Photography: Courtesy the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
Bonnie McCarroll's death changed rodeo for women. Photography: Courtesy the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

This group of cowgirls aims to empower women who believe in showcasing their skills and determination to get the job done in the arena and out.

The world doesn’t seem to know much about the ranch-raised cowgirl, but the ladies of the Women’s Ranch Rodeo Association plan to change all that. Real-deal cowgirls who have no trouble hauling a rig, pulling a calf, and sorting a herd of hot-blooded cattle, they include mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives who raise families, hold day jobs, and help spouses run ranches, large and small. They’ll do whatever it takes to get ranch work done, which usually means saddling a horse and tackling the task at hand no matter the weather or circumstance. Whether it’s branding in the spring or roundup in the fall, they know cattle. On weekends, you’ll find them, ages 16 to 60, competing in local ranch rodeos — a sport born out of the heritage of the West, and one that in many ways helps to preserve it.

Founded in Kansas in 2005 with just 12 women and a vision for something bigger than competing in local rodeos, the WRRA now boasts 160-plus team members. “It’s gone crazy,” says three-time world finals champion Billie Franks, one of the association’s founders and a recent past president. “Demographics differ. Up here in the tallgrass country of Kansas, lots of cowgirls excel at this sport. While many WRRA members are involved in ranching, it’s not a membership requirement. Most of us are tied to a ranch as a choice and lifestyle, although many have town jobs as well.”

Today, WRRA members hail from Texas to Montana — 12 states in all. A total of 25 teams — with names like Too Hard to Handle, Cowgirl Swank, and 4 Branded Chicks — competed in the 10th annual WRRA World Finals last year at the Larimer County Fairgrounds’ The Ranch Events Complex in Loveland, Colorado, which was also tapped to host the 2015 World Finals, October 16 – 17.

Soon to be a 501(c)(3), the WRRA seeks to educate rodeo audiences about the heritage of the working ranch woman while perpetuating the sport. Competition brings recognition to the lifestyle and skills associated with women in ranching industries, and all members are expected to maintain the integrity of the cowgirl legacy, in and out of the competition arena.

Women in rodeo are nothing new, of course. They’ve been competing in the sport for decades. Women first took to the arena in 1903 at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, and they competed at the first indoor rodeo in 1918 at the North Side Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas. In the 1920s, celebrities such as Mabel Strickland and Bonnie McCarroll stunned audiences as they rode broncs and performed dangerous stunts.

But such risk-taking for women came to an abrupt end following McCarroll’s death from injuries she sustained September 19, 1929, during the Pendleton Round-Up. McCarroll’s horse fell into a forward somersault, then, righting itself, continued to buck. Hobbled to her stirrups, McCarroll was knocked out in the fall, her foot caught. Unconscious, she endured six more punishing leaps and bucks until her boot came off, leaving her limp upon the ground. She died 11 days later in a Pendleton, Oregon, hospital.

McCarroll’s death changed rodeo for women. Ladies’ bronc riding was scratched from Pendleton, and by 1941 it was banned from all major competitions, including Madison Square Garden Rodeo. Bronc riding is still prohibited in the events of both the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (formed later in 1948 in San Angelo, Texas) and the WRRA.

But that’s about the only thing the cowgirls of the WRRA don’t do. The organization offers five different ranch-based events performed by four-woman teams: sorting, branding, tie-down mugging (laying the animal on its side and tying three feet together), doctoring, and trailer loading.

In ranch rodeo, no concessions are made for gender. “We work with whatever [stock’s] available,” Franks says. “In the stray gathering/tie-down mugging event, our girls can either head ’em or heel ’em — no accounting for style. Even though women are less muscular than men, our lighter women still have a way of getting those steers down. Brain over brawn.”

All the events require strength, good roping and riding skills, and raw courage. “The tie-down mugging and other high-speed events make our rodeos more than entertaining for the crowds,” she says. “And the public loves them. During one night’s competition at a previous year’s World Finals in Kansas City, Kansas, attendance topped 5,000.”

Some of the WRRA members actually substitute for male competitors at other ranch rodeos, or honed their own rodeo careers on men’s teams years earlier. Their experience shows. But another secret to their success might be the bond that women develop working together for a cause. Many of the competitors, either from the same ranch or neighboring ranches, have known each other for years, through college, marriage, and children. They trust and believe in each other. Take that attitude and put it to work on top of a seasoned ranch horse in an action-packed timed event and you’ve got a performance worth watching.

While ranch rodeo associations like the Working Ranch Cowboys Association in Texas and the Western States Ranch Rodeo Association in Nevada have long attracted teams — both men’s and women’s — from all the Western states and Florida, it was inevitable that women would form their own ranch rodeo association one day. And that move was going to take the vision and brawn of the women as well as the vision and underwriting of sponsors.

“I went to a women’s ranch rodeo in Oklahoma years ago and was completely enamored of what I saw — women tackling the same events as cowboys,” says Dr. R. Harry Anderson, founder of Total Feeds Inc., a longtime WRRA supporter out of Weatherford, Texas. “I couldn’t believe how good they were. More than fun to watch, the event impressed me. I know this much: I wouldn’t want to arm-wrestle any of them! Most of all, they exhibit the importance of women in ranch activity, bringing a needed balance to rodeo.”

Achieving that balance is, of course, a balancing act for the women, too. Teams fluctuate due to members’ work schedules, pregnancies, and other factors. Committed, competing or not, they work around family needs, even home-schooling. Billie Franks’ husband likes to brag that “the only event missing from the Women’s Ranch Rodeo is the one where you cook the best meal while sorting, roping, and branding.”

Current president McKenzie Minor, a ranch wife and mother from Hyannis, Nebraska, says the WRRA is about more than rodeo. “Ladies who compete year after year love the sport, the competition, and the friendships they’ve made. We aren’t as strong as men, but we definitely know how to get the job done,” she says. Being able to compete and have their own ranch rodeo association is rewarding in and of itself, but for Minor and the other women of the WRRA, it’s the association’s many aspects of support that mean the most. “The Crisis Fund we maintain is one of the ways the association gives back to its members,” Minor says. “When someone is in need, we’re there to help — after all, life doesn’t always deal us the hand we’d like.”

Beyond that, she says, there’s the next generation of women to think about. As the WRRA sets new levels of accomplishment for younger cowgirls to look up to, “the association hopes to empower women, whether they work in an office from 8 to 5 or on a ranch. It helps keep the cowboy — or cowgirl — way of life alive.”

From the November/December 2015 issue.

Explore:Living West