J.D. Fitzgerald/Tucson Local Media
Cowgirl Rachel Dice gives a barely perceptible nod. The gate swings open.
Dice and her horse Katie shoot forward, angling to the right where a barrel waits amid dry mounds of dirt. Rider and mare slow as they approach the barrel, leaning their bodies into the curve. Dice’s white shirt billows in the lashing wind.
Dice and Katie successfully clear the second and third barrel, placed in a triangle formation. As they head back toward the gate Rachel gives Katie’s chestnut muscles a spurt of kicks, urging the horse faster during the last stretch.
The two blur through the gate, easing their pace. The announcer’s voice booms Dice’s time: 17.47 seconds. She has taken the lead. Spectators whistle, clap and shout their approval.
Dice is one of about 110 cowgirls competing in the 90th annual Tucson Rodeo, which attracts 60,000 people each year, according to Joan Liess, who does all the marketing for the rodeo. Dice and the other women are a significant part of the rodeo’s draw.
Women haven’t always been welcome in rodeo. Though women’s participation has been rocky in the past, barrel racers are some of the most popular athletes in the sport today.
“In the surveys they conduct men’s bull riding and women’s barrel racing are the two most popular events,” says Penny Conway, a barrel racer with 50 years of rodeo experience.
Each year 10,000 attendees are asked to fill out a spectator response card about the rodeo. One of the questions asks which events they most enjoyed. From the 3,000 surveys returned each year, barrel racing has consistently ranked as the second most popular event since the mid-1990s, according to Garry Williams, the general manager of the Tucson Rodeo.
Barrel racing continues to gain attention and approval. As the fans increase, so does the purse money.
Dice has staked her career on barrel racing’s popularity. Two months prior to the Tucson rodeo, she quit her job as an office manager and began to rodeo full time.
Life on the road completely immerses her in the sport’s lifestyle. The added time allows her to “practice more and build more trust” with her horse and race at an elevated standard.
Barrel racing’s attraction has also led to an increase in the amount of rodeo opportunities for women. Cowgirls of all ages can compete at the circuit level to test skills and improve techniques. These smaller, more frequent rodeos offer women the chance to make regular money, rather than rely solely on prestigious national rodeos like Tucson’s.
“Anybody with a horse can compete in circuits to gain experience and skill,” says Carolynn Vietor, president of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
Marana cowgirl Erin Parsons, who competed against Dice in the Tucson rodeo, relies on the regularity of these rodeos as a part-time barrel racer and team roper. Her full-time job as a real estate agent allows her to create flexible schedules so that she can compete in as many rodeos in the local Turquoise circuit as possible.
Circuit rodeos not only benefit professional cowgirls, but also allow women from non-rodeo backgrounds to interact with rodeo. Vietor believes this accessibility is crucial to keeping the Western lifestyle alive. Some women, like Vietor, choose to become cowgirls after experiencing rodeo in person and falling in love with the sport.
Love has always been a motivating factor for those that have repeatedly fought for women’s participation and championed for women’s rights in rodeo.
There was a time in the sport’s history when Dice’s performance wouldn’t have been met with cheers from the audience. When women weren’t considered worthy competitors and were heavily discouraged from participating in rodeo. When a women’s rodeo experience was segregated based on gender.
In the 1920s, women competed alongside men in rough stock events and trick riding, according to Melody Groove’s book Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide. Many cowgirls achieved prominence for their talents. Marge and Alice Greenbough were two such women famed for their saddle bronc riding.
By the 1930s, however, serious cowgirl injuries, shifting social mores, and America’s political landscape greatly limited women’s rodeo participation as athletes. Local Chuck Henson, distinguished former rodeo clown and bullfighter, is the son of Marge Greenbough and nephew of Alice Greenbough. He recalls that during this time of change his mother and aunt worked as exhibition riders, providing entertainment after the events.
Fed up with being phased out of rodeo, women formed their own professional rodeo organizations in the later 1940s, like the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, says Vietor. Members hosted all-female rodeos and advocated for women’s reintroduction into the sport.
Women’s rodeo rights gained support and women began to regularly compete in rodeo again, but the days of rough stock events for women were numbered. Barrel racing and, later, team roping, gained rapid popularity and essentially replaced rough stock events.
Though women were reentering rodeo, many of them could only compete as a side hobby. Not enough rodeos included women’s events or offered large purses for female winners, making it nearly impossible for them to become full-time competitors.
To combat this inequality, the WPRA consistently pushed for an increase in women’s earnings. In 1998, they finally achieved equal pay, according to Vietor.
Despite the discrimination in women’s rodeo history, cowgirls Conway, Vietor and Parsons believe that opportunities for women in rodeo are at their strongest today.
Dice, as a professional cowgirl who has made a career of her passion, is a hopeful figure for all women in rodeo. She represents the progress that women have accomplished, and the strides they will continue to make.
After her race, Dice swings down from Katie. Her clear blue eyes are bright with excitement.
“I know there could have been some improvement, but I’m pretty proud,” she
says, winded but grinning.