Behind the rise of breakaway roping, American rodeo’s hottest event bringing hardworking, tough-as-nails cowgirls into championship arenas.
She backs her bay gelding into the corner of the roping box. The buzz of arena lights hum overhead while cowgirls with long braids and quiet horses crowd her peripheral. She feels her rope coils in her left hand and the weight of the loop in her right. She takes a deep breath and nods. A cream-colored calf emerges from a chute directly in front of her. She hangs in the balance for a brief moment — to ensure she doesn’t break the barrier — and then, with the slightest shift, asks her horse to move. He rocks back on his massive hindquarters and propels himself forward from a standstill to a gallop instantaneously. She swings her rope, releases it, and it lands smoothly around the calf ’s neck, a tidy bell collar catch. She stops her horse, he slides to his haunches, the rope is taut and then intentionally breaks from the horn. The calf lopes off, and the timer is stopped.
In a matter of seconds, Andrea Lien has finished her breakaway run at the World’s Richest Roping event in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Lien, a tall blonde in a pecan felt hat, is a 33-year-old amateur rider who traveled to the event with her best friend, fellow roper Korah Corrigan. The two have been riding together since they were children in rural Minnesota, roping haybales in the barn aisle during the frigid Midwestern winter.
Andrea Lien pursues roping in addition to her ultrasound tech job (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy Click Thompson).
“Whenever you rope that first haybale or that first calf, it lights a fire under you, and it captivates you,” Lien says. “At first, you don’t think it seems possible or that you can be successful roping — but then you rope it one time, two times, four times, a hundred times. You just never stop.”
Breakaway roping — a timed event in which a rider ropes a calf that “breaks away” after the rope becomes taut — is one of the fastest-growing women’s rodeo events in the nation. Lien represents a growing sector of women devoting their free time and resources to pursue a roping career. Living in remote Southern Illinois on her partner’s rodeo roughstock operation, she splits her time between her “in-town” job as an ultrasound tech and her life on the rodeo circuit. “Many of the people I know who are competing are nurses, coaches, or teachers — just regular people you wouldn’t know could go out and rope a calf in 1.9 seconds. It’s really cool.”
With the creation of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA, formerly Girls Rodeo Association) in 1948 — it’s now the longest-standing female sports organization in the country — women have been roping professionally for more than 75 years. But roping popularity and financial incentives have grown tremendously in the past decade. National Finals Breakaway Roping was established in 2020, and The American Rodeo added breakaway roping in 2019. In 2019, there were 30 PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) sanctioned breakaway roping events. In 2023, there were more than 450.
A Look Back
Women’s roping hasn’t been limited to competitions. For centuries, women have been working and riding alongside their male counterparts. Though rarely hired as hands, cowgirls were born into ranching families and expected to have the skillset to start colts, rope livestock, and assist in brandings. These skills were born on the open range of the 19th century and fostered in the arenas of the 20th century. With the popularity of Western-themed entertainment, like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (whose 1893 show reportedly had 3 million spectators), rodeo was in its renaissance, and women were competing. In the 1920s, one-third of all rodeos had events for women, often including roughstock and roping.
Accessibility took a hit after a series of high-profile female bronc riders were either injured or killed while competing. Most notable was Bonnie McCarroll, who tragically died from injuries sustained during her intended retirement bronc ride in 1929. After her highly publicized death, women’s roughstock events, as well as roping, were removed from the majority of mainstream rodeos. By the 1930s, women were celebrated more for their aesthetics than athleticism. Traditional gender roles were encouraged, and rodeo queen pageants became common in the 1940s.
Bonnie McCarroll (Photography: Courtesy the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame)
The early pioneers of the WPRA advocated for greater opportunities — and pay — for professional female athletes. These skilled ranch women promoted bronc riding, barrel racing, and roping. Though tie-down roping was a WPRA event in 1948, breakaway roping was not featured until 1974. It became an annual event in 1989, steadily increasing in consecutive years. Professional female ropers began getting noticed, like Betty Gayle Cooper-Ratliff and Pam Minick of the 1970s and 1980s, Lari Dee Guy from the early 2000s to today, and current top prospect (and Guy’s protege) Jackie Crawford.
The Breakout Family
Crawford has a well-earned following, not only because of her athletic talent but also for her ability to balance a family and a highly competitive roping career. The now 41-year-old mother famously won the inaugural Wrangler National Finals of Breakaway Roping six months pregnant. It was her 20th WPRA world title. She has provided a framework and been an inspiration for countless riders navigating motherhood and a career.
For professional breakaway roper Addy Hill, a 27-year-old new mother who operates a boutique alongside riding client horses, the community aspect of rodeo has been a welcomed respite. “I was always told, ‘Just take your babies with you. You don’t need to change your lifestyle. Just take ’em with you.’ It’s very normal to see kids at all of the rodeos with their parents competing. That’s helped me a ton as a new mom. People are there to support you. It’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Addy Hill competes in breakaway roping while operating a boutique (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy Amanda Dilworth).
Historically, rodeo and ranching culture has had a familial energy. It isn’t uncommon to have multiple generations of families competing and riding together. An easy example of this phenomenon is the legendary saddle bronc family, the Wrights, with nine relatives simultaneously participating in the same circuit. This element of fellowship has roots at working ranches, with neighbors (including children and elders) gathering together at brandings to rope, brand, vaccinate, and castrate stock. Rodeo events like breakaway roping have a clear lineage to practical ranching skills. Its popularity represents a clear message: often, the best hands are women.
Lein, the amateur rider with big dreams, looks to her mentors in the sport for her own inspiration. “Breakaway ropers are the typical image of what you think of when you think of a cowgirl — very warm, very welcoming. But they’re tough and rough, and they could probably beat you up, but they’re just as beautiful as the freakin’ rodeo queens. They’re what I’ve always envisioned as the all-around cowgirl.”
This article appears in our February/March 2024 issue.
Find out more about breakaway roping and upcoming events at prorodeo.com.
Catch the breakaway roping and other championship rodeo events at The American Western Weekend, scheduled for March 8 and 9 in Arlington, Texas. Keep up with qualifying events and get tickets at americanrodeo.com.