Women and horses have a complicated relationship: Women both identify with horses emotionally—connecting with the freedom they represent—and gain power from their ability to control them. Nowhere is this paradoxical relationship more true than in women’s involvement in Wild West shows and American rodeo.
The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association is the oldest women’s sports association in the country; rodeo has been important to many women since the sport originated.
Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, founded in 1883, featured pragmatic cowboy skill paired with romanticized and largely inaccurate depictions of life in the American West. Cody was a showman through and through, offering a certain amount of flamboyance and flair to the decidedly unglamorous, and often harsh, history of the cowboy and the frontier. Cody’s show included American Indians, however they were exoticized and portrayed as violent and aggressive, reinforcing problematic ideas held by many white Americans.
There was some truth to Cody’s Wild West show, though. Skilled performers, including women like sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (at right) and real-life cowboys exhibited their undisputable talents, making way for our modern rodeo competitions.
Rooted in utility, the rodeo began as place for cowboys to hone and demonstrate their talents in ranch work—riding, roping, and handling cattle—while earning recognition. Rodeo has always been, and remains, notoriously brutal. The traditional cowboy method of “breaking” a horse relies upon domination and submission. It hinges upon taking all of a horse’s options away through the use of force.
Although cruelty abounds in rodeo competitions, from the harsh treatment of livestock to the heavy spurs and prods that elicit such dramatic flailing and fighting from the broncos and bulls, the rodeo remains important to the history of women and horses because it provided cowgirls the opportunity to become some of the first female professional athletes. Competing alongside men also provided cowgirls with recognition for the work they, too, were doing on the range. Work that they were good at.
Rodeo made women’s experiences visible with the same glitz and show of the cowboys. But, this was not without great risk or adversity.
Ranch work is dangerous and cowboys weren’t particularly eager to let women compete in all of the disciplines. When champion bronco rider Bonnie McCaroll was trampled and killed at the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up rodeo, event organizers banned women from competition for the next 70 years, despite the fact that many cowboys had been injured and killed in the same events as well.
In response to their exclusion from rodeo events, women gathered in 1948 to form the Girls Rodeo Association, later renamed the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. And though women still primarily compete only in the barrel racing competition (a speed event in which woman and horse race around barells in a clover formation), this is beginning to change with some women entering roping competitions alongside the men.
Barrel racing requires speed and precision. It requires that horse and rider work in unison to be successful. It requires that the wildness and speed of the horse be honed and captured, cultivated by the rider.
Though I cannot help but see the sport of rodeo itself through an eco-feminist lens as cruel and deeply patriarchal in its control of nature, there is something important in the act of challenging the sport to include women, to allow them to show their might and grit alongside the men. Just like the historical cowgirls on the frontier.
Not all women see this relationship of dominance as a problem; instead many draw strength from it. Horsewomen have often pointed to power and control as something that attracts them to riding, some of whom achieve relationships with their horses that disrupt the traditional forms of dominance practiced by cowboys.
In her book on girls and horses, Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion, Melissa Holbrook Pierson sums up this paradoxical relationship beautifully:
They are a stirringly impossible mixture of power and delicacy, size and fragility. They inspire fear even as they are filled with it themselves. They are wild and they are utterly tamable…horses seem to bear the same secret a little girl does about her own protean qualities even if the whole world would deny them.
So while drawing from my own views on horsemanship, I feel critical of the rodeo and its reliance upon relationships of dominance, I do know that it is important for many women.
Rodeo competitions and the American West offered and continue to offer women the opportunity to challenge social constructions of femininity and feel power and freedom as they compete in something glorifying their athletic prowess.