The four riders burst across the arena, lariats flying, in pursuit of the lone steer. One deftly “heads” the steer, looping a noose around the critter’s horns, and another then “heels” the hapless beast, shooting a lightning-fast loop under one of the animal’s hind feet, then drawing it taut.
With the steer caught betwixt and between, one of the other two riders flies from the saddle, whips out a chalk stick, and swipes a white line across its forehead before hoisting both hands in the air. “Twenty-two-oh-three,” booms the announcer, to admiring whoops from the crowd.
It’s an event called “doctoring,” meant to replicate how ranch hands must catch an animal to administer a shot or some other medication, a typical cattle-ranching chore. But these are no ordinary cowboys; in fact, they’re not cowboys at all, as evidenced by the long braids down the backs of their Western shirts, the blinged-out rear jean pockets, and their unmistakably feminine frames.
Today’s competition, the Women’s Ranch Rodeo Association (WRRA) Burnin’ Daylight Women’s Ranch Rodeo, held during the All-Around Ranch Rodeo at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth, comprises five typical cow handling skills: doctoring, tie down (mugging/stray gathering), sorting, trailer loading, and branding. Combined, the activities simulate the tasks ranchers face on an ordinary day, all the while reinforcing the safest and most humane ways to handle livestock.
The riders here—12 teams with four riders per team—will have today’s rodeo and five more summer rodeos to accumulate points leading up to the WRRA World Championship in Dodge City, Kansas, September 8-9.
Women’s ranch rodeo is a relatively young event, with the WRRA having been officially founded in 2005. It showcases the skills of day-in, day-out, working cowgirls in a field that’s dominated by men, highlighting the cooperation needed among a four-member team to execute tasks efficiently.
The WRRA team names range from the practical (Halsell Ranch, Lazy Pine Ranch, River Bend Ranch) and the saucy (Too Hard to Handle, Cowgirl Swank, Queen of Diamonds) to the gritty (Push Hard Cattle Company), whose grit earned them the 2016 Reserve World Champion title.
“It’s a pretty well-fitting name,” says Push Hard team member Billie Franks, with a laugh. “I call my teammates ‘my girls,’ as I’m 53 and still doing this. My team members are in their twenties; Jenna Stierwalt, her younger sister Sage Adams, and Neesa Smith. Becka Gagin filled in for Jenna in the June Burnin’ Daylight Rodeo, as she’d just had a baby in June.”
Franks may well be called “the Mother of the WRRA,” as she helped co-found the organization in 2005 and has continued to compete since then. In just 12 short years, the number of teams competing has blossomed from the original handful to more than 20 teams today, currently hailing from Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
“Back then, we’d usually find team members from neighboring ranches,” she says. “Now, we’re more likely to meet over the internet—through a text, a Facebook message, that sort of thing.”
With ages ranging from the teens into the fifties, these women all share great roping and riding skills, along with a unique cowgirl toughness. Ever try running up to a roped steer and laying it on its side? That’s essentially what “mugging” is. When you look at the competitors—and just like all women, they come in all shapes and sizes—it’s like an Olympic event in which both gymnasts and shot putters are expected to compete on a level playing field: And although you might think that some of the stouter, more muscular cowgirls would hold an advantage in throwing a steer, the wiry ones are just as adept, striking with lightning-fast, catlike grace at the exact split-second the animal is off-balance, opting to use the laws of physics over brute strength.
“We don’t have the upper body strength that men do,” says Franks, “so we have to use our brains to solve the problem.”
R. Harry Anderson, PhD., owner of Total Feeds, Inc., agrees. “I remember this one tie down/mugging when this little gal, maybe 110 pounds, bailed off her horse after her team member had headed the steer, and launched herself into the air, wrapping both her arms and her legs around that steer’s head,” he says. “No fear whatsoever. I always look forward to the tie down event, as it’s really enlightening to watch how these women work together. They use technique over brute strength to accomplish their tasks.”
Anderson, who served as emcee for the Burnin’ Daylight Rodeo, has sponsored the WRRA almost from the very beginning with Total Feeds. “I’m in love with the way they approach things, their finesse,” he says.
“I remember at one of the early WRRA rodeos, I won five bags of Total Equine,” Franks tells me. “Dr. Harry said ‘call me if you don’t see a difference in your horse.’ I was amazed at the difference it made, so I called him to tell him I wanted to be a dealer. Back in the early days, Dr. Harry would even come out and make deliveries with me. When you’re in the WRRA—whether as a competitor or as a sponsor—you’re like family; a true friend.”
Anderson notes that when he worked on the High Plains as an animal nutritionist, many of the large cattle processors preferred all-women teams for handling livestock. “The women handle the cattle in a very calm, humane manner,” he says, “and seems to better avoid a lot of the injuries to the cattle that the men incur when moving them through the chutes too quickly.”
A common thread through the teams is the sense of sisterhood the gals share, evidenced not only by the shouts of encouragement to their other team members, but often by shout-outs to the other teams, as well. That attitude, born of knowing each other’s total commitment to a way of life you cherish—through the bumps and bruises that life delivers along the way—put to work astride a seasoned ranch horse in a fast-paced timed event is the essence of Women’s Ranch Rodeo.
“What I love the most about Women’s Ranch Rodeo is the camaraderie,” Franks says. “Anyone of these girls would do anything for anyone else. Everyone wants to win, of course, but we have this strong connection that’s so much more powerful than the drive to win. We’re a minority; a dying breed: hard-working ranch women who can rope a steer, pull a calf, and pretty much handle anything that’s thrown in our direction.”
That’s the Cowgirl Way.
Whether you attend WRRA World Finals in Dodge City or watch the event online (check the Women’s Ranch Rodeo Association Facebook page on Sept. 8-9 for the live feed), here’s what you need to know:
There will be two full rodeos performed, and one short round. All teams will compete in the first two rounds, with the top 10 teams advancing to the short round. In addition, a wild card team will be chosen from each of the first two rounds’ tie-breaker event; the winner of the tie-breaker will be the wild card (if they are already in the top ten, it will move down the line).
(mugging/stray gathering): A steer will be let into the arena. The team will start behind a line. The judge will drop the flag to start time. The steer must be roped with a legal head catch and tied down. Time will be called when team and ropes are clear of the steer.
A steer will be let into the arena. The team will start behind a line. The judge will drop the flag to start time. The steer will be headed and heeled, then doctored with a chalk stick. Time will be called when the team member is clear.
A herd of cattle will be held at the opposite end of the arena behind a sort line. Time will start when the first team member crosses the sort line. Three consecutive numbered cattle will be sorted. Time will be called when all correct numbered cattle and members are across the line.
A herd of cattle will be held at the opposite end of the arena behind a sort line. Time will start when the first team member crosses the sort line. The trailer will be located along the side of the arena with a wing fence. Sort the called numbered cow out of the herd. Load cow in the front of the trailer and one horse in the back. Trailer will be road ready. Time will be called when all team members are in the designated area.
A herd of calves are contained behind a chalk line in a pen within the arena. The crew consists of a roper, brander, and two wrestlers. The ground crew (2 wrestlers & brander) may be exchanged. The team will brand 2 separate calves with legal catches. If illegal catch is made, the ground crew can take off the rope and calf re-roped. Time will be called when the last calf has been branded (flour is used to simulate branding) and the iron is back in the bucket.
THE WRRA WORLD FINALS
Dodge City, Kan., September 8-9, 2017