and under, under and over, deliberately missing some threads.

After about an hour, Mama stepped into the room. “How are you doing?”

“Okay.” Nettie kept her head down.

Her mother picked up a darned sock and inspected it closely. “No.”Darning sock

Nettie looked up, keeping the smile from coming. This was it. Now Mama would let her quit rather than being embarrassed to give the socks to Mrs. Conners.

Mama picked up the scissors and cut the woven patch right out of the sock. Nettie gasped. Then her mother picked up another, looked at it, and cut the darn out, too. “This is sloppy work. You’ll do it all over.” She flung the socks back into the basket.


HMT: Mrs. Brady, don’t you think you were a little hard on your daughter? After all, she had a successful ride on that steer?

Mama: Absolutely not. Nettie is a headstrong girl. She has to learn that she cannot just run wild, dress like a man in public, and ride off whenever she feels like it.

HMT: But ripping out her work and making her do it all over?

Mama: I know she hates this job. But it’s important to learn to take care of a family. This skill not only keeps her and her brothers in socks without holes, it earns us pin money, so we can buy something special when we go to town. She’ll need to know this when she has a family of her own.

HMT: I understand. But Nettie has a dream, to be a rodeo star. Isn’t it a good thing for a young woman to have a goal in life?

Mama (sighing): Yes. It is. I had a dream once—to become a musician. But you know what, it was not practical. Sure, I can play now for enjoyment, but it doesn’t put food on the table and clothes on my children’s backs.

HMT: And you do have a large family.

Mama (proudly): Yes, eight children living.

HMT: I gather Nettie doesn’t aspire to marriage and children.

sewing basketMama: I just don’t understand that girl. Her two older sisters took naturally to needlepoint and cooking and housekeeping. They couldn’t wait to set up their own households. But Nettie… (a shake of the head) All she wants to do is ride her horse. And now steers!

HMT: Why is Nettie wanting to ride in rodeos such a bad thing? She could probably win some money and help the family out that way.

Mama: That may be true, and we could use the extra income. But, it’s such a dangerous pastime. Why anyone—especially a girl—would subject her body to such a beating on top of a bucking animal, I’ll never understand.

HMT: I’ve heard there’s an adrenaline thrill in doing something like that.

Mama: It’s just not practical. And women who travel around the country with men, well, they have a (eyebrows raised) “certain reputation,” don’t you know?

HMT: I didn’t know that. What about Marie Gibson? She’s married and has a couple of children. She’s not that kind of woman.

Mama: Oh, Mrs. Gibson. Yes, she is a fine woman, and she has done her best to convince me that she can keep Nettie under her wing while taking her on the rodeo circuit. (sighs) My goodness, maybe I shouldn’t fight Nettie on this so much. She certainly is determined. And I’ve seen her ride. She really is quite good.

HMT: I’ll say she is. I admire what she does. I’ve never been brave enough to ride a bucking steer or bronc.

Mama: Yes, I suppose it does take courage. But, you know, I would be remiss in my role as a mother not to want to protect her and to teach her how to cook and mend and care for a house and children. (She stands, takes our cups to the dishpan, and turns back to me.) I’m very glad you’re writing about our dear Nettie, but please, try not to encourage her so much in her headstrong ways. (She sets a heavy flatiron on the cook stove.) Now, I really must get back to my chores. I have a huge pile of ironing to do.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 1:35 am  Comments (4)  
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Cowgirl Life Interview, Part II

daniellehayesToday I’m talking with Danielle Hayes, the other half of the Cowgirl Life Radio and TV duo. Her blog is Haute Cowgirl.

On becoming business partners:

Kadi and I worked on another project together and I was instantly drawn to her fabulous personality. We became instant friends and  I knew I could trust her. Trust is a HUGE thing with me and business. When the idea to further develop my company she was the first person I thought of to have on this adventure with me.

The idea for a radio and a TV show:

We had worked on another radio show together and knew we had really great chemistry on air together. So we talked long and hard about developing a show that was different from the typical “wahm mom” show and with how Haute Cowgirl was growing, we realized that we had the perfect niche that needed to be filled. With Cowgirl TV, we thought it would be fun to showcase a view into a cowgirl’s life and the fabulous events that occur within the western lifestyle.

Goals with the programs:

Just like Kadi stated, Connect, educate and inspire. I want people outside cowgirlliferadiojpg1the western lifestyle to really develop an appreciation of our lifestyle. I want to help other cowgirls find an online community because there is strength in numbers. And I want to inspire women to really pursue their dreams and passions. Both Kadi and I believe with all our hearts in what we are doing (even though we can get cowgirl-tv1a bit silly or wild) I have so much passion for the western lifestyle and ag community and I want our sites to be a place for like-minded people to speak about what they are passionate about.

Do you live on a ranch? Were you raised on a ranch?

I grew up on a farm in Great Falls, Montana where I swore I would leave the country life as soon as I could. I went away to college, traveled extensively around the USA, then found myself missing a simpler way of life.

When I met my husband who was very active in many areas of horses and agriculture I found myself brought back to my roots so to speak. Now we live on a ranch in Washington where my husband trains cutting horses.

Do you participate in rodeos or other equestrian events?

I grew up riding dressage and three day eventing. Now that I am married to a cutter, I am honing my skills atop cutting horses. I ride everyday and can’t imagine my life without our horses in it. It’s not just the horses that get you addicted, it’s the whole lifestyle. I love the people involved–they are truly our extended family. And of course the energy at events is amazing and inspiring. I love the fact that tradition remains at so many of these events.

Do you have a background in the fashion industry or just an avid interest?

I have always been a “fashionista” I worked for several smaller designers and photographers as a stylist before I was married. It was when we moved to Texas for my husband to apprentice with a bigger trainer that the idea of highlighting western fashion born. I started mostly just to give me something to do while my husband was on the road but its turned into something so much bigger and keeps growing what seems like daily.

What else would you like people to know about you?

I want people to first and foremost remember I am a mom. My son is my top priority and he is here with me every step of the way. So yeah, you may hear toddler moments at times on air. But if anyone can understand that family comes first, it’s those who appreciate the western lifestyle. Also we have an obligation to preserve this lifestyle, its something that should not be lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life. But all of us in the western lifestyle need to use all this new technology to get the word out that our community is strong.

Meet the Ladies Behind Cowgirl Life Radio and TV

prescott-family01Last week I was a guest on Cowgirl Life Radio. I wanted to reciprocate and to introduce my readers to the talented young women behind the radio and Cowgirl TV shows. Today I’m talking with Kadi Prescott, who blogs at Womb at the Innsane and Glam Sahm, from Apron Strings to Stillettos.

1. How did the two of you meet and become business partners?
Danielle and I met at an online mom community and ended up working on a project together. We hit it off really well and decided to start a few new projects on our own.

2. How did you get the idea for a radio and a TV show?
The first project that we worked on was a radio show for moms. We both felt that there were a million mom focused radio shows out there already and the greater need was for a different kind of show. We just were not sure what direction to go in. It took us awhile to find our niche. After Haute Cowgirl became so successful, we saw that potential for a multi media source of western related news and fashion. My extensive background in writing and social media, combined with Danielle’s brilliance in business and passion for the western lifestyle just seemed to fit well. We teamed up and decided to take Western Glamour Media into a new realm…the internet.cowgirlliferadiojpg

3. What are your goals with the programs?
We have three goals: Connect, educate and inspire. We have the common goal of building an online community where all cowgirls can go to share their lifestyle with the world. Danielle and I see the gross lack of exposure for a lifestyle that this country was built on. We think that it is high time to educated the masses on the fact that western living and agriculture are not dead. We would like to eventually get syndicated and be able to branch out into a television reality series on Cowgirl Living. We would also like to see Haute Cowgirl help western fashion meld with main stream fashion.

cowgirl-tv4. Do you live on a ranch? Were you raised on a ranch?
Ironically, no. In fact, I am about as un-cowgirl as you can get. My mom is heavily involved in the western lifestyle and it literally helped her come out of a mental breakdown during the divorce from my dad. She met wonderful people who took her in and introduced her to the cowgirl life, during a time when she felt like she had nothing left to live for. I saw the transformation and was fascinated by the effect that western and equestrian living had on her. When I met Danielle, it just boosted my desire to learn more about everything and I am loving the people I have met!

5.  Do you participate in rodeos or other equestrian events?
I have never even sat atop a horse. Go ahead and laugh. I have to overcome my fear. I am determined to. My kids have done mutton bustin’ (riding sheep like bulls) and we love going to watch rodeos, but that is as far as I’ve gotten in my equestrian ventures!

6. Do you have a background in the fashion industry or just an avid interest?
Both. Kind of. I am a self proclaimed shopaholic and lover of fashion. I studied it for awhile but ended up pregnant and spent all of my twenties having my babies. I am a Glambassador for Glamour Magazine this year and so excited about the opportunity to cover fashion related events. It will satiate my inner fashionista! I would love to be the first designer to ever take a western fashion line, tweak it, add some city girl touches and sell it to a major brand. In fact, I think that will be on our “To Do” list, right Danielle?

What else would you like people to know about you?
I think it is important to convey that Danielle and I are work-at-home moms who set our priorities on being our children’s only nurturers. In a generation that is so callused towards the importance of mothers who stay home, it is crucial that we show the world our ability to raise our own kids and accomplish great things outside of motherhood. It speaks volumes about fostering the same ideals that were held by our ancestors.

Join us tomorrow when I visit with Danielle Hayes, the other half of the Cowgirl Life duo.

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 9:11 pm  Comments (4)  
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Women and Rodeo Events

In early rodeos, women and men competed in the same arena, drawing from the same stock. Women rode broncs, steers, bulls, and did steer roping or bulldogging as well as trick riding, Roman races and relay races.

I know that my grandmother, Toots Bailey Gasser, rode steers in small Montana rodeos. Other cowgirls, such as Marie Gibson, also from Montana, rode steers, bulls and broncs throughout the US, Canada and even London. While each cowgirl had her specialty, most participated in multiple events.

Vera McGinnis, Tad Lucas and Fox Hastings were probably best known for trick riding. This demonstrated numerous types of stands and vaults, performed while the horse was galloping at top speed. Other maneuvers included crawling under the horse’s belly, hanging just inches from the mount’s pounding hooves.

roman-race1In the Roman race, the cowgirl would stand with her right foot on one galloping horse and her left foot on the other. (The horses would have had to be very well trained to stay together, and the rider obviously had great balance and strength.)

The relay race required three laps around a track, and the rider had to change horses, and sometimes saddles, after each round. If they weren’t required to change saddles, many cowgirls perfected the “flying” change, leaping from the back of one horse to the other without touching the ground. Vera McGinnis is credited with inventing this move.

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 5:33 am  Comments (4)  
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Nettie Wears Pants in a Rodeo

My character, Nettie, from my novel Cowgirl Dreams donned a pair of her brother’s denim pants, sneaked out of thecowgirl-dreams-cover house one morning and rode in a neighbor’s informal rodeo. She loved the freedom of riding her horse Toby wearing pants and especially riding the steer in the rodeo. The adrenaline of staying on the back of that bucking, twisting, angry beast had her hooked and the clothing allowed her to ride unencumbered by the extra fabric of a skirt, divided or not.

But, when she arrived home, her mother was horrified to see her daughter dressed as a man. And having heard that Nettie’d ridden in the rodeo against her wishes, Mama was highly upset.

“You.” Mama stepped forward, her face dark red with anger. “You defied me.”

Cold dread pooled in Nettie’s belly. She’d never seen Mama so mad. “No, I—”

“Young lady, you were supposed to stay home today. Work on that pile of darning. You know Mrs. Connors wants it done by tomorrow, otherwise we don’t get paid till next week.”

The darning. She hadn’t given it another thought after she’d decided to sneak out. Oh dear. Icy prickles of guilt stabbed athher. “But. Lola. Why couldn’t she finish it?”

Mama stepped closer. “And, we had to hear it from the neighbor’s hired man. You. Rode. In. A rodeo.” With each woword, she jabbed her finger an inch from Nettie’s face. “You know how I feel about that.”

“But, Mama, I stayed on. I didn’t get bucked off.”

“Don’t you sass me, girl.” Mama’s voice shook now. “And wearing pants in public, too.” She closed her eyes a moment and sighed. “You will take that basket of socks, go to your room, and don’t come out until they’re all finished. No supper. No No riding. For a month.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the kitchen.

At the door, Mama stopped. “And, for heavens sake, take that filthy red rag from around your neck and wash it.”

Published in: on January 23, 2009 at 3:37 am  Comments (4)  
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Cowgirl Fashion–Prairie Rose Henderson

In the early 1900s, Prairie Rose Henderson was a popular performer whoprairie-rose-henderson_bloomers created a bit of a stir by being one of the first to wear bloomers to ride. Despite the “racy” look (showing quite a bit of leg), it was still feminine and had to have been more comfortable and probably safer than voluminous skirts while riding broncs.

She wowed the crowds with her handmade fancy costumes, which were often decorated with beads, feathers, and sequins.

The Hall of Fame cowgirl was a champion bronc rider and a competitive relay race rider from 1901well  into the 1930s.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:42 am  Comments (5)  
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The Shocking Event of the Divided Riding Skirt

divided-skirt-sketchThe past several days, we’ve been seeing pictures of cowgirls accomplishing great feats while wearing skirts. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been to keep all the extra material out of the way while practicing expert marksmanship, bronc riding, and steer roping.

Nowadays, a cowgirl can wear pretty much anything she wants, but in the 1800s a woman wearing her brother’s pants or even adivided-skirt-21 split skirt, she might have been arrested for indecent exposure.

But women were discovering that riding astride was so much more practical and comfortable and they also needed clothing to go along with that new practice.

At the turn of the 20th Century enterprising equestrian women, such as rodeo star Fanny Sperry Steel (1887-1983) wore a divided skirt that enabled them to ride astride but preserved the “look of a skirt.”  This ingenious garment is actually a culotte with a movable front panel that buttons either to the left, for a skirt effect or to the right for a pants effect.

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 5:01 am  Comments (5)  
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