test of mettle cowgirl magazine

Featured photo: Idaho cowgirl Carmen Buckingham gets her steer caught at the 2022 Art of the Cowgirl Ranch Rodeo. Photographs Courtesy of Art of the Cowgirl

From the mountain meadows of Montana to the vast plains of Texas and beyond, women are carving their niches on ranches.  Some say they’re doing a man’s work, but gender roles don’t exist on most family operations today; everyone does whatever it takes to foster their ranches for the future and to preserve traditions ingrained in the Western lifestyle.  The rewards are many, but vacations are few.  When the cowgirls do get away, it’s often for a ranch rodeo.

Open ranch rodeos, comprised mostly of male teams, became popular for spectators and contestants alike with the formation of the Working Ranch Cowboys Association in 1995.  For nearly two decades, however, all women’s ranch rodeos have blossomed through Art of the Cowgirl, the Western States Ranch Rodeo Association, and the Women’s Ranch Rodeo Association.  These rodeos spotlight women’s roping skills, the high-quality horses they train, and cohesive teamwork in events that simulate everyday ranch life.  

Nowhere will you find a more regionally diverse and deft group of ranch cowgirls than the Art of the Cowgirl All Women’s Ranch Rodeo, presented by COWGIRL Magazine, January 18-22, in Queen Creek, Arizona.  Thirty four-woman teams will test their skills in branding, doctoring, team roping, and ranch horse competition.  These gutsy women adapt to any situation, and when things get tough, they lay it all on the line, “cowgirl up,” and work together until the task is complete.

Whitney Hall, the 2022 Art of the Cowgirl World’s Greatest Horsewoman.

Female Fortitude

Before Whitney Hall enters the arena, she glances down at three words she’s written on her hand: wait, react, and, conquer.  These words reminder her to wait for an opportunity, react when it happens, and conquer once everything falls into place.  Last year at Art of the Cowgirl, the 28-year-old from Loco, Oklahoma, was not only on the champion ranch rodeo team, Espuela Ranch, with Kylie Carter, Vail Collins, and Kelsey Love Thomas, but she also won the World’s Greatest Horsewoman title.  At this year’s main event, she will be reunited with her Espuela Ranch teammates, as well as on a second team, riding in honor of her grandmother, Roxie Blunk, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The daughter of world champion cutting horse trainer and National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame member Shannon Hall, Whitney Hall is an integral part of her family’s Quarter Circle 99 Ranch in Loco, Oklahoma, and she competes in cutting and reined cow horse competition.  The Halls tend approximately 850 cows and pasture 500 to 600 Mexican steers during the summer, while also raising horses for the ranch and performance events.  

The 2022 Art of the Cowgirl champion ranch rodeo team was Espuela Ranch: Whitney Hall, Kelsey Love Thomas, and sisters Vail Collins and Kylie Carter.

As a teenager, Hall started competing on ranch rodeo teams with her father, wielding the branding iron.  She competed in her first all-women’s ranch rodeo in college and says she “figured out real fast that was what I wanted to do.” She’s competed on teams in the WRCA, WRRA and at Art of the Cowgirl.  She’s currently serving on the WRCA Board of Directors.  

“Ranch rodeo is empowering for women,” she explains.  “It shows that we are out there roping and caring for cattle just like the men and can compete at the same level as them.  Even though it’s competitive, we’re all working toward the same goal of proving ourselves and preserving Western heritage, and we push each other.” 

Hall’s Espuela teammates, sisters Kylie Carter and Vail Collins, are sixth-generation California ranchers and help on their family’s organic beef operation in Woody, California.  Carter has two children—Brix, 6, and Blanche, 5—while Collins and her husband, Laramie Collins, welcomed a son, Spade Vandy, last September.

The siblings started competing in local team branding and ranch rodeo events when they were young then went on to high school and college rodeo.  After college, they each left the ranch for a short time but found their way back.  Having ridden together all their lives gives them a competitive edge over teams with members who are from different states and can’t practice or work together.

“My sister and I grew up working together and we know what each other is thinking and can read each other without saying much,” says Carter.

Ranch rodeo is a family-friendly sport, and it’s not uncommon at all women’s events to see husbands, boyfriends, and parents saddling horses, videoing, babysitting, coaching, and cheering from the sidelines.

“My parents are our biggest fans and go with us everywhere to take care of the kids and to make sure we’re able to stay focused and keep our heads in the game,” says Carter, adding that her significant other, Camren Boyce, and her brother-in-law are a huge part of their support system.

The competition draws cowgirls to all women’s ranch rodeos, but the camaraderie keeps them coming back.  

Collins adds, “It’s kind of fun to reverse rolls and see the dads on the sidelines cheering on the moms.  But you also see that in our day-to-day life.” 

Leaving the ranch takes preparation and coordinating friends, relatives, or neighbors to lend a hand while the family is gone.

“You can prep as much as you want and as soon as you drive through the gate you pass by cattle that just got out,” points out Collins.  “You can batten down the hatches, but things still happen, and it never fails it’s when you’re on vacation.”

“There are a lot of sacrifices made by family members for us to get to go,” Carter explains.  “We have extended family that helps make sure things go smoothly.  In the spring it’s easy for us to get away because the cattle are pretty much self-sufficient.  In the summer it’s harder, because we have to check waters every other day.  In January, we’re pretty much done calving and the grass is starting to grow, so we can all usually go to Art of the Cowgirl.”

Ranch rodeo is also a family affair for Bailey Bachman of Bruneau, Idaho, who competes in the WSRRA and on a ranch rodeo team with her mother, Carmen Buckingham, at Art of the Cowgirl.  Bachman and her fiancé, Jim Berrett, live and work on her parent’s cow-calf operation.  Berrett starts colts for the ranch and cow horse and cutting competition.  Bachman fills in where she can, but their 1½-year-old daughter, Jolene, keeps her occupied these days.  She also enjoys competing in team roping and breakaway roping.  She has been on champion ranch rodeo teams at the WSRRA National Finals and Art of the Cowgirl.

“It’s really fun to get something done as a team,” she says.  “We’ve always been super competitive, and we enjoy competing against other women and good horses.  Art of the Cowgirl brings together some of the greatest girls in ranch rodeo and people who want to support them.”

Always About Horses

Most of the events at all women’s ranch rodeos resemble real-life ranch work, except the cowgirls are working under the pressure of the time clock and handling cattle faster than they would at home.  They rely on cow-savvy horses, ranching intuition, and innate horsemanship and stockmanship skills to work efficiently.

Though the women are highly competitive, they make light of things that go wrong and come back stronger the next time. 

“We get to put what we work on all the time to the test,” says Carter.  “It’s fun to challenge yourself and your horses.  We have nice ranch horses we also use for rodeos, and they have talents like watching a cow and working a gate that we like to show off.  Ranch rodeo keeps them on their toes and makes them versatile to the point they can change what they’re doing at any moment.  My horses get gentle because they’re put in different situations and asked to do things they aren’t at home.”

“Who doesn’t get excited about competition and horses,” declares Collins.  “It’s always about horses.  The first thing we did when we came from the hospital with Spade was put him on a horse and let him touch it.”

Third-generation Oklahoma rancher Becca Gagan relies on horses for every aspect of her life on her family’s cow-calf and yearling operation, Lazy Rafter Slash, in Lenapah, Oklahoma.  She works with her parents, Burr and Theresia Gagan, and four siblings: Beth, E.J., Sarah, and Helen.

“All we know how to do is work!” she says.  “I went to college for equine and ranch management at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College on a horse judging scholarship.  It was the perfect trail for me to take, because I ended up right where I wanted to be.”

She rides horses for champion breakaway ropers such as Jackie Crawford, Lari Dee Guy, and Taylor Munsell, as well as horses her family raises.   

“I’d rather be on a horse every day than driving a tractor or water truck,” she says.  “I crave horses and get up every morning and saddle at least three or four, anything from 2- to 10-year-olds.  

She takes pride in using the same horses on the ranch and in the ranch rodeos.  

“Being able to make your own horses at the ranch and take them to town and compete on them is something I strive for,” she says.  “If you’re not aiming to win a top horse award at a ranch rodeo, then you’re not serious about being there.  A horse is more than a tool, he’s a companion, an animal that trusts you.  To take him and do all kinds of events on him is impressive to me.”

Like Hall, Gagan started competing in ranch rodeos when she was 14 on her father’s WRCA men’s teams.  She didn’t start roping competitively until 2015, and in 2016 she won the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year in heeling.  In October, she and her Vaqueras Locas teammates—Cody Brown, Whitney Hall, and Mariann Clarke—won their first WRRA championship and will be competing together at Art of the Cowgirl.  She’s also excited that her younger sister, Helen, will be on a team as well.

“We grew up watching our family compete at ranch rodeos, and when you meet other people who want to be in it, it fills my soul with joy because it’s something we take pride in doing,” she says.  “I like Art of the Cowgirl because there are women from all over and they have different styles and traditions.  I’ve made good friends there, and there are some good cowgirls competing on nice horses, so you have to have your head on straight.  I’m a competitive person, and win, lose, or draw, I’m happy to be there.”

To prepare for ranch rodeos, Gagan not only uses her horses on the ranch but also tunes them on cattle and breakaway roping in the arena.  She also lifts weights and exercises to keep herself in good mental and physical shape.  

“I’m always striving to make myself and my horses better,” she says.  “Any time I leave the ranch I’m usually going to a ranch rodeo, roping, or to learn something.” 

Even when things get fast in the ranch rodeo, horsewomen like the first World’s Greatest Horseman winner Kelsey Love Thomas rely on their horsemanship and stockmanship skills to work cattle with precision and efficiency.

Cowgirl Callings

As the horse and ranching industries evolve into the future, these ranch cowgirls don’t intend to leave their family operation, but rather expand in different directions with open minds.  Carter and Collins agree that they will stay on the ranch, but they also recognize that they will need to consider ways to keep the operation sustainable into the future.  

“Family ranches in general need to adapt and roll with the times and come up with ways to supplement [their income],” says Collins.  “Maybe it’s something that will let people come to the ranch and see how we operate.  It’s time to think outside the box.”

Hall is building a house on her family ranch but is open to the idea of taking on more land and cattle someday, and would like to raise and train more performance horses.  

“If God gave me one calling in life, it’s ranching,” she says.  “I’m so blessed to get to be on this ranch, but if there was a place that would be more economical and efficient for us, I’d take it.  I’d like to have more cows and show in more cow horse events and try rope horse futurities on ranch-raised horses.”

Gagan’s goals echo her friend and fellow cowgirl Hall’s.  

“I have my own cow-calf herd and I’d like to take in more outside horses and have my own place to do it, but still help my parents,” she says.  “I’d like to take outside horses and make them into arena horses.”

No matter what direction the cowgirls go, their paths will always lead to all women’s ranch rodeos.