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Duke Wimberly looking for eight at the Texas Bronc Riders Association 2017 Finals. Photo by William Kierce.

This judge ain’t blind, but he may well wonder if his eyes are playing tricks on him.

The rider easing down onto the bronc in the chute is not some wiry, scruff-bearded cowboy, but a rodeo-queen-beautiful young woman.  A gaggle of other gorgeous gals stand behind the chute, encouraging the soon-to-be-sprung cowgirl who’s atop 1,200 pounds of well-muscled wild fury.

Just as Virginia Woolf made her mark in the man’s world of literature, Madonna made hers in pop music, and Lindsey Vonn did it in skiing, a small-but-fierce group of cowgirls are lookin’ to do it in bronc riding … eight seconds at a time.  They’re here at the Somervell County Expo Center in Glen Rose, Texas, for tonight’s big event, the Texas Bronc Riders Association’s (TBRA) 2017 Finals, in which they’ll compete in the Ladies Saddle Bronc Finals.

Jane Revercomb determined to make the buzzer. Photo by William Kierce.

Thanks to these spunky gals, Ladies Bronc Riding, which has been on rather a lengthy hiatus of, say, 80-some-odd years is roaring back to life.

Some are ranch-born cowgirls, of course.  Some competitors are horsewomen from as far away as Kentucky and Virginia.  One’s a roller-derby queen.  But once they drop themselves into the saddle of a bronc in the chute, they enter a rarified stratosphere occupied nearly 100 percent by men—bronc riding—and become members of an elite sisterhood.

Not only are these gals serious competitors, they’re also nascent reality-television stars of RIDE TV’s docu-reality series “Cowgirls,” which launched in October 2017.  As Cowgirl magazine is a sponsor of the RIDE TV series, I’m invited behind the chutes to visit with the contestants as they prepare their gear and themselves for their rides.

2017 TBRA champion, Brittany Miller. Photo by william kierce

Lady Badass

Twenty-five-year-old Montanan Brittany Miller, two-time winner of Colorado’s Iron Woman Ranch Bronc Riding Invitational, is the leading money winner to date in the TBRA series of events, and an odds-on favorite tonight.  Behind the chutes, she’s hunkered over her saddle, buckling on a cinch.  With her buckaroo chinks, tooled leather vest over a blue tick-striped shirt, and straight flaxen mane spilling out from beneath a buckaroo-style brim, Miller’s calm in that quiet-but-deadly Clint Eastwood sort of way.  On a bronc, she’s the spittin’ image of a vintage cowgirl bucking bronc poster come to life, chin down, hips deep in the saddle, fringe flying every whichaway; “Lady Badass,” as she calls herself.

In her third year of college at the University of Montana Western, where she was pursuing a degree in Natural Horsemanship, Brittany climbed atop her first bucking horse, discovering that it felt almost like second nature to her.

Brittany Miller prepares for a ride. Photo by Susan L. Ebert.

“Riding broncs has made me a better person,” she says.  “I’m more outgoing, more confident, more in control.”  And as physically challenging as bronc riding is, Miller believes that her mental game is equally important.

“The best career advice I’ve ever received was about my mental health, changing the words I say and think about, and believing in myself. I used to say things like ‘I’m not good at (blank).’  I was at a bronc school in Texas, actually, and a woman I’m very fond of and have looked up to for a few years now was an instructor there.  She noticed the way I talked about myself and my bronc riding.  She made a point to tell me how I need to fix that, and I’ve never forgotten it.  She told me about how changing the way I spoke about myself would directly influence my mental health and then the physical aspects of it would follow through.  I still use this advice today.”

Among the cowgirls, Miller’s the veteran, the only one with more than 200 rides.  She’ll finish the evening with her No. 1 standing in the 2017 TBRA Ladies Ranch Bronc Riding intact.

Duke Wimberly. Photo by Susan L. Ebert.

Cool Hand Duke

Better put on your shades: Former rodeo queen Duke Largo Wimberly still sports that blinding million-watt smile that helped propel her to the title of Miss Fort Worth Stockyards Championship Rodeo, and that she flashed while performing for the All-American Cowgirl Chicks trick-riding and drill team.  Her lustrous chestnut braid gleams against her hot pink Cruel Girl shirt, and her painted floral-tooled belt adds a dash of femininity, but there’s no doubt this cowgirl’s as tough as nails.

At home in Cool, Texas, however, she and husband Joe raise bucking bulls, so she’s always had a passion for roughstock.  She tried her hand at bucking bulls, then gravitated towards saddle broncs.

Wimberly concurs with Miller that winning the mental battle when riding roughstock is the biggest challenge.  “The meaning of courage has always been special to me,” says Wimberly.  “Throughout a lot of my trials in life, courage has made me stand up against the odds and face my fears with a smile.  After a few really bad injuries with bronc riding, and setting everything aside during my pregnancy with Little Joe (who is now a toddler), I just want to prove to myself that I can ride broncs and follow my dreams.

“Nothing comes close to riding broncs for me,” she continues.  “It’s like floating on air when you get it right.  You get sucked down—with no air between you and the saddle—and it’s just like being in a giant rocking chair when you hit that rhythm.

“Find your passion, make it your dream, chase that sucker down and make that dream a reality!” she says.  “Always remember, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’  Last but not least, watch how you present yourself and how you handle disappointments and defeat:  There is always someone watching to see what you are going to do and how you are going to handle it.  The future of your sport is watching you, even when you think they aren’t.  Try to set a good example, the world needs more of those nowadays.”

Wimberly will win tonight’s competition in Glen Rose with a spectacular ride, garnering her another buckle and bragging rights.

Sarah Brown. Photo by Susan L. Ebert.

Competitors, All

In addition to Miller and Wimberly, this evening’s other competitors include Morgan Hansen of Kalispell, Montana; Jane Revercomb of Norfolk, Virginia; Rainey Gibbs of Salem, Kentucky; Alondra Castaneda of Kingsville, Texas; and Sarah Brown of Weatherford, Texas.

Gibbs, the Kentuckian and the youngest of the competitors, just turned 17 this past spring.  The “dark horse” contender this year, Gibbs swept in to split the win with longtime roughstock rider Wimberly at the first stop on the 2017 TBRA Ladies Ranch Bronc Riding Tour in Graham, her first-ever saddle bronc competition.  She finished in fourth place in the 2017 standings.  Brown, who in her retro-Rockmount Ranchwear-style shirt, face-splitting grin, and long auburn cascade of ropy curls, looks like a Donna Howell-Sickles painting come to life, finished fifth.  Billi Halverson of Fort Worth—who competes in roller derby and owns and operates Billi Halverson Personal Fitness—is rehabbing a fractured vertebra incurred at the Chisholm Trail Rodeo in Lockhart earlier this year, and won’t ride tonight.  Still, she showed up to cheer on the other girls, and finished sixth overall in the 2017 TRBA standings. Virginian Revercomb garnered seventh place.

Rainey Gibbs. Photo by Susan L. Ebert.

The gals aren’t the only athletes in the arena, however.  Lori O’Harver, the founder of Bronc Riding Nation, which was nominated for the Zoetis Equine Visionary Award in 2015, makes sure the broncs get their props.  These Diamond Cross broncs, turned loose in the arena before tonight’s event, are slick, healthy, bright-eyed, and deeply muscled.

Bronc Riding Nation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, helps fund bronc-rider scholarships, a retirement fund for bucking horses, and ongoing education about bucking horses.  According to O’Harver, these broncs are typically warmbloods: big, strong, deep-boned draft crosses known to be easy keepers.  She says that one of the early roughstock bloodlines was an Iowan Shire crossed with a rogue Arabian stallion (who may or may not have used a stepladder).

“Topnotch, hard-working bucking horses may only perform in an arena for a total of two minutes a year,” says O’Harver.  “The rest of the time, they just get to be horses.  These are prized athletes that live in family bands on the open range, with just enough human interaction to ensure that their nutritional needs are met, and that they receive basic veterinary care.”

Lest we forget, there are a half-dozen or more athletes in the arena contributing to the safety of the bronc rider, including the pickup men, the flankmen, the gatemen, and the rodeo clown—who this evening does his light-footed magic around the unpredictable bucking horses while simultaneously serving as emcee.

Rainey Gibbs deep in the saddle. Photo by William Kierce.

Bringing Dreams to Life

The resurgence of ladies’ saddle bronc riding is the brainchild of Daryl McElroy, founder and president of the TBRA, who was looking for something to add some excitement to the 2016 TRBA Finals.

“I came up with the idea of a ladies’ bronc riding invitational event,” he says, “and invited five women to participate.  One of them was two-time Iron Woman Champion Brittany Miller.  Craig Morris, co-founder and president of RIDE TV was there, and asked me to put together an idea for a series featuring lady bronc riders and bring it back to him.  The ‘Cowgirl’ series concept was born.

“These girls have become family to me and my wife Michelle,” McElroy continues.  “We pick ’em up at the airport, feed ’em, and they often stay with us.  Michelle’s slipped right into the mother role.”

Morris, a world champion competitor and professional cutting horse trainer, launched RIDE TV in October 2014 as an independent 24-hour pay TV channel dedicated to the equestrian lifestyle.  RIDE TV produces more than 90 percent of its content.  RIDE TV offers its programming through dozens of cable subscription services—most recently expanded to include the basic offerings on Dish and Frontier—and also as a streaming online service through RIDE TV GO,  Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube.

“We’d come to the 2016 TBRA Finals to film saddle broncs, as they usually play second fiddle behind bulls,” Morris tells me, “and also the kids on mini-broncs.  But when I saw the gals ride, we thought we had something there.  We worked to figure out the right concept, the backstories of the contestants, and where they came from, and could see the potential appeal of that.  The first season has seven episodes, with a ‘behind the chutes’ bonus episode.  We hope to be expanding this for the second season.”

And Miller, Wimberly, and Brown brought “Cowgirls” notoriety to an even broader audience with their October 18, 2017 appearance on Harry Connick, Jr.’s show “Harry,” which averages 1.3 million viewers.

Young girls today, through this new media, can examine fine details of a ride and even engage with their heroes on social media.  For a new generation of horsewomen, intent on mastering old-school arts in a modern age, it’s an open gate to self-actualization.

McElroy agrees, saying “I hope ‘Cowgirls’ inspires a whole new crop of ladies to chase their dreams … whatever they may be.”

Diamond Cross Bucking Broncs before the main event. Photo by William Kierce.

Bronc Riding Terminology

Show your saddlepals that this ain’t your first rodeo and that you know a honker from a blooper.

Arm Jerker: Horse that’s really stout and bucks with a lot of power resulting in a huge amount of pull on the contestant’s arm.

Blooper: A horse with very little bucking ability that jumps and kicks or just runs around the arena.

Bronc Rein: A thick, soft rope, 1 1/2-to-2 inches in diameter that is attached to the halter of a saddle bronc horse.  The rope can be no longer than 6 1/2 feet (to prevent the horse from tripping on it), and is used to provide balance, giving the cowgirl something to hold on to.

Chute: A small enclosure that opens from the side to release the bronc and rider into the arena.

Cover: To stay on a bronc until the eight-second buzzer.

Crow Hopper: Description of a horse that doesn’t buck, but jumps stiff-legged instead.

Flank Strap: A soft sheepskin- or Neoprene-lined strap placed in the area where a human’s belt would go, it encourages the animal to kick out behind itself rather than rear up, which provides a safer, showier ride.

Flankmen: Cowboys or cowgirls who work in the bucking chutes, adjusting the flank strap around the animal before the ride; the best flankmen and women are familiar with each individual animal and know exactly how much flank to give each animal to encourage optimal bucking.

High Roller: A horse that leaps high into the air when bucking.

Honker: Refers to the rankest of the rank.

Nodding: In the roughstock events, a cowgirl nods when she is ready for the gateman to open the gate and the ride to begin.

Pickup Riders: Two mounted riders who help the bronc rider dismount at the eight-second buzzer, release a bucking horse’s soft flank strap, and escort the bucking horse to the exit gate after a ride.

Rank: A term used to describe a very difficult animal to ride.

Roughstock: The bucking horses and bulls used in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, usually bred and raised for the job.

Stock Contractors: The companies that bring livestock to the arena for rodeos – bucking horses and bulls for the roughstock events and steers and calves for the timed events.

Try: A noun used for both cowboys and livestock, denoting grit, determination, fitness, stamina and resilience: “Give that cowgirl a hand – she had a lot of try”.

Union Horse: Describes a horse that bucks until the sound of the eight-second buzzer, then quits.