Horses,  Rodeo,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

Pioneering Women in Rodeo

Published in the Cowboy Chronicle; Publication of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

June 2023

Theodore Roosevelt, attending the Wild West show that was part of the entertainment for his Rough Riders reunion, graciously bowed to the diminutive teenage girl and applauded her success. Roosevelt had watched in awe as she roped a running steer and beat all the cowboys for first prize.  He told her none of his Rough Rider troops could have done a better job. It was 1900 and the vice-presidential candidate had put together the second Rough Riders reunion in Oklahoma City. Roosevelt’s brief but transformative ranching career in North Dakota set in him an enduring love of the West.

Lucille Mulhall who had so captivated Roosevelt that day, began roping at the age of 13 on her family’s ranch. Earlier in 1900 at an event in El Paso, Lucille had also out roped the local cowboys and won over $10,000. She was the first woman to rope steers competitively with men. Roosevelt was so impressed by her skill; he dubbed her “The Golden Girl of the West.”  One evening over supper with the Mulhalls, the subject of wolves plaguing the area came up. The details vary, but all accounts include Roosevelt’s challenge to Lucille to rope a wolf and bring it to him. If she accomplished this, he would invite her to his inaugural parade. Challenge accepted and accomplished! The Mulhalls and their Wild West show did indeed perform at the McKinley – Roosevelt inaugural parade in 1901.

Lucille went on from this challenge to have a storied career in rodeo which included performances at Madison Square Garden, the Calgary Stampede, on Vaudeville stages and European tours. She won many championships and was proclaimed the world’s greatest rider by Will Rogers.  By 1916 Lucille was producing her own rodeo, Lucille Mulhall’s Big Round-up, where bucking horses and roping contests were showcased and other cowgirls could compete. Lucille’s roundup opened the door to the world of rodeo for women. Lucille had become a legend in her own right and the first woman to be called “cowgirl.” 

In today’s world we are used to women competing and excelling in sports. While it might seem counterintuitive, rodeo was one of the first sports to include women competitors. Women competed in the same events as the men in the beginnings of rodeo; it was only later that Barrel Racing, most commonly associated with women’s rodeo today, began.  It was a natural development for women to enter rodeo events in those early years. Women out west learned to ride and rope out of necessity. It was not unusual for the women to work alongside the men in those early days of pioneer ranching.

There were many of these seemingly fearless women rodeo pioneers at the beginning of the 20th century. Bertha Kaepernik was the first woman to ride a bucking horse at the Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1904. She had talked her way into the rodeo to perform in an exhibition event. Two years later women’s bronc riding became an official Cheyenne event. By 1916, more than 20 rodeos included women’s events. Bertha went on to win the bucking championship at the Pendleton Roundup three times, toured with Wild West shows and worked as a stuntwomen for early western motion pictures.

Tad Lucas, the youngest of 24 children born on a Nebraska ranch, was another great pioneer of women’s rodeo. She began her professional rodeo career in 1917 at only14, winning the steer riding event in her first rodeo. During WW1 she would ride bulls down the streets of Cody, Nebraska to raise money for the Red Cross. After the war Tad moved to Texas and joined a Wild West show. It was here that she first saw what was to become her forte – trick riding, in which she won many titles. She was also a racer, bronc rider, winning second prize at the Madison Square Garden rodeo, and roughstock contestant.  In the 1940’s Tad took part in the founding of the Girls Rodeo Association.

Professional rodeo faced tough times during World War I, but after the war rose to greater prominence. Ironically this was mostly due to audiences in the big cities of the east, not out west. By 1920 rodeos featured three cowgirl events; Ladies bronc riding, trick riding and cowgirl relay racing. The 1920’s were the heydays of women’s rodeo producing more world champion female riders than any time since.

However, times were changing for women in rodeo. The beginning of the end was the death of Bonnie McCarroll in1929. Bonnie entered her first rodeo in 1915 and competed against all the greats of the time. She was the first woman to win the bucking horse championship at Madison Square garden in1922, and the only cowgirl to win at Madison Square Garden and Cheyenne in the same year. In 1929 she was tragically killed at the Pendleton Roundup when the horse she was riding, Black Cat, somersaulted backwards trapping Bonnie in the saddle and slamming her head against the ground. By the next year women were no longer allowed at Pendleton to ride broncs and other rodeos followed suit. There were economic and social factors at play as well and women were increasingly excluded from rodeo competitions.

When the Rodeo Association of America was formed in1929 it announced they would not allow women’s events. The RAA was a group of western rodeo producers so women were still able to compete in eastern rodeos which had no such prohibition. Gene Autry changed that. He became a rodeo producer and when he took on the Madison Square Garden rodeo in 1941 he eliminated the women’s events setting the new standard.

While they could no longer compete with men, women were not to be deterred. In 1948 38 women met in Texas and formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA), officially renamed the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in1982.  At that time there was no organization, rules or associations to keep women’s rodeo going. In the first year GRA sanctioned 60 rodeos for women with year-end titles in seven events including bareback and bull riding.

In 1959 the Rodeo Cowboys Association made the reality of hosting the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) a reality. Team roping, steer roping and barrel racing were not part of the NFR that first year it was held.  After many years of lobbying by the GRA, in 1967 barrel racing was finally included as an official NFR event.

Barrel Racing is now the dominant rodeo sport for women and included at most PRCA events. WPRA is currently working to get women’s breakaway roping into all PRCA sanctioned events. Break away roping is now the fastest growing and money- making professional rodeo sport for women next to barrel racing. This year, 2023, the WPRA celebrates its 75th anniversary.

In more recent years, there has been a new crop of female rodeo pioneers. Jonnie Jonckowski born in Fargo in 1954 began pursuing her career in bull riding after an injury dashed her Olympic running hopes. She was the first woman to compete in the Men’s World Bull Riding Championship in1991 and again in 1993. She convinced Cheyenne Frontier Days to once again hold a women’s bull riding event in 1988 after a 52 year absence. There are no WPRA rough stock sanctioned events today; 2008 was the last year the WPRA held bareback and bull riding events. The organization’s resources are put toward the popular barrel racing and roping events. There are however smaller organizations, such as the Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA) that is bringing back rough stock events which can also be found at all girl rodeos. Another pioneer in rodeo was Ann Seacrest Hanson who worked as a pickup rider and lived and ranched near Bowman in her later years. She is a National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee.  One of her favorite arenas and rodeos was the Match of Champions at the Home on the Range in Sentinel Butte.  Following in Ann’s footsteps is Jess Cardon, the first woman PRCA card carrying pickup rider in its history.

Just as women helped settle the west they have always been an integral part of the rodeo. They have accepted challenges, and with determination and courage persevered. “Cowgirl up!”

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