Women in Early Rodeos
In the early days of rodeo, women were rarely seen inside the arena. Cowboys were predominantly men, and few ranches considered women to be on par with their male counterparts. Women were initially hired on to perform in trick shooting and to perform various horseback stunts in popular Wild West shows, bringing a feminine touch that both male and female spectators could enjoy. Female rodeo pioneer Annie Oakley got her start as a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill Cody's famous traveling show, bringing the concept of the cowgirl to the public eye. Female entrants in these early rodeos competed in a variety of sports not seen in modern day competitions. Trick riding and roping were popular events, with strong, graceful girls jumping, twisting and turning astride galloping horses. Trick shooting was another major attraction, with Annie Oakley taking center stage at many of the largest events. Many early female rodeo stars traveled the country in a small caravan, performing throughout the year at rodeos from New York to California. Many women wore bright, vibrant costumes and colorful makeup to draw attention and add to their unique appeal. Women gained favor in the rodeo ranks, and were allowed to compete in women's events at major rodeos including Cheyenne and Houston until a female competitor was dragged to death after a bareback ride gone bad. The formation of the Rodeo Association of America, the predecessor to the PRCA, failed to include women's events in their rosters, and female participation in professional events nearly fell off the radar.
Taking a Stand
Fay Kirkwood, a female rodeo competitor from Texas, staged an all-girl exhibition in 1942 as a form of protest against male-dominated rodeos. That same year, women's barrel racing was introduced at Madison Square Garden's annual rodeo, and the event is now a staple at PRCA-sanctioned events. Barrel racing is the most popular women's rodeo event, pairing the fastest horses with the most skillful riders in a race against the clock. The Girls Rodeo Association was formed in 1948 after a rules dispute at an RAA event, and women were soon hosting their own rodeos all over the United States. The Girls Rodeo Association crafted rules and guidelines for nearly 10 women-only events that closely mimicked those of men's rodeos, giving competitors a sense of camaraderie and equality. The GRA transitioned into the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, with women competing in various disciplines to earn a championship. The WPRA World Finals is the largest women's-only rodeo in the entire world, with women competing in original WPRA events, barrel racing, bull riding, bareback riding, tie-down roping, breakaway roping, and team roping. Rules for both timed and rough stock events are similar to those held in male-dominated competitions, with rough stock and riders earning a score based on their skill and technique. Each event champion wins a saddle specifically designed for that event, a special reminder of the time and dedication each woman logs in the saddle to attain such an achievement. WPRA competitors enjoy very little downtime, with the next season starting mere weeks after the October finals. Those with a passion for the sport don't complain such, saddling their horses with a smile and continuing the tradition of women's professional rodeo with the ease and grace of seasoned competitors.