Have you ever wondered what the world would look like with women at the helm? I often have, and it was this curiosity that enticed me to a rural patch of Arizona - not much more than a corrugated metal barn and a few dusty paddocks by the roadside, really. Because here, a matriarchal microsystem has sprung forth from the desert, and there's a new sheriff in town.
She enters the floodlit stadium riding atop a handsome chestnut horse, arm protectively cradling a grandkid who sits buoyantly up front on her engraved leather saddle. Tammy Pate, founder of the Art of the Cowgirl festival, is here to talk to the crowd lining the creaky grandstand benches about running a thriving cattle ranch while raising a family. You can bet your bottom dollar it's the first time this topic has been aired at a rodeo.
Despite a long legacy of tenacious cowgirl folk heroes, including sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who stole the limelight at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, sixtysomething bucking bronco grandma Jan Youren, and the lesser-known Sue Pirtie Hayes, who was still snapping up trophies as a competitive bareback bull rider while eight months pregnant, women have more commonly been pushed to the margins of the rodeo scene.
Small wins were gained when the Women's Professional Rodeo Association formed in 1948, after cowgirl athletes grew tired of being reduced to sparkly beauty pageant hopefuls, or vying for trinket prizes such as cigarette cases in lieu of the hard cash splashed on their male counterparts, but, overall, this most American of sporting events remained cloaked under a veil of machismo. Fast forward to the present day and the limited options on the traditional rodeo circuit allow females to compete in just two categories: breakaway roping, in which riders lasso a stampeding calf, and barrel racing, a fast and furious, heart-thumping display of equestrian skill.
Bucking this culture, the Art of the Cowgirl is one of just a handful of championships taking place across the US where "women can participate in anything", Pate explains, joining me at the clanking steel bars of the ringside, just as the loudspeaker crackles abruptly to life, announcing the next event. A chaos of bewildered-looking calves is let loose into the arena, then shuffled neatly like a pack of playing cards into a pen by a couple of tag-teaming cowgirls. The air is thick with whoops, hollers and the earthy smell of barn animals, as the crowd, in wide-brimmed hats, squeezes thigh-to-thigh onto spectator benches.
The west has always been filled with strong women, but they’re now getting their stories heard
Having toyed with the idea of creating an all-female rodeo for over a decade, it took turning 50 to spur Pate into action. Raised on horseback in Montana, with a grandmother who could break a horse with the ease of baking a pie, Pate's mission was to celebrate the unsung women of the west, roping into the spotlight not only the daredevil cowgirls but also the silversmiths, braiders, saddlers and bootmakers who toil behind the scenes.
"I really wanted to give back and empower these women," Pate says, her soft voice barely audible above the muffled thunder of hooves. Now in its fifth year, the Art of the Cowgirl is a five-day affair held each January in the small town of Queen Creek, less than an hour's drive from the urban buzz of Phoenix or the polished marble lobbies of Scottsdale's ultra-luxe resorts.
The Art of the Cowgirl forms part of a broader focus on cowgirl culture currently emerging in Arizona. Dude ranches including the White Stallion and Tombstone Monument now offer female-focused packages, while renowned horsewoman Lori Bridwell runs a cowgirl college teaching participants the time-honoured skills of riding, roping and rounding up cattle. Once a year, the Smithsonian-affiliated Desert Caballeros Western Museum decks its walls with artworks highlighting western women's voices and perspectives for their celebrated Cowgirl Up! exhibition. "The west has always been filled with strong women, but they're now getting their stories heard," Pate reflects.
Back at the sage-scented desert and rusty barns of the Art of the Cowgirl, the rootsy line-up features not only rough-and-tumble drill team displays and the breakneck cattle-branding finals, but also demonstrations with a distinctively holistic flavour. On my debut rodeo day, I stumble across an equine therapy workshop. In the centre of the paddock, a cowgirl stands bathed in soul-warming sunshine, eyes closed and hand on heart, in silent communion with the horse standing amiably by her side.
I am relieved to be welcomed with tassel-fringed open arms at the rodeo, having quietly wondered if the real-deal ranchers would see straight through my hastily brought Stetson hat and Texas boots, my English accent marking me out as a cultural trespasser. It's this inclusive vibe that her festival strives for, Pate says. "When I was dreaming of a women's rodeo, this is exactly what I envisioned," she enthuses, as, in a moment of pure Americana, a dazzling cowgirl gallops into the arena to the soundtrack of The Star-Spangled Banner, a bedsheet-sized flag fluttering in the breeze. The audience rises to its feet in unison. Eyes filled with tears, Pate pauses for a beat before continuing: "My wish was always to create a place that felt safe and inspiring to uplift our community."
Another example of this rodeo's nurturing ethos is the Art of the Cowgirl mentoring scheme, where master horsewomen and craftspeople pass the old west baton down to the next generation. I head across the fair, passing the billowing smoke of a campfire gathering, beef tips in gravy simmering in a cast iron pot like a technicolour scene from frontier flick The Wild Bunch. A woman clad in double denim, the fringe of her flamboyant leather chaps shimmying in the wind, schools a teenager in the art of lassoing in front of a faded Pepsi truck, while, nearby, someone strums the melodic bars of an old country tune on a guitar.
Framed by stalls trading tufty Aztec rugs and handcrafted leather boots selling for around £8,000 a pop, I find Audre Etsitty, a Navajo cowgirl who was awarded a week-long Art of the Cowgirl fellowship, apprenticing under a world champion breakaway roper in Texas. "I grew up on a reservation in Rough Rock, Arizona, raised in a household where my grandfather was a traditional healer and a first-generation cowboy," the mother of three explains, her youngest child toddling nearby. At the tender age of nine, Etsitty swung into the saddle of junior rodeo and now competes on the Indian rodeo circuit. "It's a pretty big deal and culminates in Las Vegas with the Indian National Finals Rodeo, where all tribal nations in the US congregate."
Etsitty's heritage provides her with a particular slant on the role of women in rodeo, she feels. "My Native American community honours the matriarchy, so I haven't grown up with the view that rodeo culture is necessarily male-dominated. I guess I've always seen it as women calling the shots." Readjusting her turquoise satin necktie, she's quick to add that gnarly danger is ever present at the rodeo and shouldn't be taken lightly. "There's always a risk of injury with horses. I was at a barrel racing jackpot where a lady was crushed to death by a horse. The risks are serious," Etsitty warns, before scooping up her daughter and heading off to take her seat on a panel discussion about sisterhood and mentorship.
Glancing at the rolling horizon, I double-take with astonishment as it appears that a girl standing on two horses is stampeding towards me. On closer inspection, a girl standing on two horses is stampeding towards me. Kicking up dirt, Piper Yule, a rising young gun of America's rodeo scene, eases the neighing mares to a halt to say howdy before careering into the main arena for her grand finale performance. "I've made top five in pro rodeo for the last few years," she says proudly when I ask where she ranks in the rodeo hierarchy. "But the goal is to hone my act so it's less about smoke and mirrors, more about reflecting my spirit as a cowgirl and my horsemanship," she adds.
Just 12 years old, Yule is a fifth-generation cowgirl from the hardscrabble land of Southern Alberta, Canada. Her death-defying show has become the star act at big-ticket rodeos across the US, where, sequin jumpsuit glittering like a twirling disco ball, she vaults on and off her galloping steeds and hangs off the side of the saddle at bewildering right angles, occasionally clutching a blazing firework just to crank up the already palpable tension. Yule is known as a trick rider, the show ponies of the rodeo who combine acrobatic horseback stunts with the old-school spectacle of a big top circus act.
Today, she's straddling the fine line between entertainment and peril with a Roman riding show, muddy plimsolls planted on the backs of a pair of galloping horses as they lap the sandy arena. At one point, I find myself clenching my jaw, like an anxious parent watching from the sidelines, as Yule precariously rides her mustangs over a row of flaming torches. But, with the flick of a long braid, they clear the roaring fires with flair, meeting me at the backstage paddock where the horses, still snorting from the adrenaline-fuelled display, will cool down.
"I feel the Art of the Cowgirl is helping me grow as a cowgirl," Yule says, once she's caught her breath. "No matter your background, you're welcomed here and that makes it a really loving rodeo," she says, her championship belt buckle catching a ray of golden sunset.
That evening, driving away from the rodeo through the stark desert landscape, the soft glow of gas stations now seems to offer an outpost of kindness. I've seen a glimpse of what life could be and it is truly pioneering.