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 theĀ  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)  
Tags: , , , ,

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.

%d bloggers like this: