Women in the Old West had to be tough to succeed. Often, they lived on isolated ranches, where they performed hard physical labor every day. Horses were part of their lives, since they were the primary means of transportation. A subset of these ranch women used this experience to enter the competitive world of rodeos.
They were joined by other women, some of whom were related or married to other rodeo performers. Others came to rodeos from circuses, while some were just attracted to rodeo life itself. They enjoyed the competition, the freedom, and the travel.
Rodeos themselves began in Mexico, but the type of show that we now call a rodeo probably began with the Wild West shows of the late 1800s. The best known shows include:
These shows features all types of women performerssharpshooters, trick riders, racers, bulldoggers, and ropers. These shows toured not only the United States but also Europe and the Orient. Gradually, exhibitions turned into true competition.
Many writers believe that the women in rodeos were the first true professional female athletes. Before the 1930s, they competed against men in many of the same events. They performed as trick riders, and they tried to stay atop bucking broncos.
The more dangerous the activity, the higher the score a performer could earn, and the more money she could take home. Highly paid performers, such as Tad Lucas, earned as much as $12,000 during the Depression. Before 1929, no central agency kept official records, so riders from different rodeos might earn the same "Champion of the World" title.
The popularity of rodeos was helped by photographers, who took action pictures and then sold them. Often, these were sold as postcards. Some of the best-known rodeo photographers are known to many collectors, because their photographs are signed with the photographers' names:
Their images give modern viewers a taste of what these cowgirls could do. As breathtaking as some of the events appear, remember that they were performed at high speed in front of roaring crowds.
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