HERE TO STAY: History of the women who compete in rodeo
Rodeo’s origins involved matchups between bad bucking horses and bronc riders and ropers off of ranches. In a short time, they evolved into standard events and people who followed the rodeo trail as a means to making some money. Among those hearty souls who did that were some very tough and talented women. According to exhibit information at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center, Ft. Pierre, South Dakota, in the years between 1890 and 1942 over 450 women had professional rodeo careers.
In the 1920s to the 1940s, women could enter whatever events were offered and competed against the men. In the 1920s, Mabel Strickland won the steer roping titles at both Cheyenne and Pendleton. Lady bronc riders like Mattie Goff Newcombe of South Dakota were renowned for their toughness, as she was never thrown by a bronc in competition, plus was a daring trick rider, and was never outrun as a relay rider. She continued to compete until she married, when she devoted her time and talent to the ranch.
In 1929, though, a shift was felt in rodeo, when Bonnie McCarroll was killed during the bronc riding at the Pendleton Roundup. Crowds were no longer as keen on seeing women compete with the men, so the events were changed. Rodeo producer Colonel W.T. Johnson still included women bronc riders at Madison Square Garden at the time, but by the time the Cowboy Turtles Association organized in 1936, women were excluded from the main events of professional rodeo.
In the 1950s though, there were still women who rode barebacks and saddle broncs both and competed alongside the men at rodeos. Judy Majors and Twila Merrill, both of South Dakota, were both tremendous bronc riders, with Majors being extra tough in the barebacks.
Twila Merrill of Scenic, South Dakota, was born in 1936 and started riding broncs at 15. In six years of regular competition, she was never bucked off. She also was competing in trick riding, Roman riding and relay races at the rodeos she traveled to with her dad.
In the 1950s, women’s rodeos started occurring and in 1955, Sterling Alley of Idaho held an all-girl rodeo and his daughter Jan, 11, competed in every event, from rough stock to barrel racing. Jan Youren went on to rodeo for 50 years and won the barebacks at a Women’s Professional Rodeo at age 65. Youren in time competed against her own daughters and granddaughters and in her career won five world championships in barebacks, 13 reserve world championships, and 15 reserve championships in bull riding.
Ann Secrest Hanson, who grew up near Jordan, Montana and now ranches near Amidon, North Dakota with her husband Bob, first married a rodeo man, Walter Secrest, who roped and picked up broncs. Hanson says “In 1962, it rained really hard at the Miles City Bucking Horse sale and on the second day the other pickup man didn’t show up. Walt told the committee that I could help him, so that’s how I got started.” She went on to pick up broncs at the bucking horse sale for 25 years, and her career spanned 30 years and rodeos from youth, high school, college, NRCA, SDRA, and PRCA. “The PRCA would never give me a card so when a committee hired Walt and I, they had to get special permission from the PRCA to let me work. It took a while, but they finally paid me the same as the men too. I earned it,” says Hanson.
Ann also ran barrels and team roped with Walt. She usually heeled as Walt was a header. That was in the day of tie down team roping. She tried other events, but explains, “I tried bull doggin’ but I just wasn’t big and strong enough to do it well, but I tried.”
Also in the 1960s and on, Connie Stinson Price, New Underwood, South Dakota, was a contender, no matter what event she entered. Like most ranch kids, she started riding a little girl and entered her first rodeo at 13. In 1960, she won the all around, plus barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, cattle cutting and the Queen at the National High School Rodeo Finals. In 1961, she won the barrels, poles, breakaway and queen to take the all around at the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals.
She rodeoed at every level, including SDRA and NRCA, then the GRA, which later became the WPRA. In 1966 she ran barrels at the NFR in Ft. Worth, Texas, and in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1968. Price adds “I also rode at the all girl rodeos in the late ‘60s in California where I rode barebacks and bulls. I also team roped and breakaway roped.”
Price continued to train barrel horses and compete until an injury briefly sidelined her in 2013 and 2014 but is raring to go again now. “I’ve got some young horses that my son helped me start and they’re ready to go on with. I’m going to start them on the barrels this summer and haul them to some jackpots and 4Ds to get them seasoned,” says Price. “I always end up selling them just when they’re getting good to run, but this time I’m going to keep one or two for myself for a change. I just want to be able to run them and have some fun.”
Competing against Price in the same years of high school and Little Britches rodeo was all around hand Marilyn (Knapp) Prokop from the Wall, South Dakota country. Marilyn was a top hand and hard to beat in all the timed events. She continued to rodeo until 2008 when she passed away at 64.
Modern rodeo events for women are often limited to barrel racing, breakaway, team roping, and occasionally other timed events. That doesn’t suit all women who rodeo though, and Kaila Mussell of Chilliwack, British Colombia, Canada decided early on that she wanted to ride saddle broncs. She is currently the only woman with a PRCA card who rides saddle broncs. She’s worked the PRCA and Canadian Professional Rodeo circuit for over 10 years, plus has qualified for the Indian National Finals in saddle broncs. In 2014 she broke her neck but is back on the rodeo trail for 2015.
Women’s Professional Rodeo still has both timed and rough stock events, but is focusing more and more on the barrel racing event. With the good opportunities for barrel racers at all levels, the sport has grown tremendously in the past 20 years and the WPRA barrel racers are the idols of many young women.
Lisa Lockhart, Oelrichs, South Dakota, and Montana native, is one of the leading barrel racers in the WPRA and has been to the WNFR in Las Vegas seven times. She is also a wife, mom, rancher and trainer, plus holds clinics when time allows.
Women are a strong force in rodeo, whether in the WPRA or the regional associations. Though few ride the rough stock these days, there are still those who will give it a try and excel at it. Whichever end of the arena they work, women are in rodeo for good.