Pioneer award winning rodeo performer. Such a title conjures up images of courage, stamina, and old-fashion grit. But Fannie Sperry was not only a plucky horsewoman. She was a forthright, attractive, and gentle lady, whose life revolved around her love of horses and remarkable skill with them.
On a Montana ranch in 1819, a little girl toddled out to the meadow creek where wild horses often came to drink, a long scarf trailing from her tiny fist. “I’m gonna catch me a white-face horsie,” the child announced. Fannie Sperry knew what she wanted. In 1912, at age 25, she won the title of Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.
Fannie, the fourth of five children, learned early how to catch, break, and train the wild horses that ran behind her parents’ homestead. After riding bucking horses at local roundups, she began her professional career in 1904 at age 17, racing thoroughbreds with a relay team known as the Montana Girls. Though Fannie wore the accepted ankle-length divided riding skirt when astride a bronc, the Montana Girls adopted long bloomer-like pants to facilitate their quick mounts and dismounts. The freedom of the then scandalous costume may have aided Fannie when she set a new national record for four-mile relay in 1907.
When the team disbanded, Fannie returned home to the hard work of ranching, riding seasonally at local exhibitions. She never hobbled her stirrups as most other women bucking horse riders did. She rode slick saddle, with stirrups loose, the same as the cowboys. Then in 1912, she was invited to become part of the first stampeded at Calgary, competing with top riders from all over the western states, Canada, and Mexico. Her spectacular ride on an outlaw bronc won her the world title.
In 1913, Fannie married Bill Steele, a cowboy clown devoted to the budding sport of rodeo. After she successfully defending her title in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that year, she and Bill put together the Powder River Wild West Show, featuring Fannie’s riding and a sharpshooting act in which she shot China eggs from Bill’s hand and a cigar from his mouth. For thirteen years they performed across the country, maintaining the highest standards in western skill exhibitions. They appeared before Theodore Roosevelt in New York and with Buffalo Bill Cody in Chicago.
The Steeles retired from rodeo in 1925 to begin dude ranching in the high timbered country west of Lincoln. To pack hunters into the mountains, Fannie became one of the first women in the state to receive an outfitting’s license. Childless, she lavished her attention on her horses, her family, friends, and guests. After Bill’s death in 1940, she managed the rigorous routine alone, riding horses well into her upper 70s, often trailing her string of pintos as far as eighty miles to winter pasture.
A charter member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Fannie lived nearly ninety-six years, persisting through all the obstacles and pressures that befall a woman who excels in a male domain. “I had the staying quality of a cockleburr,” she was fond of saying of her bronc riding. Her passion for life and her strength as a woman confirm that apt observation.