Rodeo Events and Women
In the early rodeos, both men and women competed in a large number of events. Women participated in bulldogging, bronc riding, "fancy roping," trick riding,and various races.
Trick riding covered a multitude of different moves. It included all types of stands and vaults, which were performed at top speed. In addition, a rider might crawl underneath the horse's belly, trying to avoid the pounding hooves.
The most dramatic races were probably the Roman races and the relay races. In the former, a rider would be standing with her left foot on one galloping horse and her right foot on another. In relay races, riders would race three times around a track, changing horses after each circuit. Some changed horses without ever touching the ground. These riders performed the "flying change" and leapt from the back of one running horse to the back of another.
Gradually, the number of women's events declined. Buffalo Bill died in 1917, and his death and World War I led to a decline in rodeos in general. In 1929, popular rider Bonnie McCarrol was thrown off a bucking bronc and trampled to death at the Pendleton Roundup. This was the best-publicized of several accidents that befell women, and afterward, the Pendleton Roundup committee dropped bronc riding as a women's sport. Relay racing began to decline for a different reason--costs; it was expensive to maintain three strings of horses for one events.
The result was that the pioneer days of women's rodeo were over. Although women in rodeo made a tremendous comeback later in the century, few acheived the stardom that the early women.
Some of the Performers
Many of the earliest women performers were true celebrities. As any collector of rodeo postcards knows, there were a great many performers. The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, honors more than 50 of them. Here is just a smattering of some of the best-known riders, arranged in a loose chronology.
- Lucille Mulhall has often been called "America's First Cowgirl." Although that isn't totally true, she was one of the first to become famous. She performed in Madison Square Garden in 1905 at age 10 and went on to become the first woman rodeo producer.
- In the early 1900s, Prairie Rose Henderson was a popular performer who wowed the crowds with her handmade fancy costumes, which were often decorated iwth beads, feathers, and sequins. In 1932, she was lost in a snowstorm and died.
- Kitty Canutt had a sparkling smile, because of the diamonds in her front teeth. Rumor had it that she would pawn them when she and her cowboy husband, Yakima Canutt, needed money. Seldom appearing on postcards, Kitty did manage to appear in a few motion pictures.
- Mabel Strickland was an excellent athlete, who was also married to a cowboy. A favorite with the crowds, Mabel was known for her roping and bronc busting. She appeared with popular singer and actor Bing Crosby in the film Rhythm of the Range.
- Mildred Douglas was an Eastern girl, who learned to ride at an indoor Connecticut riding ring. She trained in a circus and later moved on to rodeos. She even made a few films.
- Bonnie McCarroll was a popular contestant in several categories, including bulldogging, automobile jumping, and bronc and steer riding. Although a famous William Bowman card shows her being pitched off a bucking horse, this fall was not the one that killed her. She died in another accident, which took place 14 years later at the Pendleton Roundup.
- As a young teen, Eloise "Fox" Hastings ran away from her convent school to marry a cowboy and join the rodeo life. Although she participated in many events, including trick and bronc riding, she is probably best known for her bulldogging. After her husband's death, she became depressed and ultimately committed suicide.
- In her autobiography, Rodeo Road: My Life as a Pioneer Cowgirl, Vera McGinnis wrote, "I wouldn't trade being a rodeo cowgirl for any other profession." McGinnis moved from rodeo to films and then back to rodeo. She is credited with the invention of the flying change, leaping from the back of one galloping horse to another, during relay races.
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