Sherri Cervi and Stingray winning the 2013 WNFR barrel race.……

More than a half–century ago, 38 cowgirls, frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women in the rodeo universe, banded together in a way that only true cowgirls can, and created a solution for the problem they faced.  These women founded the Girl’s Rodeo Association (GRA), and the rodeo world was never the same again.

In a sport dominated by men, the cowboys’ female counterparts often get lost in the shuffle. While many rodeo fans associate the event of barrel racing with “pretty women on fast horses,” the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) as it became known in 1981, proves these cowgirls have exactly what it takes to own the arena.

A look back in time:

The WPRA—the oldest women’s sports association in the United States and the only one governed entirely by women—was formed in 1948 when its 38 founding mothers, all ranch women, came together in San Angelo, Texas.  The goal:  to create an organization dedicated to the promotion and advancement of women in the sport of rodeo.  These cowgirls wanted to add a splash of color and femininity to the rough–and–tumble sport of rodeo, and they did just that—all while keeping the same competitive pace as the cowboys they rode beside.

The earliest pioneers of the GRA were ropers, bronc riders, and barrel racers that had become “fed up with a system which did not grant them competitive opportunities in the arena and, when it did, operated under unfair conditions,” as it is noted in the WPRA’s historic records. 

The original Women’s Professional Rodeo Association began with 74 original members, 60 approved contests, and a total payout of $29,000. 

Today’s WPRA:

Taylor Jacob setting a new arena record at the Thomas & Mack center during the WNFR.

Today, the fast-paced event of barrel racing dominates the WPRA, although the Association’s roping events are certainly not something of the past. 

The majority of the WPRA’s barrel racing events are held in conjunction with Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) events. 

WPRA barrel racers compete for millions of dollars each year, culminating in 12 circuit finals rodeos held throughout the country and the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo held in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, every April. In addition, the top 15 cowgirls are invited to compete at the PRCA Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR), one of the world’s most prestigious rodeos, held in Las Vegas each December.

Championship and world title opportunities don’t end there, however.

The Association remains dedicated to honoring its heritage by hosting the WPRA World Finals Rodeo in Waco, Texas, in October. 

At the World Finals, the WPRA crowns world champions in tie down roping, team roping and breakaway roping.

In addition to its roping events, the WPRA has formed new divisions to promote continuous growth in the women’s rodeo industry and nurture cowgirls just coming of arena age. 

Top professional barrel racer Fallon Taylor competing at the NFR.

Since 2007, the WPRA has crowned a Junior World Champion Barrel Racer through its Juniors division, a section exclusively for ladies under the age of 18. 

The Association also crowns champions in their Futurity and Derby divisions, which are designed for young horses in their first years of competition.

The Association is governed by a 14-member Board of Directors and officers of President and Vice-President, all elected by popular vote of the membership.  The modern membership is spread across the entire United States, as well as several Canadian provinces, and even Australia. 

Partnership like no other:

Immediately after its inception, the historic GRA began a partnership with the PRCA (RCA, as it was known then). 

“It added glamour and femininity to their rodeo,” explains current WPRA president Carolynn Vietor.  “It was a crowd-pleaser from the very beginning.”

Vietor added that, at the time, professional rodeo was being presented to a new, more mainstream, audience who was looking for an additional sense of flair and showmanship that was missing from traditional rodeo events. 

Mary Walker competing at the NFR.

Virtually all PRCA rodeos today offer WPRA co-sanctioned barrel racing.  In addition, all WNFR barrel race qualifiers come from the rankings of the WPRA, an added bonus that is unmatched by other barrel racing associations around the country.

Cowgirl’s paradise:

The Association is very clear in its goals and objectives.  Each member receives a rule book, the governing publication which has laid many a debate to rest over the years, and the very first page details precisely what hopes the WPRA holds for its members.

“The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association has been formed for the following purposes,” it reads. “To organize the female professional rodeo contestants for their mutual protection and benefit; to raise the standards of cowgirl contests so they shall rank among the foremost American sports.

“To work for the betterment of conditions and of rules governing rodeo events.”

These aspirations have not been altered since the Association’s birth in 1948, Vietor noted. 

Despite an ever-growing member base and expanding liberties for those members, the WPRA’s officers have dedicated themselves completely to continuing the traditions, as well as the ambitions, of the GRA’s founders.

Barrel racer Charmayne James’ horse lost his bridle while competing at the NFR; the team completed the run without the bridle!

“We are providing more opportunities for our members and those keep expanding,” the WPRA president credited. 

Vietor also explained that these goals aren’t limited to those chasing trophy buckle dreams.

“We are providing all of our membership, from the grass roots, to those wanting to qualify for the WNFR, those opportunities,” she corrected.

Whether a cowgirl’s personal aspirations are to have the fastest run at a weekend barrel race or to compete at the Thomas & Mack in the WNFR, Vietor says the WPRA covers all aspects of the competitive rodeo world.

“We provide competition for women only, creating a level playing field,” she added.  “Due to our relationship with the PRCA, we are able to compete at the greatest rodeos in the world.”

In working with the PRCA and many independent rodeo committees for many years, the Association has established a level of equality to prize money and fairness of competition rules, all while still maintaining the glamour, style, and femininity the WPRA has become known for. 

The 1950 GRA Board of Directors.

This emphasis on fashion, appearance, and design has been a cornerstone of the Association since the very beginning, when members were encouraged to stray from mainstream denim jeans and lackluster blouses to more stylistic clothing, which better drew the audience’s eye.

In hopes of promoting its members’ ability to express themselves through fashion, the WPRA offers the “Jerry Ann Taylor Award” at each WNFR for the qualifying barrel racer who most exemplifies their personal style and beauty at the National Finals Rodeo. 

While personal flair is certainly an identifying feature of the WPRA, this is not to say that these cowgirls can’t hold their own with the toughest of cowboys. 

The WPRA is “made up of women with many backgrounds,” Vietor explained, noting members come from every walk of life, from the ranch world to the boardrooms of corporate America.   “We have all come together for the love of the sport of barrel racing.”

Some of these women head their own companies, like barrel racer Fallon Taylor, whose brand “Dynasty Equine” offers an array of fashionable products for the style–conscious cowgirl.  Taylor’s retail brand “Ranch Dress’n” purveys clothing, accessories, equine performance supplements, tack, and everything in between.

Shada Brazile competing in barrel racing at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

On another end of the spectrum, Sherry Cervi, was born and raised on the range and continues the traditional lifestyle,  breaking and training many high-caliber horses.

And although the WPRA is known for champion barrel racing and adapting to members from every lifestyle and background imaginable, its offerings don’t stop there.

In the past, the WPRA has sanctioned women’s rough stock events, including bareback bronc and bull riding. Though those events have gone by the wayside as the Association continuously evolves and sharpens its focus on the roping and racing events, they remain a huge part of the WPRA’s history.

In addition, women’s roping—tie down, team roping, and breakaway roping—is a significant part of the women’s professional rodeo universe.  Successful ropers within the WPRA also have the chance to earn impressive purse money, with finals qualifiers earning tens of thousands of dollars each year.

As one can tell after reading this article, the WPRA has made a name for itself as the premier professional rodeo association for women.  As the membership, event lineup and prize money continue to grow, the Association’s future looks brighter—and faster—than ever. 

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(Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).