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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Ride ‘Em, Cowgirl!

The only difference between cowboys and cowgirls in the American West were skirts and lipstick. Women proved time and time again they were as tough and gritty as the boys, but they seldom got credit for it. Women discovered that “anything [boys] can do, [we] can do better,” as Annie Oakley crowed—often off key—in the American western musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.” And they set about proving it with a vengeance.

At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, women saddled up and hung on for a wild ride on bucking broncos and bulls, just like the boys. Across the country women’s categories became wildly popular in rodeo roundups. And they rode the same “rough stock” (best bucking horses and bulls) as the men. The 1920s were the heyday for women in rodeo. The sport was so popular that even New York started their famous Madison Square Garden Rodeo, Boston the Boston Garden Rodeo, and many other Eastern cities joined Western states, cities and towns in the craze.

Pendleton’s Round-up in Oregon and The Calgary Stampede in Canada were the mothers of all rodeos and the girls shared center stage with the boys at both.

Even though male riders were killed in the sport, there was great controversy about women bronc riding and many felt the sport too dangerous for “The Gentle Sex.” Champion rodeo women Mabel Strickland Woodward, Tad Lucas, Wanda Harper Bush, Mildred Farris, Prairie Rose Henderson, Bertha Blankett, Bonnie Carroll, many others disagreed, especially since they were making good money riding. But still they got a rough ride trying to prove their mettle to conservative rodeo officials.

The Rodeo Association of America bowed to the outcry of the more prudish and created separate rules for female participants in response. One rule was the stirrups were “hobbled together” for women riders, believing this made the rides safer for them. But, ironically, in the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up, world champion female rider Bonnie Carroll (shown in top photo-but NOT her last ride) was riding Black Cat, when the ultimate bad luck befell her. When the bronc “snubber” released the horse, Black Cat reared, fell backwards in the chute and crushed Bonnie to death. The “hobbled stirrups” had locked her feet in, so she could not release herself and was pinned. (Even more ironically, that ride was to be Bonnie’s last. Her bronc-busting husband Frank and she had both announced they were retiring after that roundup.) As a consequence, Pendleton eliminated women bronc riding and many other rodeos followed suit.

There were some rodeo promoters, such as Madison Square Garden, who continued to feature women bronc riding by popular demand. But in 1936, cowboys went on strike at the Boston Garden Rodeo, demanding a bigger share of the prize money (i.e., get rid of the women). That was the beginning of the end for female bronc riding... But what a wild ride it was while it lasted!

FULL DISCLOSURE: This Notes from the Frontier writer was a former rodeo queen. But I never did any of the stunts shown above. The closest I got was riding a big ole sow that left me in the mud!

See tomorrow's post about a national cemetery for rodeo athletes--the nonhuman ones!

For related posts, see:

Girls with Guns

Native Warrior Women

Women Homesteaders

Belle Starr

Calamity Jane

Jackson Sundown

Yakima Canutt-Stunt King of Hollywood


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