The World of Rodeo Series
Copyright 2006 by the Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
Age level: Middle school
Chapter 1: The Birth of Barrel Racing
The origins of any one particular rodeo event can be hard to pin down. Undoubtedly, the men and women who handled livestock (such as horses, cattle, and sheep) had always engaged in informal contests with each other to determine who was fastest at catching or subduing an animal. What we call professional rodeo grew out of just such casual ranch pastimes, as cowhands in the American West would take turns trying to stay on top of a wild horse or an even wilder bull. Ironically, it wasn’t until the cowboy way of life began to die out in the late nineteenth century that these spontaneous games started to evolve into a spectator sport that offered substantial prize money to the winners of each event.
Barrel Racing and Rodeo
Barrel racing’s origins, unlike cattle roping or cutting, are not directly traced to ranch work. Instead, the event evolved from the timed relay races that were added to traveling Wild West shows. Wild West show entrepreneurs may have gotten the idea for events such as barrel racing from an older equestrian tradition called gymkhana. Gymkhana evolved from military cavalry training, in which riders demonstrated their skills on horseback while performing various tasks, such as weaving through poles, picking up pegs, or racing around and jumping over obstacles. These exercises were designed to sharpen the riders’ horsemanship skills in preparation for battle.
But while it began as an exhibition sport, the combination of explosively fast horses and superb riding that barrel racing requires has made its popularity grow until it is now considered one of the most popular competitive rodeo sports among spectators, second only to bull riding.
Women in the Rodeo
An important reason for barrel racing’s popularity is the fact that it is open to female participation. Before rodeo became highly organized and regulated, many women participated in–and excelled–in bull riding and other events, but women were eventually discouraged or banned from many such events due to their dangerousness.
The turn of the twentieth century was a sort of golden age for women in rodeo. As Mary Lou LeCompte highlights in her book Cowgirls of the Rodeo, from the late 1890s through the 1920s, cowgirls participated in North America’s most important rodeo competitions, like the Calgary Stampede (in Calgary, Alberta, Canada), the Pendleton Round-Up (in Pendleton, Oregon), and the World Series Rodeo in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Women who had been raised on ranches often worked with their fathers and brothers on such chores as shoeing horses and herding and roping cattle (in order to pasture, dehorn, castrate, brand, or medicate them, or load them onto trucks bound for market). As a result, these female ranchers were often every bit as skilled at horsemanship and livestock management as cowboys were. Cowgirls were respected for their roping and riding skills in rodeo contests, in which they competed as equals with their male counterparts and were major draws. Some, including Dorothy Morrell and Tad Lucas, even became rodeo stars.
In the 1930s, all this began to change. Some rodeo events began to be organized under the Rodeo Association of America, a group of rodeo managers and promoters who sanctioned events, selected judges, and established purses and point systems to determine all-around champions. Many of these managers and promoters were uncomfortable with the idea of women as serious competitors in rodeo. Instead, they employed attractive “Ranch Girls” as paid performers in exhibition riding events. Cowgirls soon found fewer opportunities to compete in legitimate rodeo.
A few cowgirls managed to continue to compete. However, when one of the last great cowgirl bronc riders of the era, Bonnie McCarroll of Idaho, was thrown and trampled at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1929, her death served effectively to end female participation in rodeo for decades. In the wake of McCarroll’s death, cowgirl bronc riding was dropped from the Pendleton Round-Up, and soon thereafter from most other rodeos. Cowgirl participation in professional rodeo was virtually nonexistent by the end of World War II (1939-1945).
The tide began to turn in favor of renewed female participation in rodeo in 1948, with the founding of the Girls’ Rodeo Association (GRA). This group successfully pushed for rodeo committees and producers to hold all-women rodeos, with barrel racing being the most commonly produced event. The GRA evolved into the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), which today has more than 2,000 members and sanctions 800 barrel races a year in conjunction with the rodeos of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). The WPRA’s sister organization, the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA) sanctions all-women rodeos across the United States and holds an annual world championship. The events include bareback and bull riding and calf roping.