In Gay Rodeo, Women Can Compete With the Big Boys — and Big Bulls

When the chute opens, all 1,700 pounds of brindle bull burst out.
The animal spins, rears and kicks violently, as though his hindquarters are spring-loaded: He can’t dump his passenger fast enough. And within three seconds, the rider is flying to the ground, helmet-clad head hitting hard against the dirt, brown-and-white leather chaps slightly askew. Quickly surrounding the prone body, the bullfighters and other rodeo staffers tasked with providing protection against the still-kicking bull offer a human screen against anxious spectators, too.

After several tense moments, the rider pops up and fist-pumps the air as the crowd roars. Then the helmet comes off, and it’s easy to see that this toughie is no cowboy: It’s Char Duran, lady bull rider.

She’s limping slightly but smiling as the bullfighters escort her not only from the arena, but also from her last hope of scoring a buckle at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, hosted at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds every July by the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association.

Duran is a rare breed, one of the few women who competes in many of the rodeo’s “rough stock” events — including bull riding, steer and bronc riding, and steer wrestling — that have been either off-limits for women or, more recently, so dominated by men that women have a tough time qualifying for the competitions.

“There also aren’t a lot of places where women can compete, you know, so thank God for the gay rodeo.”

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“For a lot of reasons, there just aren’t that many women riding bulls or competing in rough stock,” says Duran, who’s 45 and 5’3”, and who rode her first horse 21 years ago, when she moved from California to Colorado. “There also aren’t a lot of places where women can compete, you know, so thank God for the gay rodeo.”

But this sanctuary might not exist for long. “We’re an aging group,” Duran explains. “Not only that, but being gay slowly seems to be becoming more acceptable for the younger generations. So it’s a catch-22 kind of thing, where it’s great that gays being in rodeo is more okay, but it’s still the only place where women can consistently ride rough stock. And, of course, there are still a lot of people who don’t know our history and why we’re an important part of rodeo.”

Here’s why: In a sport traditionally dominated by rugged Marlboro men, the gay rodeo not only doesn’t discriminate against women, but it doesn’t discriminate against men who are women or want to dress like women, or women who love women, or men who love men, or men who love women. All of them are eligible to vie for prize money and a championship buckle in any event.

“Every one of us has a sad or scary tale of being treated differently — and sometimes downright shitty — from being a part of rodeo,” Duran continues. “If not because of being gay, then because of being a woman. Neither one is particularly welcomed with open arms on the straight circuit, that’s for sure.”

Stories abound of tires being slashed, slurs verbalized or written with markers on cars, tack stolen. “It’s why so many of us have gravitated toward the gay rodeo,” Duran says. “It’s been like night and day in terms of feeling like you belong.”

Thirty-two years ago, Denver became the second city in the country
to host a gay rodeo (the first was held in Reno in 1976). The Colorado Gay Rodeo Association had formed in 1981, but it took two more years before organizers could find a venue willing to host “queers on steers,” a jokey term that Duran and fellow competitors on the gay-rodeo circuit say they’ve heard plenty and don’t find very funny.

Another two years later, five states with gay rodeos — Colorado, Arizona, Texas, California and Oklahoma — founded the International Gay Rodeo Association, with the intention of governing, sanctioning and supporting state and regional gay-rodeo efforts, as well as raising funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, an effort that quickly changed its focus to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The IGRA’s most prominent objective, however, was and continues to be providing a supportive and welcoming environment for everyone — gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or heterosexual — to compete in all rodeo events. That means not only that women can compete in rough stock, but that men can compete in events such as barrel racing and pole bending, which are women-only in professionally sanctioned rodeos — and everyone can do so in the gender with which they identify.

Gay rodeo features all the events of the straight circuit: the rough-stock events of bull riding, steer riding, steer wrestling and bareback bronc riding; the roping events of calf roping on foot, mounted breakaway roping and team roping; and the speed events, which include barrel racing, pole bending and flag racing. But gay rodeo also has bonus events, known as “camp,” which include wild drag racing, goat dressing and steer decorating.

“Goat dressing is a hoot,” says Suzanne Harding, a spectator at the Rocky Mountain Regionals, who’s watching competitors race to be the first to put a pair of tighty-whities on some not-entirely-thrilled goats. She and her boyfriend have been going to the gay rodeo outside Golden for the past five years. “We had a friend who competed a few years ago, and he doesn’t compete anymore, but we just got hooked on it,” she adds. “It’s a good time. It’s not the big commercial thing that the stock show is.”

“PBR isn’t going to bring down the standards just so we can let others play.”

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Still, the traditional events continue to be the big draw. The bull and steer riding are what get the people in the crowd off their feet, and they’re also what many rodeo competitors — gay or straight — find most appealing, too, for both the adrenaline rush and the enthusiasm of the spectators.

“ There’s nothing like bull riding,” says nineteen-year-old Ksenia Bachkina, who is straight, a resident of Arvada and a competitor on the gay-rodeo circuit. “The adrenaline, the crowds yelling and cheering you on, that feeling of it’s just you and the bull. Of course, it’s also very scary, but that’s part of what makes it special. It’s not like anything else.”

Bachkina won the world-championship steer-riding competition at the World Gay Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas in October 2015. Her first ride on a steer was at the Denver rodeo last summer, and she was such a natural talent that she was a favorite to win in Vegas.

“I covered the first steer in a little more than eight seconds,” Bachkina says, using the rodeo lingo for staying on an animal for the minimum time necessary to be considered for championship contention. Gay-rodeo rules, however, require only six seconds to cover. “The second steer was eleven seconds, though, because I was having so much fun I just stayed on.”

Tall and lanky, with icy blue eyes, curly blond hair and a pierced nose, Bachkina looks more like a competitor for America’s Next Top Model than rough-stock rodeo. “I’ve always wanted to bull-ride,” she says. “Ever since I was little, I told everyone, ‘Someday, I’m going to do this.’”

She started out riding horses, competing and moving up the ranks of the Westernaires, a Golden-based horse-drills organization. A friend in the Westernaires competed in gay rodeo, and when Bachkina turned nineteen and was old enough, she signed up, too. “I could have gone toward WPRA,” she explains, referring to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. “But that’s just barrel riding, and I want to compete in rough stock and against men, too. It’s more cool, for sure, but it also makes you better.”

The WPRA, headquartered in Colorado Springs, was formed in 1948 as the Girls Rodeo Association, with a goal of advancing women in rough stock. In 1981, the same year the Colorado Gay Rodeo started, the name was changed to reflect a more mature mindset; some of the rough events were also eliminated, including bull riding. While the WPRA partners with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and other sanctioning bodies in various rodeos around the world, today its primary focus is barrel racing, along with team roping, sidearm roping and breakaway roping. According to the WPRA’s Ann Bleiker, the last time the organization crowned a female bull-riding champion — or sanctioned rough-stock events for women at all — was in 2008. The switch was motivated by “lack of interest, on the part of members and participants,” she says.

Just south of WPRA headquarters, the Professional Bull Riders was founded in Pueblo in 1992, when a group of hard-core riders — including three-time world champion Tuff Hedemen, who has since changed his allegiance to the newer, Texas-based Championship Bull Riding — broke from the PRCA to form an organization devoted solely to all aspects of bull riding, including improving the stock. Women are allowed to compete in this group — and PBR dares them to try.

“Our bulls are considered athletes, just as the riders are,” says Denise Abbott, senior director of public relations for PBR. “They’re bred and trained to be bigger, stronger bulls, so the reason they buck the way they do and are so good is the science behind it. So between the bulls and the riders, we’re offering the best of both.”

So far, there have been only two women, both from California, able to compete at the PBR level. Sarah Bradley was the first, in 2006, followed by Kaylynn Pellam in 2011. Neither made the eight seconds. A few other women are regularly involved with the PBR, but only as stock contractors — the people who breed, raise, train and transport the animals for the competitions.

And the PBR isn’t about to change rules, such as lowering the cover time, for women. “If I went to an NFL game and the lesser guys were playing so that everyone could play, well, I would feel ripped off,” Abbott says. “PBR isn’t going to bring down the standards just so we can let others play.”

Women have been doing much more than playing for more than a century. Before Annie Oakley was starring in Wild West shows, shooting and riding in the same entertainment as the men, women had been working alongside men on ranches: riding, roping, running fence.

And when rodeos became official events in the second half of the nineteenth century, women were there. They competed in the first Cheyenne rodeo, and the word “cowgirl” has been applied to women since as early as 1893, according to Heidi Thomas’s Cowgirl Up!: A History of Rodeoing Women.

In 1904, Colorado cowgirl Bertha Kaepernick-Blancett’s trailblazing bronc ride at Cheyenne Frontier Days launched women into competitive rodeo. Female competitors became a fixture in professional rodeos around the country, competing in rough stock, trick riding and relay races. According to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, the 1920s produced more female world champions than any time since.

At that time, a third of the country’s professional rodeos featured women, but in 1928, Cheyenne Frontier Days dropped women from competition entirely because of safety concerns. The next year, saddleback bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll died after her foot got caught in the stirrup and a horrified arena at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon watched as the horse dragged her around. In 1933, bronc rider Marie Gibson died after her skull was fractured when her horse collided with another horse on the way out of the arena.

That last incident prompted rodeo promoters nationwide to begin banning women from competing in rough stock. Even the notion of reducing the time a woman contestant was required to “cover” from eight seconds to six didn’t assuage safety concerns: Women were just banned from the tough stuff altogether. “Remember, there was a time when people thought distance running or marathons were too strenuous or difficult for women,” says Jim Bainbridge, manager of public relations for the PRCA, “and, well, that’s turned out to be absolutely false.”

In the 1990s, the PRCA began opening rough-stock competition to women again — as long as they played by the same rules as the men. “It’s a matter of want to, not can do, so that if you have a desire to do this and excel at it, then go for it,” explains Bainbridge.

But not only does competing against men require real skill, it’s expensive. Today, in order to compete in PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, women must become card-carrying members. A permit costs $300 and allows the holder to compete in PRCA rodeos until they earn $1,000 in prize money. Then it’s time to buy a card for $500, which allows the competitor to enter the national finals and enter any of the 623 rodeos PRCA sanctions; the cardholder is then a member as long as he or she participates in rodeo. Annual dues are $500, and entry into the rodeos starts at $100 for small, local affairs and goes up into the thousands.

“Once you have your card, then you’ve proven yourself,” Bainbridge says.
And women are beginning to prove themselves. In 1995, Polly Reich, now 53 and living in Fort Collins, became the first woman to compete against men in professional bull riding, paving the way for 22-year-old Maggie Parker, a Michigan resident who in 2012 became the first female bull rider to win money against men since Reich’s days, and British Columbia’s Kaila Mussell, 35, who in 2001 became the first woman in North America to qualify to compete against men in professionally sanctioned saddle bronc riding since the 1940s.

For the most part, though, over the past seventy years, women have either had to form their own organizations or remain in the amateur ranks in order to be a real presence in rodeo.

Except as rodeo queens, that is.

“I’m a queen, all right,” says Michael Deherrera-Villarini. “I’m Miss Colorado Gay Royalty 2016.”

Like most traditional rodeos, the CGRA sponsors an annual royalty competition — a contest replicated once a year on the international level, as well — but there are some differences from the traditional model. The four sashes available, for example: Mr., for men presenting as men; Miss, for drag queens; Ms., for women presenting as women; and Mster, for drag kings.

Also, while gay-rodeo royalty applicants do get points for horsemanship, they are far more critically judged on their ability to represent gay rodeo — interview questions focus on gay-rodeo history and diplomacy — and to fulfill fundraising requirements.

Of course, both traditional and gay rodeos take appearance into account. Even in gay rodeo, Western wear is more important than gowns — though evening attire is a factor during the gay rodeo’s version of the talent portion of the competition, where Deherrera-Villarini shone at lip-synching.

After winning a title, members of the gay-rodeo royalty court are tasked with fundraising for a year; they also target one or more charities of their choosing and then host events to meet a required $1,000 minimum contribution to the fundraising pool.

Deherrera-Villarini competed for the “Miss” title as Yolanda Deherrera, and appears at rodeos and other functions as both. “In Denver this past year, I was Yolanda on Saturday and Michael on Sunday,” he explains. Yolanda often sports a bouffant hairdo and favors bold eye shadow and bright, shiny fabrics; Michael has salt-and-pepper hair and tends toward Colorado outdoorsy — fleece and T-shirts and long plaid shorts. His Western wear, however, is “full-on leather from head to toe.”

“Being versatile is a plus,” Deherrera-Villarini says. “And you try to think outside of the box for your fundraisers. I’m thinking of hosting an amateur boxing match, with me in drag as the ‘ring girl.’”

Since 2001, when the IGRA began recording the amounts, gay rodeo nationally has raised $308,641 for charities, from Ronald McDonald House to regional rodeo schools to Deherrera-Villarini’s pick, the Shining Stars Foundation, which helps those affected by childhood cancer and hosts an annual ball for kids who can’t make it to prom.

The local associations and rodeos on the gay circuit are entirely volunteer-run, and the IGRA employs just one part-time paid administrative assistant to support the thousands of volunteers who help run regional and national rodeos. The entry fee for most events is $25, but the prize money is comparatively smaller than at mainstream rodeos, with purses in the $2,500-to-$5,000 range.

“I’ll represent at a total of four rodeos that I have to fund entirely myself,” Deherrera-Villarini explains. “Then I’ll go to Vegas for the international finals, and if I win, the year of fundraising, this time for $2,500, starts all over.”

While women had to fight their way back into rodeo,
gay contestants had to fight to be acknowledged at all. And now they’re fighting to keep their events relevant in a world that’s become much more accommodating.

In 1982, the National Gay Rodeo finals attracted more than 10,000 spectators; Joan Rivers was the grand marshal. Since then, attendance has steadily declined, although regional rodeos have reported ups and downs over the years.

At one point, there were sixty gay-rodeo associations across the country, and while International Gay Rodeo Association president Bruce Gros, who lives in Denver, says that new ones are still being created, that number had dropped as low as 21 a couple of years ago and now sits at 28, counting outposts in Canada. Even the Cowboy State, Wyoming, lost its gay rodeo in 1998.

CGRA president Richard Valdez says that gay rodeo has progressed from being ostracized to being celebrated for its uniqueness to being just another rodeo. “It’s getting harder to get folks to come out,” he explains. “At one time, gay rodeo was such a novelty that people had to come out and watch it, but I think that younger people are just so much more accepting these days and have so many other things competing for their attention that they’re like, ‘Meh, rodeo.’”

And some rodeos are doing well. The professional rodeo is an important part of the National Western Stock Show, which has been held in Denver every January since 1906 and last year boasted its second-highest total attendance in fifteen years, attracting 682,539 spectators over the sixteen-day event. Like the IGRA, NWSS raises money for charity; in 2015, the funds from special events such as the Junior Livestock Auction and the Citizen of the West dinner brought in nearly a million dollars, which will go toward scholarships for students in Colorado and Wyoming hoping to pursue livestock management, rural veterinary medicine and other agriculturally oriented careers.

“Younger people are just so much more accepting these days and have so many other things competing for their attention that they’re like, ‘Meh, rodeo.’”

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In comparison, the CGRA’s Rocky Mountain Regional drew 680 paid participants in 2015. The costs of putting on the gay rodeo are constantly an issue, too. “It depends on the size and scope,” Valdez says, “including the kind of facility, but we’re talking about $60,000 for a smaller rodeo and about $130,000 for a bigger one like Denver. Most come in at around $110,000.”

The funding — which is needed for things like stock contracts, venue rental and insurance — comes from sponsorships, fundraising efforts and alcohol and food sales, not contestants. “That goes to prize money and administrative costs, for the most part,” Valdez says.

For competitors, the costs can be prohibitive. Not only do they have to pay for their own animals or renting someone else’s, but they need to cover association membership dues and rodeo entry fees, training, equipment and attire, and travel expenses.
That’s why there are fewer full-time rodeo cowboys — gay or straight. The PRCA reports that by 1985, half of its competitors had never worked on a cattle ranch, and while back then a third were college-educated, that number has gone up to more than half, with many working full-time day jobs in unrelated industries.

“It’s actually more common for someone to compete in rodeo as a side thing,” says Bainbridge. “The cost, the time spent on traveling around — those really add up.”

The larger purses on the straight circuit make the costs easier to absorb. What might help gay rodeo attract more attendance and participation — and thus larger purses — is more exposure, and Valdez says they are trying to come up with ideas. “We’ve been looking at changing up the events, adding things like live music and making it more like a music festival, which is the way our Canada rodeos do it,” he says.

Being invited to exhibit at the National Western Stock Show would go a long way, too. The CGRA has bought eighty tickets annually to the NWSS for more than a decade. Valdez, who has been with the CGRA off and on since 2000, says he doesn’t know if the group has ever formally approached the NWSS about participating, but thinks it would be a smart idea to reach out.

Other minority groups, such as Hispanic Heritage Day and the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, have been a part of Denver’s stock show “for at least twenty years,” says Paul Andrews, president and CEO of the NWSS. The MLK Jr. African American Rodeo came on board in 2006 for the stock show’s 100th anniversary.

Andrews, who has been with the stock show since 2010, says he doesn’t know, either, if there has ever been communication between the CGRA and the NWSS, but “we evaluate every opportunity that is presented to see if the business model makes sense for us, and then we determine a direction,” he explains. “They would have to come to us with a proposition for a rodeo here.”

Char Duran’s yard in Aurora looks like many others
in this half-urban, half-rural part of the area: She has a twenty-something-year-old horse, Snowball, and a miniature pony named Twinkie; they meander around an acre of dirt dotted with sagebrush and weeds, surrounded by chain-link fence that separates them from the cars zipping past. The notable difference between her yard and her neighbors’ is a bull-riding practice barrel, fashioned from a fifty-gallon drum, welded steel pipes and other hardware, some of it held together with duct tape.

Duran wraps her gloved hand around the reinforced handle and sets the barrel in motion, bucking back and forth. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it gives her the chance to work on her recovery and run drills.

In the 1990s, Duran was dating a woman who competed on the gay-rodeo circuit, and during a visit to the Arizona Gay Rodeo in Phoenix in 1996, she got roped into volunteering on the chutes, pushing the animals out and closing the gates, which provided her first real taste of rough stock.

“The people at the rodeo there, I think they could see that the whole thing just excited the hell out of me,” she remembers. “They kept saying, ‘We’ll see you back out here,’ and I said, ‘No way.’”

Six months later, Duran was riding steers, which she did for two years — enjoying it so much that she decided to try bulls. “This straight guy, Mike West, he was a competitor on the gay circuit, and he was really sweet and took me under his wing,” she explains. “He told me that I wasn’t going to get better at it just going to rodeos and falling off, so he took me to a practice pen and then put me on my first bull.”

The first time was so exhilarating that she was hooked. “That adrenaline rush is like nothing else, and it’s there every time,” she says. Her day job is as a mechanic for Hertz at Denver International Airport, not far from her house, and she puts every extra dime and all of her vacation time into pursuing winning a buckle in the sport.

“That first time, I got thrown hard, but all I could think of was how much I wanted to try again,” says Duran, who in 2012 started Tough Bullriders, an organization dedicated to providing sponsorships to budding bull riders. “I knew as a woman, though, it was going to be tough for a lot of reasons. After I picked up my stuff from that first ride, as I walked back to the chute, I heard this guy say something to me, and I’ve never forgotten it.

“He said, ‘Welcome to bull riding, bitch.’”

Neither the comment nor the hard fall did anything to deter Duran from wanting to get right back on the bull. “I think that people either get up from their first bull and go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t ever want to do it again,’ or they jump up and are like, ‘What can I do better next time?’” Duran says.

Breana Cowart falls solidly in the second camp. A trombone player with the Boulder-based Eastern European folk-funk brass band Gora Gora Orkestar by night and a front-end developer by day, Cowart looks more like a nerdy Janelle Monáe — complete with pompadour, wire-rimmed glasses and a tendency toward button-downs topped with a plaid vest — than a rough-stock competitor. “I’m a woman, I’m gay and I’m black,” the 28-year-old Cowart points out. “That’s like three strikes against me as a bull rider.”

It was at Pepperdine University — an ideal choice for a woman who grew up in a conservative, religious family in Malibu, but not so much for someone working through her sexual orientation — that she first learned of rough stock and the gay rodeo. “I eventually came out at a Christian retreat, but I was really struggling with what I wanted to do with my life,” Cowart recalls. “One day I was trolling around on Netflix and I found this film about the gay rodeo, and I was like, ‘What?’ I locked myself in my room to make sure no one was watching me watching a gay rodeo, but it changed my life.”

The movie was GidyUp!: On the Rodeo Circuit, part of an MTV-sponsored documentary series that explores the gay lifestyle around the globe. GidyUp! followed a group of competitors on the IGRA circuit, and their ability to be in an accepting environment while pursuing their dreams resonated with this young woman looking for a way into the rodeo.

“It was always something I wanted to do,” Cowart says. “Growing up in L.A., you’d go to the Forum and other venues to see rodeo, and I would always drag my dad to see anything rodeo when it came to town. I said, ‘I can do that!’”

There wasn’t much opportunity, though, so the music major switched to art history, and in 2009 Cowart transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where she felt much more comfortable and not only tried out to be a “Ralphie runner” — the students who bring CU mascot Ralphie the Buffalo out onto the field each game — but also volunteered at her first gay rodeo, at the Rocky Mountain Regionals in Golden.

“I didn’t get the Ralphie-runner gig,” she says, “but the seed was planted. I was volunteering in the chutes and saw what was going on and how it worked, and I started thinking, ‘I want to ride bulls.’”

Cowart started with steers in June 2014, at an IGRA event in Santa Fe. Her first ride on a live steer was in competition — it was featured that November on the “Gay Rodeo” episode of This Is Life With Lisa Ling — and only reinforced her desire to compete in bull riding.

“Oh, man, that first time, it was amazing. I didn’t have any expectations; I was just thinking, ‘Get on, hold on, and try not to die,’” she says. “But you get so much adrenaline going, and I just loved it.”

Cowart has thought about entering the straight circuit, but she knows it will be a different environment from the inviting, nurturing one she’s been in. “Sure, I absolutely considered it from the start,” she admits. “But I don’t have any connection into that world whatsoever. I do know that in gay rodeo, from everything I have seen, the people there are more willing to help you, and there’s not this big macho thing going on. It’s such a community, and there’s just so much acceptance of who you are and what you want to do.”

She was surprised, then, when an old-school trainer from the straight circuit — male, conservative — who lives south of Castle Rock reached out last year to work with her. “He said, ‘You wanna ride bulls? Call me.’” She did, and still laughs about the time he gave her a riding vest with the Confederate flag sewn on the sleeve. “There was definitely room for him to be an asshole, but he has been so supportive and taught me so much.”

Like Cowart, Duran has been featured on the screen in conjunction with gay rodeo: in last year’s Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo, the first documentary by director Matt Livadary. In the film, Duran’s girlfriend of six years, Sherry Randall, can be seen holding her face in her hands, unable to watch Duran’s three-second ride. By the time Duran rode the brindle bull — ironically named Tigger — on that sweltering July day in Golden, Randall had hit the wall on worrying.

“I don’t even go anymore,” says Randall, who owns a bakery and cafe in Leadville. “I just can’t watch. All I ask is that she calls me to tell me she’s okay as soon as it’s over.”

Her fears aren’t unfounded. In the seventeen years since Duran started riding bulls, she has racked up an impressive number of injuries, which she cheerfully rattles off “from the ground up.” They include a right-ankle fracture bad enough to require two screws, tears in both knees that resulted in the replacement of her anterior cruciate ligaments, a bruised heart, a bruised lung, right-forearm fractures repaired with a plate and screws, fractures in her left arm that needed two rods and screws to fix, a broken collarbone (in three places), and a cracked front tooth.

After listing these, Duran laughs and adds, “Concussions, so many possible concussions. I’m not even sure how many.”
The potential for serious injuries and even death is higher for bull riding than it is for any other event in rodeo.

A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine in 2012 documented injuries in Australian rodeos: Fifty-two percent of bull-riding injuries involved limbs, while 15 percent were chest-related and 10 percent were brain injuries. A previous study in 2011 had found that the incidence rate of catastrophic injury from 1989 to 2009 was 9.45 per 100,000 rides, a rate that increased to 19.81 per 100,000 between 2007 and 2009. The incidence rate of fatality for the 2007-2009 study period was 7.29 per 100,000.

Perhaps the most famous rodeo fatality was the July 1989 death of bull rider and Professional Bull Riders National Champion Lane Frost, who was killed at age 26 during Cheyenne Frontier Days. (His life was memorialized in the biographical drama 8 Seconds.) After watching Lane die, his best friend and fellow bull rider, Cody Lambert, invented the protective vest that most professional bull riders now wear.

“There’s just no question about it, bull riding is dangerous,” Bainbridge says. “If you’re going to sit on a 1,500- to 2,000-pound animal that doesn’t want you there, and then you get thrown off, well, someone could get hurt, and it’s not likely to be the bull.”

The funny thing, though, is that of all the rodeo events, bull riding is particularly well suited to the size and weight of women.

“In things like steer wresting, that generally requires a certain amount of bulk, because you need somebody of great size and strength to be able to take a 600-pound steer to the ground,” Bainbridge explains. “But in bull riding, the men are always smaller and leaner, in the 140- to 150-pound range. So women fit right in.”

“You got this” is the “break a leg” of rodeo,
and that’s what each bull rider hears while climbing into the chutes. It’s the ultimate sign of support and encouragement.

“That’s all we want to know,” says Cowart. “That we’re gonna be able to get out there and go after our dreams.”

And there is some evidence that both women and gay men will be able to follow bigger dreams. CNN picked two men kissing at the IGRA national championship as one of its “75 Most Amazing Sports Moments” of 2015. Last year in New Mexico, an IGRA member-association flag flew for the first time at a PRCA-sanctioned rodeo.

“We didn’t compete under the official auspices of gay rodeo there,” the IGRA’s Gros explains, “but we were invited to fly a flag. That’s huge strides, and we’re hoping it bodes well for future events.”

For women bull riders, there are still issues of opportunity and training. “Even if we are embraced as competitors at all levels and against men, the fact is that there’s an age gap,” says Duran. “Boys can ride pretty much all the way through, but at the high-school and college level, women don’t get as much competition experience.”

Women can compete at some colleges that feature rodeo, and some can even compete in bull riding, but they are not allowed to compete at the high-school level; the National High School Rodeo Association bans females from competing in their events. “That keeps them from getting the same college scholarships that boys can get,” Duran points out.

But this month, for the first time since 2008, women riding steers will be featured at a PRCA-sanctioned rodeo, although in non-sanctioned specialty events. The Fort Worth Stock Show — coincidentally located in the same town as the National Cowgirl Museum — has invited Duran, Cowart and Bachkina to compete in conjunction with the show’s Cowboys of Color and the CBR-sanctioned Bull’s Night Out events.

Matt Brockman, publicity manager for the FWSS, confirms that the stock show supports the inclusion of women in the event — but they will compete against each other, not the men. “It was our decision to do something unique this year, something new and innovative that would generate excitement,” he says. “If it opens up an opportunity for women to compete in a sport they want to compete in, that’s great.”

Mandy Shipskey, who lives just outside of Fort Worth, was tasked with trying to track down at least eight riders in order for the event to be offered. “We are at our capacity of fifteen women now,” she confirms. “And there’s a waiting list of another fifteen.”

The pressure for the women to do well — and not get hurt — is high. “I feel like the whole world is going to be watching,” Duran says. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure this event goes great and prove that women belong here.”

Still, the FWSS could be a crucial stepping stone to the ultimate goal of competing in professional rodeos where everyone is welcome. “I’m going to get there,” Bachkina says. “I’m going to beat the men, and I’m going to win. And I’ll have the gay-rodeo circuit to thank.”

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner