“I rode my first horse on a bet,” admitted World Champion cowgirl Dorothy Morrell in 1917. “That I am champion woman rider of the world today was due to an accident, or rather a dare.” At the age of twenty-four Dorothy attended a wild west exhibition in Fresno and was mesmerized by the women bronc riders. A cowboy spectator named Skeeter Bill Robbins, who was seated next to her at the event, bet she could ride one of the broncs. Skeeter had met Dorothy in Montana and witnessed her extraordinary riding skills. Even after she told him she’d never ridden a bucking horse in her life, Skeeter insisted she had what it took and dared her to try it. Dorothy reluctantly agreed.
The mustang’s name was Lillian Russell. “When I was fairly seated someone gave a whoop and the horse bowed its back and began to lunge,” she told a newspaper reporter years later. “With every impact there was a terrific jolt and I thought that every bone in my body would be thrown out of joint. Had it not been for Skeeter though, I think I surely would have been thrown. ‘Every time that cayuse hits the ground,’ he told me, ‘Raise your hat high and when he comes up hit him between the ears.’ The advice saved the day, for it kept me erect and well forward and going with the animal when he was in the air. That’s all there is to riding a bronc.”
Born Caroline Eichhorn in Russia in 1888, Dorothy immigrated to Canada with her family in 1889 and settled in Winnipeg. She came to the United States in 1912 and for several years lived near Helena, Montana. She learned to ride working as a mounted mail carrier for the Blackfeet Indians.
Shortly after accepting Skeeter’s bet and realizing she could indeed ride bucking broncos, Dorothy embarked on a career with the rodeo. She signed on with the 101 Ranch Show and there perfected the art of riding fractious horses. In 1914, she won the title of Women’s World Champion Bucking Horse Rider at Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo and married Skeeter Robbins. Skeeter was also a bronc rider and the couple traveled together participating in rodeos from Dallas to London.
Dorothy and Skeeter spent time in Hollywood during the mid-1920s, where they worked as horseback riding extras and stunt doubles on several Western films. They also performed in vaudeville acts and in circuses. Skeeter was killed in a car accident in 1933. Dorothy was in the vehicle with him and was seriously injured. She returned to the rodeo circuit the following year winning awards in trick riding and roping and relay racing.
When Dorothy retired from professional riding, she returned to Canada where she enrolled in college and eventually became a nurse.
“I love being a cowgirl,” she told a reporter when she first started riding in rodeos. “That, perhaps, is because I love horses – horses, and babies. I often wish I could be a horse. Of course, I have been a baby once and therefore have no desire to be a baby again. But I would dearly love to be a horse!”
Dorothy Morrell died in Ontario in 1976 at the age of eighty-eight.
To learn more about the remarkable women whose names resounded in rodeo arenas across the nation in the early twentieth century read the new book Along Came a Cowgirl: Daring and Iconic Women of Rodeos and Wild West Shows by Chris Enss.