In honor of Women’s History Month, I’ve put aside other bull riding topics to talk about women in bull riding: riders, contractors, trainers, owners, breeders. Some fall into all those categories, some are doing a combination of them; some names you may know, some you don’t.
This is not an exhaustive study by any means; research on this would fill a book! (If there’s an organization or publisher out there who thinks I should write the book, talk to me!) If you want to comment or share information you have, the more the merrier— but please don’t start with, “I can’t believe you left out so-and-so.” If so-and-so isn’t in this post, it just means she wasn’t in my Google Alerts, Twitter feed, Facebook, or LinkedIn list, and didn’t come across my radar screen. There were no deliberate omissions.
So here’s the quick backstory:
Women competed in bronc and bull riding in the early 1900s, until a bronc rider died in a 1929 rodeo. Of course that meant they shouldn’t compete— convenient excuse to shut them out. Can you imagine if men were locked out of bull riding after Lane Frost died?
Return to the present:
Maggie Parker, from Michigan, has been widely touted as “the only female professional bull rider,” but thankfully that’s not true. There are quite a few—and there always have been—which is a miracle, considering the odds they have to buck. (Ha ha!)
The Little Britches Rodeo Association doesn’t allow girls to ride roughstock. Girls are barred from competing in the National High School Rodeo Association (it’s true—look it up: III. Event Rules: 1. This event is open to boys only), attending most bull riding schools, or competing in most of the events leading to the big leagues. The pipeline to professional status is clogged, so women formed their own organizations, events, and training schools: Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), for one—which unfortunately no longer has bull riding events, as far as I can tell. (I’d love to be wrong.) Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA), however, is open to female roughstock riders. Women’s Roughstock Foundation was founded by T.J. Hooker and several other female bull riders, and the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA) allows women to compete against men in bull riding. And in case anyone’s ready to disparage the riders, they use the same equipment as male riders, and ride with one hand, not the two that some women formerly did; however, some organizations require that a ride be only 6 seconds, not 8.
Parker traveled from Michigan to California to work with Gary Leffew; fortunately he didn’t have a Neanderthal hangup about women riding bulls. Parker was probably the first bull ridin’ woman to win PRCA prize money (2012), which generated a lot of publicity. It also generated a lot of sick hostility, as I saw when I checked out a YouTube video of her in a practice pen. The comments some men posted were unbelievably hateful. They sure feel threatened that a woman dared to get on a bull. The only equally horrible remarks I’ve seen directed at bull riders are aimed at Brazilians; ain’t it interestin’ how sexism and racism go hand in hand? Apparently these fools expect a woman to instantly achieve JB Mauney caliber, and if she doesn’t, well then she sucks.
Parker still deals with insulting shit, even after competing in more than 200 events. In almost every media story, the writer is amazed that this 5’5”, 130-pound (and don’t forget to mention pretty and blonde) woman is riding 2,000-lb.bulls. For god’s sake, the majority of male bull riders are about this size! Have they seen Cody Nance up close?
This is verbatim from the announcer at last year’s PRCA Bennington, Kansas Rodeo:
“Have you ever heard that anything boys can do, the girls can do better? …here is a young lady in the professional ranks of rodeo that can ride bucking bulls…Do you wanna watch the young lady make a ride? This little blonde-haired beauty… she can ride!” Maggie made 8, so then comes, “Everybody says, Is she legit? I guarantee, she’s legit!”
Can you imagine a PRCA announcer saying, “Here is a young gentleman in the professional ranks of rodeo that can ride bucking bulls…Do you wanna watch the young gentleman make a ride? This little blonde-haired beauty…he can ride! Everybody says, Is he legit? I guarantee, he’s legit!”
A newspaper article once referred to Parker as “the Danica Patrick of bull riding.” Another form of idiocy: she’s a woman in a male-dominated sport, so naturally she must be compared to another woman in a male-dominated sport—just like up-and-coming stock contractor Paige Stout has to deal with automatically being likened to another female contractor, Mesa Pate. Classification by gender—how quaint. It just proves how desperately these fields need a whole lot more women, so that instead of being compared on that basis, they can be compared on their scores, bull scores, records broken, and money won. You know: like the boys.
BTW, last summer, Parker was seriously injured, went through four hours of surgery, and now has two long rods and eight screws in her back, just like the boys. She spent her 21st birthday having staples removed from her spine. Says Maggie, “Recovery is going great. Building my strength back up and ready to ride again after the summer. Staying positive.” Meanwhile, you can spot her in a Dr. Pepper TV commercial, along with other “one of a kind” women.
A name PBR followers might remember from way back in the mists of time is Kaylynn Pellam, who competed in a 2011 PBR Touring Pro event in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was bucked off, so we never heard about her again. That happens to plenty of newbies; when it’s a male, it’s no biggie, but because it was a female who got bucked off—well, by golly that proves a woman can’t be a bull rider! Pellam wasn’t the first woman to compete in the PBR, though. Sarah Bradley in 2007 competed on the Challenger Tour, the predecessor to the Touring Pro.
Some people say that until 2011, Colorado-based Polly Reich was the only woman competing professionally against men—and she started at 29 years old. Larry Mosely trained her—as a black rider, he could relate to working in a sport controlled by white men. Reich was bullied (I’m not trying to be clever; there’s no other word for it) by men who probably spouted a lot of guff about “the cowboy way.” When she rode in the IPRA, they killed her dog with poison, unhinged her truck hood to make it blow off while she was driving on a highway, and beat her up in the dark. Read that again: several men jumped her in the dark and beat her up because they didn’t like a woman competing against them.
Reich eventually left the IPRA and instead of competing in the Women’s Pro Rodeo Circuit, she rode in the Professional Bull Riders Association (not PBR). Injuries? Yep: she broke her ankles, wrist, pelvic bone, tibia, and five ribs, dislocated a shoulder, punctured a lung, and had her scalp ripped off and reattached with 60 stitches. (Name one guy who had that last operation. Pretty gruesome.) Her career ended not because of a bull ride but because of a motorcycle cop who rammed into her as she was on a bicycle, and drastically separated her shoulder from her body.
The younger generation of bull riders includes Tayler Laflash from Boston, a 2012 Youth Bull Rider World Finals qualifier; in 2013 she was 17th in the world in Youth Bull Riders. Last year, because of an injury, she switched riding hands —sound familiar?
Want to hear more names? Tavia Stevenson (PWRA reserve champion, 2003), DeeDee Crawford (WPRA World Champion), Tammy Kelly (National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Women’s World Champion Bull Riding, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2003), Jocelyn Martin (retired), Vanessa Hodgson (also from Michigan), Wendy Persons, Abreanna Kuhn, Melissa Taylor, Denise Luna, Whitney Bates…
One of the coolest—and toughest—riders has to be Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski, two-time PWRA World Champion Bull Rider (1986, 1988) and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee. She attended bullriding school with 105 guys—and ranked second in the class. (She also earned her first facial reconstructive surgery.) In 1992, she was the first woman to compete in the Men’s World Bull Riding Championship, and did it again in 1993. Jonnie and another woman also signed up to ride at Cheyenne Frontier Days, though the event was open to men only. Jonnie broke the barrier in Pendleton, Oregon, too, where a woman hadn’t been on a bull for 68 years (again, because a woman died doing it).
Jonnie’s life story is just begging to be a major motion picture, full of dramatic highs and lows: near Olympic status as a pentathlon champ, downed by an injury; entering an all-female rodeo, winning a lot of firsts as a “Weekend Warrior,” but not enough to live on: broke, no heat, and kinda hungry. A miraculously timed check paid her way to the finals, where her first bull’s hooves crashed down on her leg and mangled it. The doctors told her all the dire consequences if she tried to ride her next two bulls, including that she’d be dragging her leg behind her for the rest of her life. She had to be lifted onto her short round bull because her leg wasn’t working, but she won the buckle.
Retiring from bull riding didn’t stop the injuries, though. A horse landed on her and broke so many bones, she almost died. She also suffered a rare tumor that nearly killed her; she lost most of her jaw, all her teeth, palate, eye socket, and cheekbone, and went through numerous reconstructive surgeries. Jonnie’s been written up in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and numerous magazines; she did the David Letterman and Charlie Rose shows, was a regular on two TV series—and the music playing on her website is Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Even cooler is what she does now: runs Angel Horses, an organization in Billings, Montana that rescues horses and trains them to be therapy animals. Oh, yeah—and that Hollywood screenplay is in the works.
Great quote from her website: “What I learned about success in my quest for gold is this: success comes to those who are willing to risk more than other people feel is safe.” Yeah, I’d say Jonnie “don’t have no quit in her.”
One organization that doesn’t have a problem with women riding bulls is the International Gay Rodeo, composed of regional rodeos. The only difference is that roughstock riders here ride for 6 seconds. Casey Jackson (Sharon Norman), a Hall of Fame inductee, has a pretty wild background: riding a buffalo on a dare, she won a Little Britches Rodeo; she worked as a Hollywood stuntwoman (bison, this time); while she was in the Navy, she got military orders to stop riding bulls; after she retired from competing, she taught bull and bronc riding at the Ford Arena in Denver.
Plenty of bull riders segue into being stock contractors, and one of the colorful ones is Joy Hawks of Rhinestone Renegades. The 1997 PWRA Rookie of the Year and Reserve Champion (who also holds bareback and all-around championships) has been hauling bull teams to CBR events for the past five years. Rhinestone Renegades offers a training program for female contractors and hosts events such as the Women’s Only Open Bull Futurities. This year they’ve teamed up with UBBI (United Bucking Bulls Inc.) for some events.
Hawks thinks big: over St. Patrick’s Day weekend she produced and filmed an open bull team event in Stephenville, TX; she’s sponsored Women’s Futurity events, currently putting together a TV show for the U.K. and Germany, and planning some Women’s Challenge events.
The Chief Renegade has this to say about male and female bull riders: “There’s not much difference in the mentality.” So right: the phrase that constantly pops up in interviews with bull riders, male or female, is adrenaline rush.
As for female bullfighters, they’re few and far between. The first to be noticed was Robin Sindorf, who worked for Flying U Rodeos in the 1980s as a barrelwoman? barrelperson? How annoying that there aren’t enough of them to make that sound normal.
And let’s not forget the bulls—or rather, bucking cows. I don’t mean cows that are just for breeding purposes—I mean cows that can dump a dude in the dirt. Mossy Oak Mudslinger’s granddaughter has been known to buck off a few lads. Some PFF Twitter comments from guys who tried her: “As you can see, I didn’t last very long but she sure was rank.” “She wasn’t that rank; got on her 5 times, last one almost covered.” “U covered her for six seconds but nobody’s ever covered her for 8.”
Some people just can’t admit that BullSisters–two or four-legged– can kick ass.