Ride Like a Girl
A group of pioneering female athletes rode roughstock events in the early 20th century before participation dwindled. What happened?
by Cindy Hirschfeld
In 1904, when 21-year-old Bertha Kapernik mounted a bronc at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, her wild ride launched a new era in rodeo. Having talked her way into the event to do an exhibition ride, this Colorado cowgirl and aspiring rodeo competitor showed that women could ride broncs as well as any man. Women had been riding in Wild West exhibition shows since at least the 1890s, but until Kapernik, none had successfully broken into one of the big rodeos.
Two years later women’s bronc riding became an official Cheyenne event, and by 1916, more than 20 rodeos included women’s events, according to Cowgirls of the Rodeo, by Mary Lou LeCompte. Over the next three decades, gutsy female riders such as Mabel Strickland, Fannie Sperry Steele, Ruth Roach, Lorena Trickey, Tad Lucas, Fox Hastings, Marie Gibson, and numerous others rode broncs, roped steers, raced relays, and did trick riding in prominent rodeos across the U.S. (and sometimes abroad).
Fast forward to today, and only two women roughstock riders compete professionally against men. Starting in the 1930s, women in rodeo faced some serious challenges to continued participation. They eventually had to form their own association to organize women’s rodeo events. Roughstock riding rose again, as a result, but barrel racing was coming on fast and furious and soon eclipsed it. Newer and more accessible, the sport was a popular outlet for tough female competitors and ultimately became the focus of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. Barrel racing cast a large shadow over roughstock and left those riders with the limited options they have today.
Some say this sea change was precipitated by the tragic death of Bonnie McCarroll at the Pendleton Round-up in 1929. A cowgirl from southern Idaho, McCarroll (born Mary Ellen Treadwell) gained fame for her rodeo prowess during the 1910s and ’20s, traveling the circuit with her husband, Frank. She took first place in bronc riding in 1915 at Pendleton, her first big rodeo, and went on to win many other contests, including Cheyenne, Madison Square Garden, and Wembley, England, often riding slick (riding without hobbling her stirrups together under the horse’s stomach, a concession allowed for women of that era).
McCarroll was an exhibition rider at Pendleton on September 19, 1929, when she got on a bronc named Black Cat. According to a description from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, based on eyewitness accounts, Black Cat fell, then went into a forward somersault. As he recovered and began to buck, McCarroll hung limply upside down, her left foot caught in the stirrup (which was hobbled), her head slamming against the ground. She died 11 days later.
By the next year, women were no longer allowed to ride broncs at Pendleton, and other rodeos soon followed suit. Women’s competitive roughstock riding changed forever. But Gail Woerner, author of six books on rodeo history, says that bronc riding didn’t stop because of Bonnie McCarroll. Women already had been killed riding broncs as early as 1915, and by the early 1930s, rodeo promoters were hiring “ranch girls” instead of allowing women competitors. These pretty Western women would drum up buzz for the shows via publicity appearances and did not compete.
Steve Wursta made the recent documentary film From Cheyenne to Pendleton, which looks at the rise and fall of the rodeo cowgirl from 1904 to 1929. He cites social and economic trends for a backlash against women’s athletic accomplishments, including the sour outlook related to the post-World War I recession in the farm belt. A 1926 editorial in the East Oregonian newspaper, for example, supported the Pendleton Round-Up committee’s decision to nix women’s rodeo events that year. It read, in part: “Women now swim the English Channel, and they can ride about as swiftly as can any man who ever walked, hence they do not require nor do they desire the same degree of attentiveness when the Round-Up was young.”
Wursta’s translation: “People were saying, ‘we’re in a depression, and we don’t need it rubbed in our faces that women are better than men.’”
The Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was formed by a group of Western rodeo managers and producers in 1929 and promptly announced it would not allow women’s events starting in 1930. Meanwhile, East Coast rodeos, which were not part of the RAA, still permitted women. But when Gene Autry became a prolific rodeo producer and eliminated women’s events from Madison Square Garden after 1941, the coffin was sealed. Historian Mary Lou LeCompte minces no words: “The end of women’s rodeo was Gene Autry. He put women in their ‘place,’ in the square dances and out of competition.”
Not to be deterred and frustrated by the lack of competitive opportunities, 38 women bronc riders, ropers, and barrel racers formed the Girls’ Rodeo Association (GRA) in 1948. That first year, it sanctioned 60 contests and awarded year-end titles in seven categories, including bareback and bull riding (and in 1949 its one-and-only saddle bronc title). Over the next 60 years, the GRA—which changed its name to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1981—regularly put on events for female roughstock riders.
One of the best-known bareback bronc and bull riders is rodeo legend Jan Youren, who started competing in 1955 at age 11, when her father produced one of the first all-women’s rodeos in Idaho. As she recalls, she had a re-ride in the bareback bronc riding event after someone accused her of getting an easy horse for being the producer’s daughter. Before she got on her second mount, says Youren, “My dad said, ‘Better watch him, baby. He can be pretty stout.’ In his version, that horse threw me so high in the air the birds built a nest in my pocket before I hit the ground. Dad hoped that would take it out of me, but it didn’t.” In fact, the tenacious Youren wouldn’t have it “taken out of her” for another 50 years. Even then, she retired reluctantly.
After competing in amateur rodeos for 20 years, Youren joined the GRA and entered her first pro rodeo in 1975, when she was 32. Riding her bull two handed, she broke her nose and cheekbone when the animal’s head hit her in the face.
“When I started, they never even thought of a girl riding one handed,” she says. During 38 years of two-handed bull riding, says Youren, “I had my nose broken 14 times and eight breaks in my cheekbones. I found someone with a harder head than mine.”
Though women’s roughstock events were hardly a novelty, not everyone embraced them. Youren recalls when big-time rodeo producer Cotton Rosser added women’s bareback bronc riding to the bill as a special event at the Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco in 1979. According to Youren, bareback riding champ Bruce Ford responded, “‘These girls should be home barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, not out here bumping it up against the rigging.’” But, she adds, “I give Bruce credit. At the end of the rodeo, he admitted, ‘These girls that I came here ridiculing, I have the utmost respect for.’ He ended up even putting on some women’s rodeos.”
Youren’s last competition was in 2005, at the WPRA World Finals Rodeo. She was 62. “I said ‘when my granddaughters beat me, I’ll quit,’” she says. One of her granddaughters got second in bareback bronc riding; Youren got third.
For National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Famer Jonnie Jonckowski, riding bulls was “one big dance and a huge adrenaline rush.” Growing up as a “horse-crazy girl” in Billings, Mont., Jonckowski started working at a dude ranch when she was 14, where the owner told her about Alice and Margie Greenough, champion bronc riders of the 1930s and ’40s, and showed her pictures of their riding exploits. In 1975, after a college accident cut short a promising running career, Jonckowski saw a poster for an all-women’s rodeo in Red Lodge and decided to enter the bareback riding event.
“I talked to every cowboy I could at the local bar and found one with bareback riding equipment in his car,” she recalls.
After the rodeo (she rode to the whistle), a few people suggested that Jonckowski try bull riding. “I didn’t know any better to be afraid,” she says. “I borrowed spurs and a rope, and I lasted about four seconds.” But she was hooked.
In addition to winning WPRA events, Jonckowski worked to open up more venues for women, particularly at the large rodeos that hadn’t allowed female roughstock riders for years. But it wasn’t easy. It took three and half years to get an exhibition of women bronc and bull riders at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1987. “It was really tough to convince those Cheyenne boys to let us ride,” she says. “They hadn’t let women ride roughstock for 52 years. Their fear was that we were going to get bucked off and scream and cry. Being a woman in roughstock, you don’t even have the luxury of getting hurt. If a guy gets hurt, no one will say he has no business being out there. But if a woman gets hurt, she better hop out of there under her own power and wave to the crowd. I was so proud of how tough some of those girls were. Most of them would clear the chute gates before they’d drop over [when injured].”
In 1991, she set her sights on Pendleton (where no female roughstock riders had appeared since the McCarroll incident in 1929), and that same year, the National Finals Rodeo allowed women to exhibit.
Will women’s pro roughstock riding ever make a comeback? It’s hard to say, but the WPRA has backed off for now. The organization handed out its last world titles in bareback and bull riding in 2008. The WPRA has since focused its resources on the more popular roping and barrel racing.
“We were trying to find balance as an association, and interest had fallen off among our members in roughstock events,” says Ann Bleiker of the WPRA. “It didn’t make sense to keep doing it.”
The difficulty of roughstock riding is formidable enough without the support of a women’s professional circuit. Women riders today can compete in amateur rodeos, but if they want to do it professionally, the only option is to enter the men’s field at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeos. And only two are currently taking on that challenge: 34-year-old saddle-bronc rider Kaila Mussell, who’s been competing for 10 years, and 19-year-old bull rider Maggie Parker, who burst onto the scene earlier this year.
Kaila Mussell started competing against men, because the WPRA didn’t offer saddle bronc competitions and does not claim to be a pioneer. Girls should compete for the sake of sport, she says: “They have to be there because they love the sport and are serious about it. You have to realize what you’re undertaking. No one should just jump in and say, ‘I want to do that because it’s cool.’”
In her short time competing, Maggie Parker has shown impressive determination, teaching herself to ride bulls while in high school and lobbying producers to let her compete in her first rodeo. She hopes her success will open doors for other women and someday wants to have a bull-riding school for girls. And, like Mussell, she underscores that competing professionally today is a commitment best pursued for its own sake: “I make sure [younger female roughstock riders] are doing it for the right reasons, not just to prove a point. If you don’t love this sport, you shouldn’t be riding.”
Jan Youren faults pro-rodeo’s minimum age requirement of 18 for the fall-off in women roughstock riders. Initiated by the PRCA in the mid-1990s and adopted by the WPRA, the age restriction has had a limiting effect.
“That was definitely the downfall,” she says. “You have to start things when you’re young and invincible. By the time women are 18, they’re [thinking about other things].” Youren also admits to being disappointed that the sport to which she contributed so much seems to be fading away.
“It made my 50 years amount to nothing,” she says.
Jonnie Jonckowski retired from competition in 2000 when she was 46 and now runs a therapeutic riding nonprofit. Unlike today’s generation of riders, she and Youren were deliberate about blazing a trail for women in roughstock: “That’s why I campaigned so hard. I’d like to know that what I did all those years ago meant something. I know there are girls out there like me who crave that adrenaline.”
She believes the WPRA’s discontinuation of events dealt women’s roughstock competition its biggest blow: “It lost its organization, and it lost its home.” Jonckowski envisions a women’s version of the Professional Bull Riders association that would stage events at 20-some PRCA rodeos a year.
Some hope may be found on the grassroots level. Adrian Brannan, a 20-year-old up-and-coming bronc rider and self-described adrenaline junkie from northern California, has high hopes for the future of women’s roughstock competition through small organizations like the Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA) in Amarillo, Texas. She competed at the WRCA’s first championship ranch bronc riding event in May.
“Honestly, I don’t want to compete against the guys,” she says. “I see the WRCA as being the forerunner in bringing women’s bronc riding back.”
For her part, Maggie Parker isn’t going anywhere: “When you hear that buzzer and you know that all of your hard work is paying off, it’s the most gratifying feeling. And the whole lifestyle is addicting—the travel, the people, getting to do what you love. Not many people can say they live their life like that.”
Despite the obstacles, it’s clear that women will continue to get on roughstock—no matter what.
“The end of women’s rodeo was Gene Autry. He put women in their ‘place,’ in the square dances and out of competition.”