Cowgirl Up! A Colorful Legend

Cowgirl Up .5x1

Reviewed by Ray Simmons for Readers’ Favorite

Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas captures a small piece of American history that might otherwise be forgotten. I’m talking about the contribution of women to the world of rodeo. Cowgirl Up! specifically concentrates on the contribution of women from Montana during the golden age of rodeo in America. Montana became one of the states holding commercial rodeos in 1896, but rodeo derived from the working world of ranching. Long before the commercial rodeos sprang into being, there were informal local contests to see who was best at roping, riding, and bronco busting. Conditions were terrible sometimes and the pay was not good by today’s standards, but that didn’t stop women from wanting to compete.
Marie Gibson 001.jpg
Cowgirl Up! takes this early history and weaves it into colorful legend. There are many famous names from American history here. Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Dale Evans, and Annie Oakley are the ones I knew. If you are a real rodeo fan, you will probably recognize names like Lucille Mulhall, Prairie Rose Henderson, and Fanny Sperry. The characters, both men and women, are colorful. The history is rich, and the anecdotes, facts, and biography are very well written. It is obvious that Heidi M. Thomas loves her subject and, if you are a fan of the American West and American history, you do not want to miss Cowgirl Up! It should be on the bookshelf in every school library across America, but especially in states where rodeo played an important part in their history. These women and this sport should not be forgotten.

 

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Published in: on May 19, 2016 at 11:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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Beloved Horses in Second Careers

My guest today is Sharon Miner, author of three novels and four non-fiction books in the Beloved Horse series. Her newest book is Beloved Horses in Second Careers.

Sharon grew up in Connecticut, the middle child of eleven. An avid horse lover at an early age, she would beg her daddy to find horses during the family’s drives in the countryside on Sundays. She collected glass horses and kept a scrapbook of horse pictures. As a teenager, she learned to ride and care for horses at a local riding stable. Currently, Sharon and her husband, Bob, live in Tampa, Florida and travel throughout the United States with their Irish Terrier, Woogie, interviewing riders at horse shows as well as marketing her books.

I see you’ve been a life-long horse enthusiast. Tell us how you got starting writing about horses. When a very special horse of mine named Fawn died, I wanted to share her story. I knew I needed to learn the steps on how to write and have a book published, so I took a writing course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. After my first book was published in 1993, I worked for 12 years at a local newspaper to hone my writing skills.

Did you always want to write or was it something you decided to do later in life? My first love was horses, and I made a goal when I was 11 yrs old to have my own stable in 10 years. I accomplished that goal, and my next goal (as an adult) was to be an author.

Your newest book is Beloved Horses in Second Careers, the fourth in a series. How did you come to write this series? When I closed my Unicorn Stables after 25 years to pursue traveling, I wanted to share the magic of horses with others. As I traveled promoting the book, people I met wanted to share their horse stories – so the series was born.

You’ve also written three young adult novels. Do you have plans for more fiction? Yes, I’m working on a novel based on my grandfather’s childhood – a hot-tempered orphan boy who was sent on an “Orphan Train” to Colorado in the late 1800’s. This was the beginning of foster care. But no one was there to meet the boy, so the town drunk took him in.

Oh, that sounds like a wonderful, exciting story!

Which do you like writing the best—fiction or non-fiction? Both!

You are also a speaker on various writing topics, including unique marketing tips. Can you share a couple of those with us? Marketing books at non-profit fundraisers/membership drives receive a great response since publicity is more likely to be printed. It’s a win-win for all!

Do you still own horses and ride? My last horse from Unicorn Stables, named Sonny, is 30 yrs old and retired in NJ. I only ride maybe once a year, at a local stable in Tampa area.

What piece of advice can you offer to aspiring writers?

My advice for those wanting to write: Declare your goals (I still have that piece of paper with my 11 yr old goal), seek advice, learn the craft of writing at workshops, conferences and school/college classes, and most of all – never give up!

Sharon, thank you for sharing your riding and writing journey with us!

Sharon’s books are available through her website and at Amazon.com.

 

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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Cowgirl Grandma’s Horses

grandma-horseMy grandmother, on whom I based my novel, Cowgirl Dreams, was an avid horsewoman. I have notes that she wrote about some of the horses she owned. She described them as “pals that meant so much to me.”

One was a sorrel with a blaze face she called Bobby (Toby in the book). She writes: “He loved to run. I sure took him on some long rides and when I got to school we’d sure do some racing. Dear old Bobby was such a faithful friend & I rode him too hard at times.”

Grandma wrote that each horse, “like people, was different in disposition. Now old Blacky, for instance, was a pacing horse. I used to ride him sometimes for going to town. He sure had an easy gate … sure covered the miles easy.”

Grandma had a beautiful dark chestnut mare, a hambletonian she described  as “high strung and the fastest trotting horse I ever rode. She sometimes took a notion to stampede, but never did buck. I rode her in lots of races in town celebrations. She was tops, and had endurance.”

Now, here’s the fun part. My grandmother’s nickname was “Toots” or “Tootsie” and she named this mare “Nettie.” I’m sure I must have heard about this horse before I started to write my book, but I didn’t remember it until much later. I was surprised to discover I had named my main character “Nettie.” So, naturally I had to name her horse “Tootsie.” Subliminal influence? Maybe.

I don’t know if this is “Nettie” in the picture or not.

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 4:23 am  Comments (11)  
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The Cowgirls Are Here!

dreams-1-5-x-2The cowgirls have arrived! My first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is a dream come true for me. It’s been a long ride, with many spills, but I learned to get back on that bronc and try it again.

I kept hearing it over and over. Perseverance is key. Don’t give up. Keep submitting, keep learning, keep improving your craft. And it is true.

When I began submitting my novel manuscripts (I have three more now in various stages of writing and revision), I decided I would TRY to collect 100 rejections. I’d heard that many now-famous authors had received that many or more before being published. (For example, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach received 140 rejections.) That way, I could soften the sting of a rejection by telling myself, “It’s just one ‘no’ closeer to a ‘yes.'” Rejection is difficult, no matter how you look at it, but that “collection” did help. I did collect 35 “no thanks” and two “yes, we’d love to but can’t right now, so feel free to submit it elsewhere.” Finally, I found Lee Emory at Treble Heart Books, and now I am a published author.

delightIt feels good.

Published in: on December 5, 2008 at 5:37 pm  Comments (6)  
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Cowgirls Don’t Cry

by Heidi M. Thomas

As the popular country song says, Cowgirls don’t cry. Even when they’re bucked off a nearly-half ton of fanniel-sperry-steele1angry muscle and bone–a wild steer, a bull or a bronc.

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.

bonnie-mccarroll-thrown-from-silver-1915-fsdm2_md1Marie 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

Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 4:01 am  Comments (2)  
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Cowgirls–Empowered Women Part Two

Lucille Mulhall

Lucille Mulhall

Cowgirls made great strides for equality with men through the 1920s. Pictures from the early 1900s show female competitors, such as Lucille Mulhall, roping and tying a steer in voluminous ankle-length skirts. This socially-acceptable attire, constantly in the way, impeded their riding and was extremely dangerous. The long skirts gave way to divided skirts. Rose Henderson, early on, defied

Vera McGinnis

Vera McGinnis

social standards with her flashy bloomer costumes, and Vera McGinnis scandalized the public by wearing pants in 1927.

Life in rodeo was not all glamour. It was hard, dirty work. Like my grandmother, many women riders were small, weighing maybe 110 pounds or less. But they had to lift their own 20-pound saddles, (especially the relay riders who changed saddles during a race), and care for their own horses. These petite women pitted themselves against a half-ton of raging muscle and bone when they rode or wrestled steers.

In 1929 Bonnie McCarrol was killed riding a bucking horse at the Pendleton Round-Up. Rodeo officials then banned cowgirl bronc riding in Pendleton, and set the stage for the decline of women’s rodeo participation. That same year, the Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was formed to standardize contest rules, but it did not sanction women’s bronc riding.

In 1933 Marie Gibson was killed in a collision between her bronc, which she had successfully ridden, and the pickup man’s horse. Margie Wright also lost her life in the arena when her horse fell over backward and she fractured her head on a fence. Reva Gray was killed during a relay race horse-change in Cheyenne in 1938.

As a result, cowgirl bronc riding became increasingly rare in the West, leaving only relay racing open to women competitors. For several years after, the female bronc and trick riders congregated in the East. But women’s rodeo gradually eroded nationwide for several reasons:

  • Small, local rodeos were no longer financially lucrative and livestock was in short supply in the 1930s, leading to the demise of the Wild West shows.
  • Men held the central control of the sport.
  • Many well-known women rodeo stars retired.
  • World War II, with tire and gas rationing, did not allow travel as in the past.

From the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, cowgirls became mere props in rodeo, “glamour girls” whose beauty and attire were emphasized instead of athletic skill. In 1948, 38 women formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) to give women an opportunity to compete in calf roping, barrel racing, and trick riding. In 1968, barrel racing finals were finally included in the men’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) National Finals.

In 1981 GRA changed its name to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) and today has more than 2,000 members. It sanctions 800 barrel races a year in conjunction with men’s PRCA rodeos. But women still do not compete with men.

As an entity of its own, Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA) puts on events in women-only rodeos that include bareback riding, breakaway and tie-down calf roping, bull riding, and team roping.

Rene Mikes, a corporate accountant from Denver and a bull rider, says, “It’s not a guy sport anymore.”

Lisa Stipp, a Las Vegas electrician and 1998 bull riding world Champion, puts it this way: “You feel so alive out there. I just love riding bulls-it’s my passion in life.”

However, women still are not on equal footing with men, in competition or in earnings. Highly paid performers, such as Tad Lucas, earned as much as $12,000 a year during the depression.

Barrel racing seems to bring in the most earnings today, but while World Champion Barrel Racer Sherry Cervi made history in 1999 by winning $245,369, and Brittany Pozzi-Pharr of Victoria won a total of $132,243 in 2007, many women riders earn $8,000 a year or less. The 2003 PWRA Women’s National Finals Bull Riding Champion, Mandy Shipskey, earned $1,411, while her male counterpart, Chris Shrivers, made history, winning $1 million at the men’s Professional Bull Riding Finals.

Leigh Ann Billingsley, 2006 WPRA World Champion All Around Cowgirl and Breakaway Roper, won a total of $11,132.94 in a combination of events-breakaway, tiedown, heeling and barrel racing last year. Debbie Robbins walked away with her first World title in 2007 and collected $4,800.

In her book Cowgirls of the Rodeo, Mary Lou LeCompte writes, “Cowgirls have overcome many obstacles in their efforts to succeed as professional athletes. They earn more money now than ever in the history of the sport. Yet they’ve lost the one thing that made them exceptional among all female athletes-the ability to compete as equals with men.”

That’s the difference between rodeo then and now.

Published in: on September 20, 2008 at 8:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Cowgirls–Empowered Women

An uncle, my grandmother and grandfather

The first cowgirls, like my grandmother in Montana, helped on their family ranches out of necessity. At an early age they learned to ride horses, rope cattle, and stay in the saddle atop an untamed bucking bronco. They competed with the men in those early ranch gatherings and continued to do so at the organized roundup events.

In 1885, Annie Oakley, a diminutive sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, paved the way for other women to be recognized in the rodeo arena.

Two years later, Bertha Kaepernick was allowed to enter a horse race in Cheyenne’s Frontier Days only because the arena was so muddy the cowboys refused to participate. To entertain the crowd, she was coerced into riding a bucking horse. Despite the terrible conditions, she managed to stay in the saddle, and put the men to shame. She continued to compete and often beat such legendary cowboys as Ben Corbett and Hoot Gibson.

Following in Bertha’s footsteps years later, Prairie Rose Henderson of Wyoming forced the Cheyenne organizers to allow her to ride. She went on to become one of the most flamboyant cowgirls of the era, dressing in bright colors, sequins and ostrich plumes over bloomers. (Photo by Ralph Doubleday)

Lucille Mulhall, whose father, Colonel Zack Mulhall, ran a Wild West Show, was described in a 1900 New York World article as “only ninety pounds, can break a bronc, lasso and brand a steer, and shoot a coyote at 500 yards. She can also play Chopin, quote Browning, and make mayonnaise.”

Both Teddy Roosevelt and Will Rogers have been credited with giving Lucille the title “cowgirl”. She also went on to appear in silent films.

Between 1885 and 1935, many women proudly wore that title and competed with men, riding the

Fannie Sperry Steele, Winnipeg 1913

Fannie Sperry Steele, Winnipeg 1913

same broncs, steers and bulls. They also roped and bull-dogged alongside their male counterparts. The list includes Marie Gibson, Alice and Margie Greenough, Fox Hastings (one of the few women bulldoggers), Tad Lucas, Vera McGinnis (who shocked the public by wearing pants), Bonnie McCarrol, Florence Randolph, Ruth Roach, Fanny Sperry Steele, Mabel Strickland, Lorena Trickey (infamous for stabbing her lover to death with a pocket knife), Margie Wright, and many others.

Rodeo, today a competitive sport with college scholarships, developed from the everyday world of cattle ranching. Its roots and many terms stem from the Spanish conquistadors of the 1700s. The first rodeos began in the mid-1800s with informal contests held among working cowboys to see who could ride the meanest bronc or rope a steer the fastest. A hundred years ago bronc busting didn’t have the life-saving luxury of a buzzer going off after eight seconds. Cowboys rode until they were bucked off or the horse gave up, whichever came first. Some of those rides lasted up to twenty minutes.

Events later became more organized when cowboys drove thousands of cattle and horses to town in the yearly round-up, usually around July 4th. By 1920, rodeos regularly featured three cowgirl events-ladies’ bronc riding, trick riding, and at rodeos with a race track, cowgirls’ relay racing. To score in the saddle bronc event, women had to stay on board eight seconds (the men rode ten) and they were allowed to ride with two reins, although they could opt to use one as the men did. The time limit changed to eight seconds for men and six seconds for women during the 1950s.

This is the kind of life Nettie, the heroine of my book, Cowgirl Dreams, lived and aspired to.

Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 3:16 am  Comments (4)  
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